Daniel Louis Dailey’s Wandervogel Diary about Notre Dame Football
By dan dailey
Even though he died eight months before I was born, my great-grandfather George Foster Hull (well known around the University of Notre Dame campus as “Hully,” has always been a living presence in my life.
Here in the club room at Estrella Vista is a framed tintype of him as a boy. It sits on the marble top of his mother-in-law’s 3-drawer dresser. Also here at Estrella Vista is our family’s crown jewel and ‘holy grail’: a framed poem that was presented to my great-grandfather when he along with his business partner was inducted into the Notre Dame Monogram Club (their letter club) as possibly the first two of its honorary members who were not varsity athletes at Notre Dame.
At the time of his death, he had been the longest-serving city councilman in the history of our city, South Bend, Indiana. He endeared himself to the people and earned honorary membership in the musicians’ union by championing concerts in the city parks. Members of our family who have most taken after him were said to have “the Hull sense of humor.” The newspapers said he was our city’s most beloved citizen. I remember him clearly in my grandmother’s laugh.
Almost everybody in town called him “Hully.”
Hully was best known as the co-proprietor, with his partner Mike Calnon, of “Hully and Mike’s,” a downtown restaurant, cigar store, speakeasy and pool room that occupies a landmark place in Notre Dame University’s football history and legend. American football’s “most-renowned coach” Knute Rockne was one of my great-grandfather’s best friends. Rockne regularly held court at “Hully and Mike’s,” using it as a virtual office and conducting business there. A brass plaque on Michigan Street, the city’s main business drag, today marks the spot where “Hully and Mike’s” once stood.
“Hully and Mike’s” was a popular hangout for many Notre Dame students, but its most famous denizen was George Gipp, possibly the greatest football player who ever played for Notre Dame, and one of the best all-round athletes who ever lived.
Gipp came to Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship, but when Rockne saw him booming fifty-yard drop kicks in street shoes, Rockne recruited Gipp into his football program. Gipp was also a runner who could beat every member of the track team in the 60-yard dash. At six feet and weighing 185 pounds, Gipp was a marvel of speed and balance on the football field. His total rushing yardage record of 2,341 stood for more than 50 years at Notre Dame. Gipp planned to become a professional baseball player after graduating from Notre Dame.
Gipp, of course, is the real “Gipper” whose posthumous nickname was appropriated by Ronald Reagan, who played a squeaky-clean Gipp in the popular 1940 film Knute Rockne: All American. The truth about George Gipp is that he was not the idealized paragon portrayed in Reagan’s film performance. He was a much more complicated, extraordinary, and interesting character than that portrayed by the future President.
Gipp made “Hully and Mike’s” his second home and developed a filial relationship with my great-grandfather who was 22 years his senior. Gipp was a frequent visitor at my great-grandparents’ home.
“He was a handsome young man, unassuming and so nonchalant,” my grandmother recalled. “I was only about thirteen or so at the time, but I could see he was much older-looking than the average college boy and much more mature. He was very shy, and I remember people who were introduced to him at our home invariably remarked later that they were surprised he was really George Gipp.”
The most important aspect of Gipp not portrayed in the Ronald Reagan film is that he was, in his own words, “the finest free-lance gambler to ever attend Notre Dame.” He was as good or better with cards and a pool cue as he was with a football or a baseball. He regularly earned $5,000 a year or more (today’s equivalent of $50,000) in billiards and poker winnings. It was a different age back then and gambling did not carry the stigma that such behavior would confer today.
Gipp kept a room at the elegant downtown Hotel Oliver so he could keep his late-night hours without returning to campus. He didn’t have a car. Gipp had been a persistent truant since his schoolboy days in Laurium in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he used to break into a social club there to use its pool tables. At Notre Dame he missed most classes and exams, and even many football practices. Gipp was such a natural competitor that he didn’t need to practice. He would show up for a football game, sometimes after a night playing cards or billiards, and yet perform flawlessly on the field, seemingly without effort.
Coach Rockne and Gipp’s teammates tolerated Gipp’s diffident attitude towards academics and practice because he was so accomplished and, well, so damned modest and likeable. No one thought Gipp was out nights partying and carousing, because he wasn’t. They knew he was just earning a living and doing it like a pro.
This put Gipp and Rockne, and my great-grandfather too, at odds with the university’s administration. When Gipp was suspended for poor attendance and for having blown off his exams (again, and after many warnings), my great-grandfather organized a pressure campaign involving local bigwigs and donors to the university, and helped win Gipp’s reinstatement upon his cramming and passing a special readmission exam with flying colors.
Rockne always pretended not to know of Gipp’s career as a high-stakes player, yet he could not have been unaware of it because Gipp’s pool and poker triumphs were regularly reported in the local newspapers. Professional pool sharks from Chicago, Detroit, and points elsewhere came to South Bend to challenge him. “Every once in a while some of the hotshot pool players from Chicago would come to South Bend looking for action, and George would play them at $100 a game or more at ‘Hullie and Mike’s’ poolroom,” said Hunk Anderson, one of his teammates.
Gipp never bragged or flaunted it.
According to veteran sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh in The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football (2010 Skyhorse Publishing), Gipp’s “defiance of conventionality made him even more popular with the American public, both men and women, who felt that his aloofness and quest for privacy made him all the more attractive.”
So you could hardly have called “Gipp the gambler” even an open secret. It has always seemed so amusing to me that George Gipp’s image was sanitized (as was Knute Rockne’s) for the Ronald Reagan film that made the “Gipper” myth bigger-than-life. All the years that President Reagan reveled in his stolen “Gipper” mantle, I knew the truth because I grew up in its echo, inhaled and ingested it, and made it my own at a cellular level. Reagan was just a poseur, a charming actor. I knew it in my bones.
