Rockne, Gipp and Jess Harper: On the Ranch with a Football Legend

(Editor’s Note: In September 1956, Topeka Daily Capital Sports Editor Dick Snider devoted a series of his Capitalizing on Sports columns one week to a sports legend living in southwestern Kansas.)

It’s inspiring to visit some of Kansas’ old-time athletic greats and see how and what they’re doing now. It inspires you to live to a ripe old age and settle down in the peaceful surroundings of beef cattle, oil wells and wheat. Or, the moral might be, you don’t have to be young and in Las Vegas to live it up.

Proof came first from 82-year-old Fred Clarke, who enjoys life amid his 1,300 acres and modest handful of oil wells near Winfield. And now we have Jess Harper.


Harper’s little empire is located seven and a half miles South of Sitka, which is west of Wichita and south of civilization. He calls it a ranch, probably because it includes some 20,000 acres. He calls it a good ranch, because it has 35 producing oil wells.

“I’ve got the most successful breeding secret ever known on this ranch,“ chuckles Harper, a comparative stripling of 71. “I’ve crossed Hereford cows with oil wells, and you can’t beat that.”

You perhaps never heard of Harper? Well, football used to be his line. He played at the University of Chicago under the immortal Amos Alonzo Stagg. One of the places he coached was at Notre Dame, where some of the players he had were Gus Dorais, George Gipp and an underweight end named Knute Rockne.

Harper meets you on the porch of the big, air-conditioned stone ranch home, and admits he’s a little surprised to see a reporter.

“You must have damn little to do,“ he said, “to be coming down here to write about an old buzzard like me. But come on in. You asked the questions, and I’ll answer ‘em.“

The answers revealed that Harper has been on his Sitka ranch for 37 years, or ever since he resigned at Notre Dame at the age of 33, after five successful seasons. Why did he quit athletics at that high point in his career?

“Because,” he said, furrowing his brow, “anybody who is halfway smart will get out of athletics before he has been in too long. You stick around too long, and you find yourself out in the cold.

“Athletics were a darn sight better in that way then then they are now, and that was true even back then – if you stuck around too long, you stood a good chance of winding up down and out. That wasn’t for me.”

How did he wind up on a ranch? Hadn’t insurance been invented then, or hadn’t coaches discovered it?

“My parents,” he said. “had moved to Wichita, and I used to visit them in the off-season. I met Mrs. Harper in Wichita and married her, and her father had this ranch. When I resigned, I came down here and bought a half interest.

“I’ve never once regretted that I quit coaching. Even back in the depression years, when the cattle business was so bad and I was in so deep I thought I’d never get out, I never regretted it. Then things got better, and the oil wells came. That makes a difference, you know. “I’m getting blasé as hell about the oil wells. I used to get all excited and be right there from the minute they started drilling period now I don’t even bother to go watch ‘em bring ‘em in.

“In fact, I don’t do much of anything. I take things pretty easy.”

Harper was born in Pawpaw, Ill., in 1884 and soon afterward the family moved to Iowa, where his father was in the cattle business. In 1900, he entered Morgan Park Academy, a University of Chicago prep school.

He entered Chicago in 1902 and played under Stagg until he graduated in 1905. He got his first coaching job the following season, at Alma College in Michigan. He moved to Wabash College in 1909, and in 1913, became head coach and athletic director at Notre Dame.

That’s when he and Rockne first joined forces. Was Harper impressed with Rockne from the start?

“I guess I was,” he said. “I thought enough of him that I gave him his first coaching job at Notre Dame, as my assistant.”

Rockne … George Gipp … Gus Dorais … those memorable games with army… the spirit of Notre Dame… Harper lived it all, and his memories are worth recalling. More about it here later.


Jess Harper, the former Notre Dame coach who has been a Kansas rancher for 37 years, says the reason he played his college football at the University of Chicago was a matter of free transportation.

“We lived in Iowa,” he said, “and my father was in the cattle business. I could always get a free ride into Chicago on a cattle train. For that reason, I went to Morgan Park Academy, a Chicago prep school, and then went on to the University.”

Harper entered Chicago University in 1902, and played football there that year, and again in 1905. In 1903 and 1904, injuries kept him on the sidelines. His coach, of course, was Amos Alonzo Stagg, the beloved “grand old man” of football who was head coach at Chicago for 41 years – from 1892 to 1932.

It was in 1905 that Chicago was undefeated and won the ‘Western championship’ of football. “I played halfback and quarterback on that club,” Harper recalls. “and I didn’t play too much at quarterback, because I had a pretty good man ahead of me there. You may have heard of Mr. Walter Eckersall.”

