Notre Dame-USC and the Hollywood Connection, Part 1

A funny thing happened while we were all busy prepping for the 2017 Halloween Festival. A couple weekends ago #13 Notre Dame trounced #10 USC 49 to 14 in South Bend. Okay, so if you are not a sports fan, you probably missed it. And if you’re a Chicago Cubs fan, you were most likely still in shock about the team’s loss to the Dodgers in the NLCS and didn’t much care.
Most college football fans know that the Notre Dame-USC rivalry is one of sports most storied rivalries. Both schools are considered to be college football royalty and both programs are always among the NCAA elite each season. Several times, the winner of this series has gone on to win or play for the national title.
Notre Dame has won 13 NCAA championships and USC has won 9. Notre Dame has produced 99 All-American players and USC 81. Notre Dame has elevated 52 former players to the College Football Hall of Fame while USC has sent 35. Thirteen Notre Dame players made it to the NFL Hall of Fame and twelve have been elected to Canton from USC. The rivals account for the highest numbers of players taken in the NFL Draft of any school; to date, USC has had 502 players taken and Notre Dame 495. No other college rivalry can account for as many combined honors.
The rivalry is steeped in tradition and customarily the big game is played on the Saturday following Thanksgiving Day when USC hosts in Los Angeles or on the third Saturday of October when the game is hosted in South Bend. The ND and USC games count for five of the ten most-watched college football games in television history. Casual fans may not realize that the teams play for a trophy called the “Jeweled Shillelagh” that travels home with the winning team each year. Notre Dame currently leads the series 45–35–5.
The series dates back to 1926 to a time when commercial air travel was in its infancy. So teams traveled by train in those early years. No mean feat when you consider South Bend is over 2100 miles and was 72 hours by rail back in the day. It is a rivalry worthy of the best Hollywood screenwriter and that first game’s script defies even the best literary skills.
Following Notre Dame’s 1924 undefeated 10-0 season (coached by Knute Rockne and featuring the mythical “Four Horsemen” backfield) the Irish capped off their season with a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. Ironically, when Notre Dame boosters approached Stanford about starting up an annual series, the school refused to play “on account of [Notre Dame's] low scholastic standards.”
In 1925, Coach Rockne was approached by USC to take over its football program. Although Rockne had no intention of leaving Notre Dame, he let the news slip out to the Notre Dame administration to get a raise in salary and national visibilty. Upon the Rock’s recommendation, USC hired Rockne’s friend, former Iowa Coach Howard Jones. A football rivalry was born that would soon elevate USC to Notre Dame’s elite level.
Notre Dame and USC played their first game on December 4, 1926. Notre Dame was coming off a shocking loss to Carnegie Tech after winning eight games in a row. Rockne’s Irish had outscored their opponents 197 to 7 over that 8 game stretch before getting spanked by the Titans 19 to 0 in a game ESPN ranked as the fourth-greatest upset in college football history. The game was played before a standing-room-only crowd at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field (Home of MLB’s Pirates) on a snowy, cold, and gray November afternoon.
Notre Dame was so heavily favored that rumors claimed Coach Rockne planned to leave the first-string at home to rest up for the Southern Cal game. Notre Dame’s first team made the trip, but Rockne stayed home to attend the Army-Navy game at Soldier Field, and left the team in the hands of his assistant coaches. Big mistake. The upset set the stage for that inaugural Notre Dame-USC contest.
Not to be outdone by Rockne’s Irish, USC came into that first contest with a record of 8-1 (losing only top rival Stanford 13 to 12 a month before). USC had outscored their opponents 305 to 39 in that nine-game stretch. Rockne’s Irish won that first game by a squeaker, 13–12 over the Trojans. Notre Dame backup quarterback Art Parisien threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to John Niemiec with 2 minutes to go to give the Irish the victory. Rockne claimed that it was the greatest game he ever saw.
Not only did this game feature the prototypical “made-for-movies” college football coach Knute Rockne, the USC team featured a 6-foot tall, 198 pound sophomore tackle from Glendale, CA named Marion Morrison. His friends called him “Duke” but the world would soon know him by another name: John Wayne.
