By Chris McManes
Catholic University's football team was among the finest in the nation in the 1930s, and the man most responsible was Head Coach Arthur J. "Dutch" Bergman. He guided CUA to the most victories in its football history (59) and won the second Orange Bowl.
Before Bergman built the Flying Cardinals into a nationally prominent program, he helped Notre Dame become a national power as a player. He was a roommate of George Gipp and played under Coach Knute Rockne.
Bergman, born in Peru, Ind., on Feb. 23, 1895, followed his brother, Alfred "Big Dutch" Bergman, to South Bend, Ind. Alfred earned 11 monograms (varsity letters) in football, baseball, basketball and track and is considered one of Notre Dame's finest athletes ever. He was the first Fighting Irish athlete to letter in four sports in a single year, accomplishing the feat as a junior and senior (1914-15). Younger brother, Joe, also attended the school and played football and baseball.
Arthur, who went by the nickname, "Little Dutch," earned four monograms, three in football and one in track (1916). He played right halfback for Notre Dame in 1915 and 1916. In a 7-0 victory over Army in 1915, he scored the only touchdown late in the game when he caught a pass on the Cadets' 30-yard line and outran everyone to the end zone. At Nebraska that year, he scored three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving), but the Irish missed two extra points and lost, 20-19. Notre Dame finished 7-1.
The next season, also in Lincoln, Neb., Bergman scored the first touchdown of the game on a 44-yard run and added another score in a 20-0 victory over the Cornhuskers. The win punctuated an 8-1 campaign, with all the victories coming by shutout. The only team to score on Notre Dame was Army, which defeated the Irish, 30-10.
In 1915 and 1916 games against Haskell, Bergman had a 75-yard run and two 70-yarders.
Here's how Notre Dame's 1917 yearbook, The Dome, described his gridiron exploits:
"'Bergie' thrilled the rooters every time he took the ball in his hands. With his great speed, his nerve and wonderful broken-field dodging ability, he was one of the most dangerous ground gainers in the country. 'The flying Dutchman' had Nebraska fans gasping in the Thanksgiving day game and West Point remembers him as one of the most brilliant football players she has ever met. 'Dutch' has another good year of service to give to Notre Dame and if he goes any better than he did this season, there will be scarcely a back in the country his equal."
Serving His Country
Bergman, according to a 1941 document retrieved from the Notre Dame Archives, enlisted at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis in 1917 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. He became a pilot in the Army Air Corps' 258th Aerial Squadron and served in Europe during World War I. During his 16 months on active duty, he flew patrol, reconnaissance and bombing missions. After 26 months of service, he received an honorable discharge as a captain.
Bergman returned to school in 1919 and found that his coach, Jesse Harper, had been replaced a year earlier by Rockne. Once again the 5-foot-8, 145-pound speedster played a key role against Nebraska on the road, returning a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. He also took a lateral from Gipp – his backfield mate – and scampered 90 yards to paydirt. The Irish won, 14-9, en route to a 9-0 season.
"No football man was ever more popularly respected and admired by the faculty and students than he," Notre Dame's 1920 yearbook proclaimed. "Here's to 'Little Dutch' Bergman, the gamest 'little big man,' the most memorable of the 1919 'Fighting Irish.'"
The Golden Domers' record in Bergman's three seasons was 24-2 (.923).
Rooming with George Gipp
Gipp, portrayed by former President Ronald Reagan in the 1940 movie, Knute Rockne All American, is considered by many to be the greatest college football player of all time.
Bergman used to joke that all people "will remember me for is that I was George Gipp's roommate at Notre Dame," Washington Post sports writer Bob Addie recalled in Bergman's obituary, a copy of which was obtained from the Notre Dame Archives.
Gipp often skipped football practice and class. He smoked during the season, drank liquor and avoided training. He liked to gamble and play cards, craps and pool.
"My main job was to haul Gipp out of the poolroom in South Bend," Addie quoted Bergman saying. "Now George was a big man – 190 pounds – and I never weighed over 145 when I was playing football. Sometimes he would resent me taking him back to school and would threaten to punch me in the nose. But I always could run faster and I never had any trouble letting him chase me right back to campus."