Eckersall was Chicago’s first all-America player, making Walter Camp’s team at end in 1904 and repeating at quarterback in 1905. He is remembered as one of the game’s all-time greats.

A couple of weeks ago, the 1905 Chicago squad held its 50th anniversary reunion in Chicago. Stagg was there, along with Harper and most of the squad members.

“And even today,” Harper chuckles, “some of those men still won’t smoke or take a drink in front of Mr. Stagg. The old man was always awfully strict. He was a wonderful man, and a great coach who had that knack of getting men to outdo themselves for him.

“But, boy, he was strict, particularly when it came to the conduct and training of players. And he was death on smoking or drinking. He was always a reasonable man, but the thing you remember most about him is how stern and strict he was.

“The reunion was a lot of fun. All of us old gaffers mostly just sat around and swapped stories, and they got better with age. Mr. Stagg notices this, too.

“During the reunion he told me that some of the stories he heard weren’t the way he remembered them. I told him his memory was probably a lot more accurate than most of the stories.”

When Harper graduated in 1905, Stagg helped him land a coaching job at Alma College in Alma, Mich. Harper was 22 at the time, but he was on his way. In three seasons, Alma won 10 and tied four of 18 games, and Harper moved on to Wabash College in Indiana.

In four seasons, his Wabash teams won 15, lost nine and tied two. There was one perfect season, in 1910, when Wabash won four games and scored 118 points to none for the opposition. More games were scheduled that year, but were cancelled when a Wabash player was killed in a game with Saint Louis.

Harper perhaps first attracted the attention of Notre Dame when his 1911 Wabash team held the Irish to a rugged 6-3 decision that Notre Dame won in the last five minutes of play. The next year, Harper’s squad had a 5-2 record, losing only to Notre Dame and Michigan State.

Then came the call from Notre Dame, and Harper in 1913 took over as head coach and athletic director, succeeding Jack Marks. “And nobody helped me get that job,” Harper notes, with some emphasis.

The new Notre Dame coach was 28 years old, and figured then as he does now that he’d earned his spurs the hard way. Speaking of his early coaching record, he doesn’t boast, but says, “I was good enough at Alma that I got the Wabash job. And I was good enough at Wabash that I got the Notre Dame job.”

The year 1913 was a memorable one in football history, and the greatest, perhaps, in all the fabulous an inspiring story is that story that is Notre Dame football.

It was the year that Notre Dame, with a new coach and a tremendous new football weapon emerged from comparative obscurity and gleaned the first bit of the great football renown it knows today.

The coach was Harper, and the weapon the forward pass, which had been known but slighted by football powers for some seven years. In one history making afternoon against Army, the Irish used it to revolutionize the game and to make Notre Dame a never-to-be-forgotten name in football.

Harper knows the story as few men do. He tells it here tomorrow.

Knute Rockne was a senior when Jess Harper, now a rancher near Sitka, became head football coach and athletic director at Notre Dame in 1913. Rockne was an end and Gus Dorais, another Irish grid immortal and later one of the country’s top coaches, was the quarterback.

Jess Harper and Knute Rockne

It has become popular belief that Dorais and Rockne practically invented the forward pass while working as lifeguards in the summer of 1913 at Cedar Point Beach on Lake Erie. Harper dismisses this with one word: “Baloney.”

“We had Army on the schedule, and everybody figured they were way out of our class,” Harper recalls. “We had to do something, and we figured on a lot of passing. Rockne had a bad habit to catching the ball with his arms and body rather than his hands.

“They took a ball with him that summer to practice in their spare time. The pass was nothing new. It had been in the rules for seven years. The thing was, no team that I know of had ever used it very much.”

Football history bears this out. The pass hadn’t been recognized as the great weapon it is. Dorais, Rockne and Harper were preparing to make history.

How did Army happen to be on Notre Dame’s schedule? Here’s what ‘The Encyclopedia of Sports’ has to say: “Army had a gap in its 1913 schedule and was looking around for some school ‘soft touch’ to tune up its players for later contests against rugged foemen. The Army schedule makers heard about little known Notre Dame and offered $1,000 to Notre Dame if it would care to meet Army.

“The little western institution accepted, although $1,000 was just enough to send 15 of its players from Indiana to West Point, NY.” And now back to Harper:

“We played a hell of a game,” he says intently. “At the half we were ahead by 14 to 13 but I was afraid it couldn’t last. We had thrown only a couple of passes, and they weren’t worth much.

“I told Gus to start throwing and keep throwing. We figured it was the best chance we had.

