Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame meets Pitt for first time in 1909

Game plays read to students back on campus via telegrams

Margaret Fosmoe
South Bend Tribune

There was enormous anticipation for that first ever gridiron match between Notre Dame and Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, 1909.

See the Tribune's pre-game article:

"Greatest football critics to look over Notre Dame," the South Bend Tribune announced in a headline a few days before the matchup at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Those in attendance would include Walter Camp — the former player, coach at Yale and Stanford, and sportswriter who became known as "the father of American football" — and Walter Eckersall, the former University of Chicago quarterback who juggled a dual career as a Chicago Tribune sportswriter and a game referee.

Notre Dame arranged a special wire to campus for the occasion. "The students will collect on Cartier field and the telegrams will be read to them as they come over the wire," the Tribune reported.

The Notre Dame squad was coached by Frank "Shorty" Longman, 26, a Michigan native who had played fullback at the University of Michigan from 1903 to 1905 under famed coach Fielding H. Yost. Longman served as head football coach at the University of Arkansas in 1906-1907, at the College of Wooster (Ohio) in 1908, then at Notre Dame in 1909 and 1910.

At the time, Pittsburgh ranked among the best of the eastern teams.

See the Tribune's post-game article:

It was that very autumn of 1909 that Pitt students and alumni adopted the Panther as the school mascot.

The Notre Dame team wasn't yet known as the Fighting Irish. They usually were referred to as the "Catholics" or the "Gold and Blue team" in newspaper headlines of the era.

Football rules were very different in those days, too. The field was 110 yards long, teams were given three downs to gain 10 yards and touchdowns were worth 5 points. A newfangled technique, the forward pass, was legal but subject to penalties.

More than 5,000 tickets were sold in the Notre Dame section of the stadium. "All of the Notre Dame alumni that are anywhere near the field will be at this game, which will be the first time that the people of Pittsburg have been able to see the western style of football," the Tribune reported.

(From 1891 to 1911, the official spelling of the city's name was Pittsburg.)

Once the game began, the outcome became clear in short order.

Notre Dame's Lee Mathews scored the first and only touchdown on a forward pass early in the game, the Tribune reported. Teammate Don Hamilton kicked the point after, making the final score 6-0.

Notre Dame halfback Harry "Red" Miller was injured, but stayed in the game.

"Notre Dame takes rank alongside of Princeton, Dartmouth, Chicago and Minnesota in its record of 1909 football," the Tribune crowed in the Nov. 1, 1909 edition. "Pittsburg was taken aback by the sudden, powerful and thoroughly modern attack of the western team."

Odds had favored the Pittsburgh team two to one. "The game itself was a revelation to the 7,000 Pittsburg fans who were surprised to find the westerners adept at the modern game," the Tribune reported.

The 1909 season was one of the most deadly in the history of college football. "Eleven killed on football field (this season)," announced a headline in the Nov. 1 Tribune. Three deaths had occurred that weekend, including that of Eugene Byrne, a West Point cadet who had his neck broken in a game against Harvard and died the next day. West Point canceled the rest of its season.

See the Tribune article:

"Byrne's death starts again the discussion as to whether the game should be abolished by the universities of this country," the Tribune reported.

The same day Notre Dame triumphed over Pittsburgh, the University of Michigan demolished Syracuse 43-0.

The next week, on Nov. 6, Notre Dame traveled to Ann Arbor and defeated the Michigan team led by Yost, Longman's mentor and former coach. The score was 11-3. It was the ninth meeting between the teams, and the first game in the series won by Notre Dame.

The two teams were scheduled for a rematch in 1910. After Yost protested Notre Dame's plan to use two players he said were ineligible, the game was canceled. The two schools wouldn't play each other again until 1942.

Shorty Longman wasn't there to see it.

He died of tuberculosis in 1928 at the University of Michigan Hospital at age 45.


Frank "Shorty" Longman, a former University of Michigan player, was head football coach at the University of Notre Dame in 1909 and 1910. (PHOTO PROVIDED)