Bergman spoke at length about his former roommate during a New York event he attended in September 1937. The New York Sun captured his praise of Gipp, calling him "the soul of generosity, always sacrificing himself for down-and-outers. Though he came from a poor family, money meant nothing to him. I've seen him win $500 in a craps game and then spend his winnings buying meals for destitute families.
"No wonder he was idolized by the South Bend townies."
Gipp led the Irish in rushing, passing and scoring three years (1918-20). He averaged a school-record 8.1 yards per carry in 1920 and had 357 all-purpose yards (150 rushing, 50 punt returning, 157 kickoff returning) in a 27-7 victory at Army. He was a 1920 first-team All-American.
"He reported for practice only three days a week despite Rockne's protests, but on Saturdays Gipp played like a man possessed," Bergman told the Sun. "A shrewd student of human nature, Rockne gave Gipp a free rein and winked at his capers. Nobody but Gipp got away with what he did under Rock.
"…A coach's headache during the week, Gipp was a coach's dream on the field."
Bergman said Gipp's athletic prowess extended far beyond the gridiron:
"Gipp was the best kicker, passer, and runner in Notre Dame history. His athletic genius extended to other games. He was a basketball star, but refused to bother with it; a crack tennis player; and a baseball prospect good enough to get a bid from the White Sox.
"No, there will never be another George Gipp."
Tragically, Gipp died from strep throat and pneumonia on Dec. 14, 1920 at age 25. Rockne gave his famous "Win One for the Gipper" speech at halftime of the 1928 game against Army, which the 5-4 Irish won in an upset, 12-6. Three years later, Rockne was killed in a plane crash. His .881 winning percentage (105-12-5) is the highest in college football history.
Bergman Takes Up Coaching
Bergman left Notre Dame without graduating to become head football and basketball coach at New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University. He was also in essence the athletic director. His first football team went 5-1-1 and, toward the end of that season, he was praised in a Nov. 16, 1920 editorial that ran in the school's newspaper, The Round-Up:
"A man of Bergman's type is certain of ultimate success in the way of victory. One of his cool courage always is. Moreover, he will give the young men he instructs what is more important than victory. He will instill into them the greater merit of coolly fighting on regardless of obstacles, of never admitting defeat until the course has been run, of holding only the proper amount of respect for oneself in victory, of losing no respect for one's own abilities in defeat, yet of granting full merit to a victorious opponent – in a word, of true sportsmanship."
Bergman's three-year record (1920-22) in football with the Aggies was 12-5-1, while his two-year slate in basketball was 12-5. The Dec. 5, 1922 Round-Up reported that he left the school "to enter business life with a brokerage firm in Detroit."
Bergman didn't stay out of coaching long. In 1924 he went to Dayton as an assistant football coach under former Irish teammate Harry Baujan. He stayed there through the 1926 season and helped the Flyers post an overall mark of 22-7.
According to a Nov. 22, 1924 game program in the Dayton Archives, Bergman was the only coach listed under Baujan. It says that "Dutch is the backfield coach, and is the primary reason why those flying backs of ours are going to cause you to jump to your feet more than once this afternoon. Bergman comes to us from the New Mexico Agricultural College, where he was athletic director for three years. At Notre Dame he and Harry were teammates and the staunchest friends."
Bergman left Dayton to become backfield coach at Minnesota (1927-29). His star player was Bronko Nagurski, the only man to be named All-American at two positions (fullback, defensive tackle) in the same season. The Golden Gophers were 18-4-2 those three years and won the 1927 Big 10 championship.
On to Lead the Cardinals
Bergman came to Catholic University to be head football coach and athletic director in 1930. According to CUA's student newspaper, The Tower, he was the personal choice of Bishop James H. Ryan, the university's rector. Bergman's coaching staff included a pair of fellow Notre Dame grads, line coach Forrest Cotton and end coach George Vlk. They helped him install Rockne's shifting backfield offense.
Bergman, inheriting a team that had gone 5-4, finished 1-8 in 1930. He never had another losing season. The Cardinals lost the 1931 opener, 28-7 to Boston College, and then swept their final eight games. CUA won its first three contests of 1932 and set the school record for consecutive victories with 11. All-American halfback Tommy Whelan was the star of the team. Holy Cross was the only club to defeat the 6-1-1 Cardinals, 8-0.