“Gus could throw the football as well as any man who ever lived, and I think he proved it in that game. He went out in the second half and completed 13 straight passes, most of ’em to Rockne.

“Army had its usual great team but the passes demoralized them completely. By the time it ended, we could do anything we pleased, running or passing. They didn’t know what to expect, or what to do about it. We just kicked hell out of ’em.”

Back to The Encyclopedia of Sports: “Notre Dame defeated army 35 to 13 and ‘made’ the forward pass as an attacking weapon. Those young gentlemen, also ‘made’ Notre Dame as a football institution and the rise of the college from football obscurity to greatness dates from that spectacular debut along the banks of the Hudson.

“The unexpected result… did more to popularize football with the masses than any game that had ever been played. It gave courage to smaller colleges, who squads were made up of light men. It demonstrated that a light team using the pass, could fight along and on even terms with the bulky squads that were devoted to line play or hurricanic rushes around the flanks. It ended the day when brawn was the determining factor in football conflict.”

Back to Harper: “There’s another story – it’s a lot of baloney too – that Dorais and Rockne stayed behind after the game and taught Army our pass formations. Army did pick up most of our plays, and used ‘em the rest of the season.

“Navy had a great team that year, and was favored to whip Army, but Army won the game with passes. And nearly 30 years later, I was out on the West coast and was introduced to a naval submarine commander. As soon as he heard my name, he started cussing.

‘You —-!’ he yelled. ‘I’ve been looking for you for a long time. I’m Babe Brown, and I was captain of the 1913 Navy team that loss to Army. And it was your fault, because you’re the one who showed ‘em how to use those passes.’ Then he laughed, and I’ll admit I was a little relieved. Those Army and Navy men take their game pretty seriously.”

Notre Dame went on to win seven games without defeat in the 1913 season, and Harper hired Rockne as his assistant for the 1914 campaign. The coaching start of the man destined to give Notre Dame its richest traditions wasn’t very spectacular, however. More about it here tomorrow.

When Knute Rockne joined head coach Jess Harper to form the Notre Dame football staff in 1914, the big Irish problem was at end. Rockne had graduated the year before and had been a standout and so Harper, who now is a Kansas rancher, put Rockne to work developing a new pair of ends

“Rock was a very intense man,” Harper recalls. “He was a tireless worker who lost himself in any job. He went to work on those ends like it was life and death. He pleaded, threatened, and did about everything trying to improve those guys in a hurry.

“A few days later we had a scrimmage, and the ends were terrible. Riding home after practice, Rock talked about it, and said he’d have to work even harder with them. I had a different idea. I told him to forget the ends for a while, and work with guards and tackles.

“A week later, we had another scrimmage, and the ends looked pretty good. Rock commented on it right away. So I laughed and told him, “Yeah, and if you’ll leave ‘em alone for another week, we might have a pretty fair pair of ends.”

“Rock was pretty upset by that, so I explained what I was getting at.

“ I told him that his mistake was trying to teach those ends all he knew in a hurry. He thought he could make ‘em as good as he was practically overnight. It’s just as bad, you see, to over-coach a boy as it is to under-coach him.

“In later years, Rock often said it was one of the most valuable lessons he ever learned. He told the story many times.”

In five years, Harper’s Notre Dame teams lost only five games while winning 32 and tying one. Two of the losses were at Nebraska and two more to Army, but fittingly enough, in Harpers last season there, 1917, his squad upset Army to give him what he calls the biggest kick he ever got out of football.

“It was during the war, and Army had a great team, while nobody else had much of anything for a squad. We had George Gipp, but he was just a freshman. We had Slip Madigan, the old St. Mary’s coach, who weighed 160, and our right halfback was Joe Brandy , who weighed only 140.

“Army had big Biff Jones at one tackle, and Elmer Oliphant, an all-American, backing up the line behind him. So I told our boys to run the other way all day. We did it, too. We keep running to that one side ‘til we got jammed into the sidelines. Then we’d run a big sweep the other way, and then go back to that one side.

“Before you knew it we were down to their seven yard line, and I think it was third down with goal to go. I knew we’d never get that close again. I was wondering what we could do when Gipp first showed me what kind of head he had.

“All during his career, you know, he made a habit of making up plays to fit a situation . He did it all the time. He told our quarterback to fake a play the way we’d been going, and then to let little Brandy run right at Jones. It worked.

“Jones and Oliphant were so surprised that Brandy ran right past them and scored a touchdown. We won the game 7 to 2, and nothing else ever gave me quite as big a kick as that.”