With light brown hair, the slender George Gipp had a pale, sallow complexion because of the hours he kept and his 3-pack-a-day smoking habit. Gipp’s teammates said he looked paler than usual during the 1920 season. He also had a persistent cough, which some attributed to his smoking.
The week after the November 13th Indiana game, Gipp developed a sore throat. He also had his arm in a sling with a broken collar bone and injured shoulder blade from the game. Even though his throat was getting worse and his shoulder was still on the mend, the following Saturday Gipp accompanied the team to Evanston for the Northwestern game. Rockne had no intention of letting him play, but with Notre Dame leading comfortably in the last quarter, the crowd began to chant, “We want Gipp!”
Gipp appealed for Rock to let him into the game, and Rockne relented—a decision he always regretted afterwards. Gipp was sicker than anyone realized, yet he still thrilled the crowd by throwing two touchdown passes on a bitterly cold, windy afternoon. It was to be his last appearance on a football field.
The next week Gipp attended the team’s annual dinner at the Hotel Oliver. Part way through the event, Gipp began to cough a lot, turned to the fellow next to him and said “excuse me,” got up and left. He took a cab to the hospital and was placed on the critical list with what was diagnosed as a streptococcal infection. Then pneumonia set in. This was long before antibiotics were available.
George Gipp’s fame morphed into myth in part because he died at age 25—three weeks after the Northwestern game, and two weeks after he was named Notre Dame’s first “All-American” by sportswriter Walter Camp. My great-grandfather was at Gipp’s bedside when Rockne broke that news. “That’s jake,” is all the modest yet appreciative kid had to say.
When Gipp’s mother Isabella came to South Bend to be with her gravely ill son, she stayed at my great-grandparents’ home (and two of Gipp’s siblings stayed at the Rocknes’). When Mrs. Gipp was summoned to the hospital the night before Gipp died in the early hours of December 14, 1920, my grandmother’s older brother Stanley drove Mrs. Gipp there through a snowstorm.
Yet the one thing that most secured George Gipp a place in the pantheon of sports gods was Knute Rockne’s famous “Win Just One for the Gipper” pep speech before a game at Yankee Stadium against Army eight years later. It is one of the greatest motivational speeches of all time.
Notre Dame was having one of its worst seasons on record and Rockne was trying to salvage what he could of the season. Millions have seen the scene in which Pat O’Brien, who played Rockne, delivers the speech to his beleaguered team (changed in the film, for dramatic effect, to a halftime oration during a 0-0 tie):
Listen to Pat O’Brien delivering Rockne’s Win-Just-One-For-The-Gipper Speech
(For those readers who never seem to click on Grooves, imbeds, or any other links, here is a transcript of the dialogue from the movie.)
Well, boys … I haven’t a thing to say.
Played a great game…all of you. Great game.
(He tries to smile.)
I guess we just can’t expect to win ‘em all.
(Rockne pauses and says quietly.)
I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years…
None of you ever knew George Gipp.
It was long before your time.
But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame…
(There is gentle, faraway look in his eyes as he recalls the boy’s words.)
And the last thing he said to me… “Rock,” he said,
“sometime, when the team is up against it… and the
breaks are beating the boys… tell them to go out there
with all they got and win just one for the Gipper…
(Rockne’s eyes become misty and his voice is unsteady as he finishes.)
I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock”, he said… “but
I’ll know about it… and I’ll be happy.”
(There’s a hushed stillness as Rockne and the team look at each other in tense silence, Rockne quietly says “Alright,” to the men beside him, and his chair is wheeled slowly out of the dressing room.)
Well, what are we waiting for?
(With a single roar, the players throw off their blankets and rush through the doorway.)
Though Rockne always insisted that he was one of Gipp’s last visitors and that Gipp did indeed make that last request, many historians doubt Rockne’s version of Gipp’s last words is true. Nevertheless, it seems to have had the desired effect: Notre Dame scored two touchdowns in the second half and won 12-6. As he crossed the goal line for the first Irish touchdown, Jack Chevigny cried out, “That’s one for the Gipper!”
Even though Gipp’s teammates said it would have been out of character for Gipp, even on his deathbed, to have made such a request, the speech is enshrined in the popular culture. The veracity of Rockne’s account must also be held in doubt because the nickname “Gipper” did not come into general use until sometime after Gipp’s death. Furthermore, my grandmother never referred to him as the Gipper; she always said “George” or “George Gipp.”
Nor did we ever refer to our great-grandfather as “Hully,” even though that is how everyone knew him. Hully and his partner Mike were locker room and Pullman car fixtures on every away game up until the time of Rockne’s death in a plane crash in 1931. Up until that time they traveled with the team to every away game—they never missed a one in the 13 years of Rockne’s reign as head coach.
In those years Hully and Mike accompanied the teams to 105 victories, 12 losses, five ties, and five national championships, including five undefeated seasons without a tie.
But after Rockne died, it was never quite the same for my great-grandfather as in the glory days when he and Rock and Notre Dame were young and George Gipp was alive. After Rock was gone, things changed and Hully let his old role as an ever-present booster gradually slip into history.
Our family still has our great-grandfather’s fifty-yard-line seats, but as I wrote last year, Notre Dame has changed too much for me, too. I rarely go back.
I prefer remembering South Bend and Notre Dame as they were when I was young, when they would have still been recognizable to the two Georges and Rock and a lot of other people whose memories helped shape me into who I am.