James L. Morrison: Notre Dame’s First Football Coach

SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 30: A general view of "The Word of Life" or "Touchdown Jesus" mural before the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on December 30, 2017 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 30: A general view of "The Word of Life" or "Touchdown Jesus" mural before the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on December 30, 2017 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

Looking back on the first head coach of the Notre Dame football team, James L. Morrison.

When Amos Alonzo Stagg stepped onto the campus of the University of Chicago, he made history. Stagg became the first head coach of a college football team to make a salary. It was groundbreaking and nearly scandalous.

Think about how people have reacted to changes in NIL today, then remember that at one point being the coach was supposed to be an honor that you didn’t want to take a salary for. Walter Camp was a volunteer at Yale, after all. Stagg’s shockingly large salary of $6,000 annually changed the game. Just two year’s later, in 1894, Notre Dame hired its first coach, James L. Morrison.

Today, he’s almost entirely forgotten, but Notre Dame football needed James L. Morrison to set them down on the path to success. But, who was Morrison, and what did he do for the Notre Dame football program?

James L. Morrison’s impact at Notre Dame

The first thing to know about James L. Morrison is that he only acted as a part-time coach for Notre Dame. He was also the coach of Hillsdale College in Michigan during the 1894 season. Still, he acted as its first coach all the same.

Before then, Notre Dame simply didn’t have a coach. Back then, football was more like a glorified club sport and this act of hiring a coach is the real beginning of a transition to making football a formalized sport. Over the next two decades, rule changes and advancements to the game made it compatible with our modern understanding of the game.

That is to say, you’d recognize things like the line of scrimmage, huddle, and certain positions.

Before coming to Notre Dame, Morrison played at Michigan, where he was a tackle. In many ways, this makes his hiring one of the early moments worth noting in the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry. It also goes towards the idea that Michigan taught Notre Dame the game of football before their first game against each other in 1887, and that there was a ton of influence between the two in those early years.

When Morrison got to Notre Dame, he wasn’t particularly impressed with what he found there. The team was, frankly, a bunch of college guys who were goofing around. They smoke and drank heavily, without much thought towards things like conditioning.

Of his new team, Morrison wrote to one of his former coaches at Michigan:

"“Thanks old man for this position. I arrived here yesterday morning, and found about as green a pack of Foot ball [sic] players as ever donned a jacket. And I am afraid it will be a very hard matter to get up a good team. You can imagine the kind of a crowd it is when I tell you that Rosenthall that big lump of guts that was at Michigan last year is the most promising candidate at center. I am informed however that there will be some good men here during the week we play our first game next Saturday with Hillsdale, Mich. I am afraid we will get swiped mercilessly as I have as hard set to train as they want to smoke. And when I told them they would have to run and get up some wind they thought I was rubbing it in on them. Why yesterday I started them to chopping on the ball and one big strong cuss remarked that it was to [sic] much like work. Well maby [sic] you think I didn’t give him hell. I bet you a hundred no one would make a remark like that again. But Charley I wish I could describe this place to you. It is about as darned a place as I ever fell into. But to tell you the truth I am in love with it. The college is about three miles from town. And I don’t intend to go outside the grounds while I am here.”"

Morrison was only briefly in South Bend. During that time, though, he represented a massive change in both how Notre Dame football acted and was viewed around college football. This was the signal that they were ready to get to work and be serious about football. That attitude shift and willingness to take football seriously directly led to success in the 1910s and 1920s. He showed Notre Dame how it should treat football if they want to have long-term success.

James L. Morrison’s contract at Notre Dame lasted two weeks. He was paid $40, plus expenses. His record was 3-1-1. Their wins came against Hillsdale, Wabash, and Rush Medical. That’s the same Hillsdale that Morrison coached later in the season. Notre Dame tied and lost to Albion in two separate games. They were different times.