The Man Who Brought Horsepower to Villanova Football

The Four Horsemen posed on horses - Don Miller, Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden, 1924. - University of Notre Dame Archives

You may know him on VUHoops as Squeaky Sneakers, but in real life he is Bob Natiello, an award-winning author living the good life in Sedona, Arizona. Bob was a NYC high school basketball star in the 1940s, served his country as a first lieutenant in the USMC, and played basketball at Niagara as a freshman in 1948 before transferring to Villanova and graduating in 1952. I am honored to present his second feature article for VUHoops.

The young, cassocked Augustinian priest slipped the Philadelphia Inquirer onto the desk, alongside the older priest’s first mug of morning tea. "Notre Dame again," he said tapping a photo featuring four helmeted Irish football players, each seated atop a saddled horse. Their right hands cradled a football, their left clutched the reins. "It’s a wire service photo," he explained, "probably on the sports pages of every small-town newspaper in America. Why can’t we get publicity like this?"

Father Joseph Hickey, O.S.A, Villanova’s twentieth president, leaned forward and peered down his long, thin Gaelic nose at the photo. He’d occupied the prestigious office less than a year, his every waking moment dedicated to convincing Pennsylvania’s young Catholic men of the merits of an Augustinian education. Despite his efforts, he knew he lacked that extra something needed to attract young scholars from New England and other Middle Atlantic States to Philadelphia’s Main Line. Perhaps Notre Dame had the right idea. They offered high level academics and employed intercollegiate athletics as the magnet to draw students nationwide. "We’re a small independent college," he said. "If we want publicity like Notre Dame’s, we’ll have to build a football team like Notre Dame’s."

This was no modest goal. Notre Dame, founded in 1842, was the same age as Villanova. Yet the South Bend school, in the face of humble beginnings, had earned national attention. In 1924 America, its football team reigned at the center of the college sports world. Sportswriters like the Herald Tribune’s Grantland Rice never ceased proclaiming its achievements. Just a week ago, Rice witnessed the Irish crush a valiant Army team at New York’s Polo Grounds. The victory brought forth from his typewriter one of the most lyrical leads ever to grace a sports page.

"Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."

The moment George Strickler, Notre Dame’s student publicist, returned with the team to South Bend, he made the boldest move of his young life. He hired four horses from a South Bend livery stable and placed each player, wearing his helmet and uniform, on one of the horses. The wire services seized on this fresh visualization of Rice’s poetic metaphor, and Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen became an instant American sports legend. Coached by gridiron genius Knute Rockne, they won every game, closing that 1924 season with a 27-10 Rose Bowl triumph over Stanford.

Did Strickler’s photo motivate Father Hickey to ask, "How can we bring that winning Notre Dame spirit to Villanova?" History doesn’t say. But we do know that Harry Stuhldreher, the celebrated backfield’s quarterback, came aboard as Villanova’s head coach the following year. If Father Hickey was the man who engineered. Stuhldreher’s hiring, it may have been the smartest move he made in his brief 1924- 1925 presidential tenure.

Stuhldreher, a 5-7, 151-pounder from Massillon, Ohio, stood far below today’s tall, passing quarterbacks. As a field general, however, he had no equal. Four games into his sophomore season, he emerged as the starting signal caller for the perfection- demanding Rockne and controlled the team from that spot until his 1924 graduation. During his varsity career, the Irish racked up a 27-2-1 record. No surprise he earned three-time All-America honors.

He arrived at Villanova ready to prepare the team for its 1925 nine-game schedule. When the gun sounded to end the final game, he’d coached his team to a 6-2-1 record. Not bad for a first-year coach who didn’t reach his 24th birthday until mid- season, just about the time Villanova fought Lebanon Valley to a 6-6 tie at Shibe Park.

In his eleven years as head coach, Harry Stuhldreher registered a .722 W-L percentage. His 65 victories, more wins than Nova’s first 12 coaches accumulated in 31 seasons, proved that Notre Dame’s winning attitude, exemplified by the right teacher, could be transferred to the Main Line. Stuhldreher—native Germans roughly translate it as "chair maker"—left Villanova after 1935. He moved to the University of Wisconsin where he coached football and later assumed the role of athletic director.

After his sterling Villanova record, it’s hard to imagine the college administration ignoring Stuhldreher’s input on the choice of his successor. Likely they gave him a free hand since the final choice, Maurice Smith, also earned his football stripes under the tutelage of Knute Rockne. Records show that lineman Clipper Smith graduated from Notre Dame in 1920, a year before Stuhldreher arrived on the South Bend campus. But Stuhldreher’s blessing of a man cut from the same cloth as himself hints that the two almost surely crossed paths earlier in their Notre Dame careers.

Clipper Smith came to Villanova sporting a 61-31 record built at Gonzaga and Santa Clara. He wasted no time. As a beneficiary of the well-stocked larder of trained players left by Stuhldreher, Smith turned in a solid 7-2-1 first year. Over a stretch of 30 games beginning late in that first year, Clipper Smith’s teams won 25 lost 2 and tied 2. Sixteen were shutouts. His remarkable 1937 team went undefeated. Indeed, it held every opponent scoreless except Marquette who marred the almost perfect Villanova defense with the only touchdown registered against it in nine games. The team developed three players who later became VU head coaches: Jordan Olivar, Art Raimo and Alex Bell. Their combined coaching records totaled 84-60-3 over 16 seasons.

In his final three Villanova years, Clipper Smith struggled to maintain a .500 pace. Perhaps it was the onset of WWII. Perhaps it was the loss of the Stuhldreher players he inherited. Whatever the reason, he went on to coach at Lafayette and the University of San Francisco where his combined record sank below .500.

Clipper Smith passed away in 1984, one year before the death of his cousin--the man he hired to fill a vacant trainer’s position-- Jake Nevin.

THE END

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Bob Natiello spends his Arizona retirement writing award-winning fiction and nonfiction while raising money for charitable causes. As president of Sedona Jazz on the Rocks, the Southwest’s oldest and largest jazz fest, he has helped provide jazz educational scholarships to hundreds of young Arizonians. His current collection of short stories is being published under the title The Almost Perfect Crime and Other Award-Winning Stories of New York. Four of the pieces are national Pushcart Prize nominees. Another earned first prize in Manhattan Media’s 2009 fiction contest. It appeared in New York Press, West Side Spirit and Our Town. His song lyrics have been heard nationwide on a gold single and a gold album (Polydor label), and on TV and radio commercials. His fiction writing earned him three successive invitations to Sirenland Writers Conferences: 2009, 2010 and 2011 in Positano, Italy. During his career as a BBDO vice president, Bob headed the agency marketing team that won an EFFIE for effective marketing of GE appliances. He originated and produced the first weekly real estate television series—Home Buying Made Easy—on a major NYC television channel. He also originated and produced New York’s first mutual fund weekly radio series—All About Mutual Funds.

Buy a copy of Bob's, "The Almost Perfect Crime and other Award Winning Stories of New York".

Bob remains an avid Villanova basketball fan and historian.

Read Bob's other Feature for VU Hoops- Remebering Coach Al Severance.

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