Like his college coach, Howard Jones, Morrison came to Southern California by way of Iowa. Although Duke never scored a touchdown or played in the Rose Bowl, he would ultimately come to embody the term “All-American.” Morrison got his moniker from a Glendale fireman who called the young man “Little Duke” because he never went anywhere without his huge Airedale Terrier, Duke. For obvious reasons, the young man preferred the name Duke to Marion, and the nickname stuck.
Duke Morrison applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but he was not accepted. He instead attended the University of Southern California (USC), majoring in pre-law. Morrison was a good student and overachiever at Glendale High school, where he was president of the senior class in 1925. He was one of seven players selected for a USC football scholarship. Sports scholarships back then were not what they are today. They covered basic tuition ($280 a year) and one meal a day at the training table if you were on the regular squad. That is once a day during the school week. On weekends, Duke was on his own.
Photos of Wayne at USC reveal a big, good-looking man child with black, curly hair and a great build who “had to fight the girls off.” On weekends, Duke Morrison had a campus job as a food server at sorority houses. One can only imagine the looks on those college girl’s faces when they saw the handsome young football star dishing up vittles at their weekend dance parties. While at USC, Morrison joined a fraternity, Sigma Chi, along with several of his high school friends.
Duke Morrison was expected to be the starting right tackle for USC in his junior year. A weekend trip to Balboa Beach to chase “The Wedge” would end all that. The Wedge is a legendary hot spot for powerful and awesome surf known for its shore-breaking waves. To most, the Wedge is more a place to admire than to engage. The Wedge in known for having the biggest swell in Southern California. It’s potential for 30-feet waves attracts more surfers than any other So-Cal locale. The backwash is often so strong that it creates micro-waves (pardon the pun) that can crash into and devastate unsuspecting surfers.
The Wedge is so intense that between May 1 and Oct. 31, lifeguards raise the black ball flag, outlawing the use of any type of board between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. During these times, The Wedge is limited to body surfing only, no body boards, surfboards, or skimboards allowed.
The Wedge has spit out injured surfers for decades. Today, it is not uncommon to see men in wheelchairs on Balboa Pier wearing t-shirts that read, “Victim of the Wedge.” Duke Morrison tested the Wedge in the late summer of 1926 while the black ball flag was flying high. Surrounded by pretty co-eds, the chance to show off for the ladies was too much to resist for the Duke.
One frat brother witness later recalled Duke’s desire to test what they called “butt-busters” as they were known. Soon Duke and his friends were out past the breakers and the waves were “cupping hard.” In an instant, Duke Morrison got caught up in one of the monster waves and hit the sand hard. Luckily, Duke crooked his head to the side just before impact or he may have broken his neck. Instead, Duke Morrison dislocated his shoulder.
It was just three weeks before the start of fall football practice for the 1927 season. USC coach Jones’ system featured the “power play” which relied heavily on the tackle clearing out the running lanes with right shoulder shiver blocks. Young Duke Morrison was too terrified to tell his coach the true cause of the accident.
When it came to USC football coach Howard Jones you slept, ate, and drank football 365 days a year. Duke knew Jones would never understand one of his scholarship players getting hurt in a foolish accident like bodysurfing. So Duke claimed the injury had happened on the football field. Instead, the coach thought Morrison was bluffing and demoted his young tackle to the back-up team. The demotion took Morrison off the training table, forcing Duke to scrounge for his own meals. Duke owed the fraternity house so much money that they kicked him out until he could pay. He lost his scholarship and, without funds, had to leave USC shortly after the start of his junior year. The glory of the gridiron was behind him now and young Duke Morrison was at a crossroads.

Next Week: Part 2 Notre Dame-USC & the Hollywood Connection.

Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis”  and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View, Irvington Haunts: The tour guide, and The Mystery of the H.H. Holmes collection. Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.