The Washington Herald reported that Crusaders Coach John McEwan called Whelan CUA's "George Gipp."
The 1932 Cards were one of the most dominant teams in school history. They outscored their opponents, 123-21, and recorded five shutouts. One of their biggest victories came against reigning three-time Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga), 19-0.
CUA's stingy defense continued rolling with four shutouts each of the next two years (1933-34) and posted records of 6-3 and 4-3-1. It was prelude to the greatest season in Cardinal football history.
Cards Invited to Orange Bowl
By 1935, Bergman's football program was in full bloom. The Cards did not give up more than nine points in any regular-season game, kept three teams out of the end zone and did not allow a rushing touchdown. Big victories were posted over Duquesne, 6-0; Detroit, 13-7; and North Carolina State, 8-0. Detroit was coached by former Irish All-American quarterback Gus Dorais. In 1913 he and Rockne, playing end, brought the forward pass and Notre Dame out of obscurity in a 35-13 victory at powerhouse Army.
After a 7-1 regular season – the only blemish a 9-6 loss to DePaul at Chicago's Soldier Field – CUA was invited to represent the North in the second Orange Bowl Classic in Miami. Mississippi (9-2) was chosen to represent the South.
The Jan. 1, 1936 game was played before 10,000 spectators and was the first Orange Bowl broadcast on radio. Legendary sports writer Grantland Rice, the man who dubbed Notre Dame's 1924 offensive backfield "The Four Horsemen," was in the press box.
The Cardinals jumped to a 13-0 lead and led 13-6 by halftime. A blocked punt touchdown in the third quarter increased the advantage to 20-6. The Rebels scored the final 13 points but CUA prevailed, 20-19. The Cards' point total was the second-highest Mississippi had allowed all year. Following the victory, Bergman told The Washington Post:
"I said (we had) a great ball club before we left home, and I think the boys proved it out there on the field this afternoon. I'm darned proud of every last one of them."
An estimated 3,000 Cardinal fans welcomed the Orange Bowl champions home when their train arrived at Washington's Union Station. The team's victory parade to campus took it down Pennsylvania Ave., where, as the Post reported, "President [Franklin] Roosevelt, on his way to church, became an unwitting parader, when the march de triumph jammed traffic in front of the White House."
Three players from that 8-1 team went on to play in the NFL. In 1936, tackle Ed Karpowich became the first CUA player drafted by an NFL team when he was selected in the eighth-round by the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers). He played professionally for five years. The 1936 draft was the NFL's first. Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago was the first player chosen.
The Cards slumped to 4-4 the following year, including a 14-0 loss at Mississippi. The 1937 and '38 clubs both went 5-3. CUA split with Miami (Fla.) and South Carolina. The 1939 Cardinals opened with six straight victories, including wins over Tulsa, South Carolina and Miami. Following a 39-13 loss to St. Anselm's, the Red and Black finished with victories over Loyola (La.) and Long Island.
The Cards were tapped to play in the sixth-annual Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, against Tempe Normal Teacher's College, now known as Arizona State University. Playing before a crowd of 13,000, the game was an offensive yawner and ended in a scoreless tie.
Bergman concluded his tenure with the school by going 4-3-1 in 1940 for his ninth winning season. He posted an overall mark of 59-31-4. He is CUA's all-time winningest varsity football coach and has the highest winning percentage (.649) in school history.
"When he came to CU in 1930, the Cardinals never had drawn much recognition outside this area," Steve Hershey wrote in the Aug. 24, 1972 edition of The Catholic Standard. "Within five years, CU's reputation for football excellence was nationwide."
CUA dropped football in 1941 because of the outbreak of World War II and didn't field another team until 1947.
Off to the Pros
Bergman became head coach of the Washington Redskins in 1943 and led the team to a 6-0-1 start. They followed by losing three in a row, including two straight to the New York Giants to close the season. Washington and New York shared the Eastern Division championship and were matched up for the third time in as many weeks, this time in a one-game playoff. The Giants were coming off a 31-7 victory in Washington. Bergman knew he had to do something to re-ignite his team's confidence as it headed to New York's Polo Grounds.