Harper had departed and Rockne had succeeded him as head coach when Gipp became a Notre Dame football immortal. Too, his tragic death in 1920 proved the inspiration for one of Rockne’s greatest victories – over Army in 1928, when Rockne asked his four-times beaten squad to ‘Win one for the Gipper.’

Harper is no banner bearer for the ‘good old days’ and he does not insist that players of his era we’re tougher, or better. “Some of the players of my day,” he says, “could have played for any team, in any era. Some of the stars back then, however, probably couldn’t make a good Split T team of today. But by the same token, some of the old Split T stars of today couldn’t have made any team in my day. It’s the difference in the kind of football.”

Who was the greatest player of all time? Gipp, possibly?

“You’re asking too much there,” Harper says, “because there have been too many good football players. Gipp was great, but I don’t know if he was the greatest. I will say this, however. I think he is the greatest halfback in Notre Dame history. And that’s saying quite a mouthful, you know.”

Jess Harper, now a wealthy, 71-year-old rancher near Sitka, resigned as football coach and athletic director at Notre Dame in 1917 with a 32-5-1 record for five seasons. He says he did it because he wanted to get out while he was young and on top, and while he still had time and energy to tackle something new.

It could be too, that he knew Notre Dame football would be in capable hands when he left.

Knute Rockne, his assistant, succeeded him, and in the years until Rockne’s untimely death in 1931 – in the crash of an airliner in Kansas – he wrote some of the great chapters of the game’s history. In tradition filled Notre Dame annals, no era equals that of Rockne.

“Rockne,” says Harper, as he puffs his big pipe and looks back through the years from his pleasant ranch home, “was a great coach. His great asset was an ability that few men have. It was his knack of getting boys to outdo themselves for him. They would play far better and harder than they dreamed they could.

Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne Talking with Player (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Rock built his teams on simplicity and precision, on faith in their own ability and in his leadership, and on a great desire to win for Notre Dame. The spirit of Notre Dame can’t be overlooked.

“it was there when I coached. It always has been there, and it always will be there.”

In the enthusiasm to properly enshrine Rockne, stories and movies suggests that he practically invented football, as well as such things as the famed Notre Dame shift. Harper says:

“I get sick of reading hearing that stuff. Nobody can say who first used the shift, but it was old before I went to Notre Dame. I used the shift there, and I think I’m the first coach to ever use it, and the balanced line, for a whole offense. Some coaches used both on some plays. I used both for the entire offense, and so did Rockne.

“As I recall a fellow named Hugo Bezdek at Penn State first used the spinner. I think that’s where Glenn Warner first saw it. Rockne adapted the spinner to the Notre Dame formation, and also developed the weak side offense greatly. We had some weak side plays but Rockne did a lot more with that phase of the offense.” What about the movie, and the popular story, that Rockne got the idea for the shift while watching a line of chorus girls and a dance routine?

“Pure baloney,” Harper laughs. “that’s the kind of stuff that makes me sick.”

Does Harper nominate Rockne as the greatest football coach of all time? “You’ve asked me something there that I can’t answer,” Harper replies. “They’ve been playing football a long time, and there have been a lot of great coaches. There’s a fellow down in Oklahoma right now who is a pretty fair coach.

“I’m a great admirer of Bud Wilkinson and have great respect for him. I saw the Notre Dame game at Oklahoma in 1953, and I thought Notre Dame’s manpower was far superior. I liked the way Oklahoma played ‘em. I’ve also seen Oklahoma a few times on television, and I’ve been impressed.”

What about the Split T formation? Would Harper use it, if he had to go back to coaching tomorrow?

“If I had to go back to coaching tomorrow,” he growled, “I’d shoot myself. Any formation is good if you have the men to run it, but I like the T formation the best now. It offers such a variation  is simple, is a fine pass offense, and it hits quick. I think the quick handoff play is the finest play in football today.”

In the matter of producing winning football teams, Harper quickly agrees that Notre Dame has a lot of things in its favor in addition to the great school spirit.

“Boys there,” he says, “live and work and play together. They get nine or 10 hours of sleep every night and eat three good meals every day. They are not out running around at night. I’ve always believed that girls never do anything to help a football team.

“Notre Dame gets boys from all over the country. We did even when I was there. Kids everywhere dream of playing for Notre Dame. You probably did when you were a kid.

“And I heard something just last year that made me feel pretty good. I was talking to Jeff Cravath, who used to coach at Southern California, and he told me that Notre Dame is the cleanest and strictest school, so far as recruiting and eligibility are concerned, in the country.

“And I’ll say this: I never knew a Notre Dame athlete who ever got anything under the table. Everyone I ever knew was waiting on tables to earn what little he got.”

Leave a Reply