Originally Published: February 7, 2005
by Charles W. Caldwell, Jr.,
Head Coach, Princeton University
J.B. Lippincott, 1951
Excerpt from Chapter 1 — The Human Equation (pages 19-21)
The longer I coach, the more I work with boys, the more clearly I understand that the seemingly call incidents — often chance happenings, — are largely responsible for those decisions that shape an individual’s career. In my own case, it took a great team, and the master coach of them all, Knute Rockne, to convince me that football was for me, that coaching was a profession requiring the same kind of intense study and lifelong devotion demanded of teachers, lawyers, and even doctors.
No, I never played for Rockne. I played against him, or against his 1924 team that included the celebrated Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden, Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley and Don Miller. It happened in Palmer Stadium on a sunny October twenty-fifth and never before in my life had I spent such a frustrating, disappointing afternoon. We were beaten, 12-0, and the final score didn’t bother me — it was the way in which Rockne’s men handled us, particularly me.
The 1924 Princeton team was a better-than-average Princeton team. We had beaten Navy, we later turned back Harvard, 34-0 and lost to a sound Yale team, 10-0. Yet against Notre Dame I felt as if we were being toyed with. I was backing up the line and I don’t believe I made a clean tackle all afternoon. There would come Layden, or Miller, or someone. I would get set to drop the ball carrier in his tracks and someone would give me a nudge, just enough to throw me off balance, just enough pressure to make me miss. I played the whole game that way, giving a completely lackluster performance.
We were walking up the chute to the dressing-rooms after the game and I actually felt ready for another two hours of contact. I wasn’t tired, nor was I beaten down physically as I generally was after a big game. Others walking with me agreed. As we pieced together our individual reactions to our defeat, we began to see that we had met something new, something we had never anticipated. We, and I am writing this in retrospect, had been subjected to our first lesson in what might be called the science of football.
These Rockne-inspired thoughts stayed with me for a long, long time. I completed my studies at Princeton the following June and jumped directly to the New York Yankees for a summer try-out, which, if it proved nothing else, proved to me that I wanted no part of professional baseball and undoubtedly demonstrated to the Yankee powers-that-were that one Charles Caldwell was far from a polished ballplayer. Instead of staying with the minor league club to which I had been demoted, I rusticated for a period on a Georgia peach farm, wrestling with agrarian problems and with my own ideas about the future.
There was no getting around it. I had been sold — hook, line, and sinker — by Rockne and his kind of football. I wanted to coach and, more important at the time, I wanted to learn everything I could about coaching a sport in which there were apparently a hundred and one opportunities to advance new thoughts, to develop partially explored theories and to blend the traditional with the unorthodox. Just as football was entering the so-called modern era, I was an eager green pea, willing to try and yet not entirely sure that I had the qualifications for any kind of a coaching assignment.
As I did so many times before his death in 1933, I turned for advice to one of the finest men I have ever known, Bill Roper, my coach at Princeton and the person who still symbolizes for me all of the ideals and fine qualities that we like to associate with intercollegiate athletics. Bill, then one of the country’s veteran coaches, with nearly a quarter-century of experience behind him, was nearing the end of his long reign at Princeton and was one of the first to sense that football in the middle 1920’s was undergoing tremendous changes, none of which he endorsed.
Bill, you may recall, was a lawyer, a city councilman in Philadelphia and an insurance man — all in addition to being a wonderfully inspirational coach. He didn’t have any particular system, insisted that football was ninety per cent fight and will always be remembered for popularizing the slogan coined by Johnny Poe: “A team that won’t be beaten can’t be beaten.” Nonetheless, he clearly saw, possibly after the 1924 game with Notre Dame, that the football he had known and loved was not the same game that was being taught by perfectionists like Rockne.