So, according to Howard Roberts' 1953 book, "The Story of Pro Football," Bergman devised a psychological ploy toward his quarterback, NFL Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh:
"In the clubhouse as the players prepared to take the field, the coach stepped up to Baugh and roared: 'I know you already have bought your ticket for home. You don't think we can win. You don't think we can win this one and go on to the championship play-off. Well, you're yellow! Yes, yellow!'
"That did it. The Redskins were mad. Baugh was mad. And all played their heads off to achieve a 28-0 victory.
"Bergman afterward admitted he never once questioned Baugh's courage. He called him a truly great competitor. 'But,' he chuckled, 'I did believe our boys were down in the dumps, and I thought that was the best way I could fire 'em up.'"
Baugh completed 16 of 21 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown, and the win put Washington into the NFL Championship Game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Redskins had already beaten the Bears, 21-7, and had ruined their perfect season the year before with a victory in the NFL title game.
Baugh was concluding perhaps the greatest individual season in NFL history. The TCU grad, who revolutionized the forward pass, led the league in completion percentage (55.6), punting yards (45.9 average) and interceptions (11). Bergman compared his passing ability to that of Gipp's, telling the New York Sun, "Until Sam Baugh came along, Gipp was the greatest long range passer of all time."
Baugh, kicked in the head early in the championship game, never got untracked and spent most of the day on the sidelines. Bronko Nagurski scored a touchdown in Chicago's 41-21 victory, and Washington finished 7-4-1. Bergman decided to leave the team after the season.
Founder of the Touchdown Club
In 1934, Bergman founded and became the first president of The Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C., a group formed to honor outstanding football players at all levels and improve society through charitable giving. It eventually began honoring athletes in other sports and became The Touchdown Club Charities of Washington, D.C.
In the club's 1961 annual awards dinner program, Bob Addie recalled that Bergman bought the organization's charter for $2 from The Touchdown Club of New York. The program is part of the collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
"The heart of the club," Addie wrote, "lies in helping youngsters find themselves in team sports which demand so much loyalty and so much sacrifice for a common goal."
According to The Notre Dame Alumnus magazine (August-September 1958), Vice President Richard Nixon presented Bergman "with a life-size portrait at a reception and dinner May 29 at Washington's Statler Hotel." The event was likely the Touchdown Club's 1958 awards dinner.
The club inducted Bergman into its Hall of Fame and established the Arthur J. "Dutch" Bergman Award to honor the top college team in the country.
Bergman also worked as a pro football scout, sports writer, mining engineer and government official. He had his own radio show on WRC in Washington for many years and enjoyed an 11-year career as a color analyst for NBC. In 1948, he became manager of the D.C. Armory, the corporation that lobbied for the construction of Washington's RFK Stadium. He and Tommy Whelan, his great CUA running back, owned a tavern together on 12th Street northeast, close to campus.
In 1935, Bergman invented the "Rainiboot," a light rubber football cover designed to lend a gripping surface during inclement weather. It sold well throughout the country. His 1936 book, "Fifty Football Plays," was used as a textbook by high schools.
Bergman died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., 10 years before he was inducted into the CUA Hall of Fame in 1982.
Addie wrote that a "man of a dozen talents and as many careers is gone. If ever there was anything Dutch Bergman could not do well, then he had never tried it. The handsome silver-haired man who died Friday night (August 18, 1972) got his wish – he never retired. At 77 he was still serving as the manager of the D.C. Armory and RFK Stadium."
In Steve Hershey's Catholic Standard tribute to Bergman, he wrote:
"He started his athletic career as an outstanding halfback for Notre Dame, playing under the legendary Knute Rockne. That alone is quite an accomplishment – but for Dutch Bergman, it was only the beginning."
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Chris McManes is a Catholic University sports historian. This story is part of a research project he is conducting for the CUA Hall of Fame.
The author would like to thank the archives staff at Catholic University, the University of Dayton and the University of Notre Dame for their valuable assistance. Thanks also to the athletic department at New Mexico State University.
Several of the photos for this story were used with permission from the University of Notre Dame Archives.