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November 1, 1913
November 10, 1928
December 6, 1930
Knute Rockne was Notre Dame's master motivator
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"It was almost the size of President Kennedy's type impact. It was amazing. They turned out on the train, and at the funeral. He was a national hero," says Elmer Layden, one of Notre Dame's "Four Horseman," about his coach, Knute Rockne.
No college football coach has ever had the success of Knute Rockne. In his 13 years as the leader of Notre Dame, his teams went 105-12-5, making his .881 winning percentage the highest in history. Emphasizing quickness, deception and finesse, he had five undefeated teams and won three national championships.
Much like the grand design of his football program, Rockne's oratory carried few statutes of limitations. He was renowned for his inspirational pep talks and his magnetic personality won over not only players but alumni, school officials, sportswriters and all those important to the growth of his football fiefdom.
"There never was a greater showman than Knute Rockne," said John Cavanaugh, a Notre Dame president.
And when Rockne wanted something badly enough, he wasn't adverse to stretching the truth. In one locker-room speech, he concocted a story about his six-year-old son being hospitalized and pleading for a victory. In another, Rockne dramatically told of a possible Rose Bowl bid awaiting the team.
In yet another, he implied that Indiana's fierce tackling style the previous year might have contributed to Notre Dame star George Gipp's death. Gipp, though, had died of pneumonia.
"They were all lies, blatant lies," said Jim Crowley, a Rockne admirer and part of Notre Dame's famed "Four Horsemen" backfield in 1924. "The Jesuits call it mental reservation, but he had it in abundance."
Rockne's celebrated "win one for the Gipper" halftime speech during the 1928 Army game, which purportedly revived Gipps' last words eight years after the player's death, fostered much debate. By some accounts, the coach hadn't been at Gipp's bedside in his final days and the reference was fabrication.
Beyond the pomp, play-acting and persuasion, though, was undeniable coaching genius. Rockne developed a passing offense that helped to broaden the game's appeal. His "Notre Dame shift" -- a quick, pre-snap movement by his backfield -- was so successful that college rules-makers soon outlawed it.
He was among the first to teach his linemen brush blocks, to break his team into smaller groups, a precursor of platoon football, and to employ "shock troops," early-game substitutes who tried to wear down rivals.
A master motivator, he publicized his team endlessly, often angering faculty who were worried about football's rise. Rockne fended off accusations that his program was growing too professional, that he was illegally paying players, that the growing schedule was requiring too much travel. He argued that football's revenues supported minor sports and that its regimen built character.
"Four years of football," Rockne said, "are calculated to breed in the average man more of the ingredients of success in life than almost any academic course he takes."
Fans swooned over Rockne's teams and attendance swelled, at home and on the road, widening the path for the game's expansion. The attraction of Notre Dame football, especially among Catholics, continued even after Rockne's death in 1931.
Rockne was born on March 4, 1888 in Voss, Norway. His father, a carriage maker, brought the family to the United States when Knute was five. At Chicago's North West Division High School, Rockne ran track and played football briefly, but he didn't graduate. After working as a postal clerk for several years, he passed an entrance exam to Notre Dame and, at 22, enrolled in 1910.
"I went to South Bend with a suitcase and $1,000," he wrote later, "feeling the strangeness of being a lone Norse Protestant invading a Catholic stronghold."
Notre Dame became his home, and in 1925 he converted to Catholicism.
Undaunted by his stature (5-foot-8, 160 pounds), Rockne went out for football, playing sparingly as a fullback and end as a freshman. The next season, he was a starting end under new coach John Marks.
In the summer of 1913, Rockne and quarterback Gus Dorais practiced the forward pass on an Ohio beach. "Dorais would throw from all angles," Rockne recalled. "People who didn't know we were two college seniors making painstaking preparations for our final season probably thought we were crazy."
The team unveiled a different offensive look that fall under new coach Jess Harper and upset Army 35-13 as Dorais completed 14-of-17 passes for 243 yards, including a touchdown to Rockne, a third-team All-American.
Rockne graduated with honors in 1914, receiving a bachelor's degree in chemistry and pharmacology. He considered going to medical school in St. Louis but stayed at Notre Dame to teach chemistry and serve as Harper's assistant.
Notre Dame lost five games in his four years as an assistant. After rejecting Michigan State's head coaching offer in 1917, Rockne took over for Harper, who resigned in early 1918.
Rockne's first team went 3-1-2 in a season shortened by World War I, and he began upgrading the schedule the next year. The 1919 and 1920 teams were unbeaten, led by Gipp, a renegade who enjoyed pool, poker, partying and skipping classes. Though Rockne had a deserved reputation for toughness, his pragmatism helped him deal with Gipp's escapades. Rockne called the all-purpose back "the greatest player Notre Dame ever produced."
The boom times were just starting, and when the Irish played Army in 1921 a crowd of 20,000 watched, a West Point record. Soon, Rockne sought larger sites for the Army game, with the teams meeting at Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame's own Cartier Field held 3,000, far too small for the football revolution, but by 1930, Rockne's last season, the school had a stadium seating 54,000.
Thanks to Grantland Rice and other sportswriters, the fame of Notre Dame players grew as well. After the small but shifty backfield of Crowley, Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller and Elmer Layden lifted the Irish to a 13-7 victory over Army in 1924, Rice penned a famous homage to the quartet that began, "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horseman rode again."
Supported by a line dubbed "The Seven Mules," Notre Dame won its first national championship that season, capped by a 27-10 victory over Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl.
Rockne, who said the 1924 team was his favorite, sensed early on that the Horsemen would be special, describing them later as a "product of destiny."
After a two-loss season in 1925, Rockne agreed to take the head coaching job at Columbia for $25,000 - $15,000 more than his Notre Dame salary. When the agreement went public, much to his embarrassment, he decided to stay at South Bend.
The near-exit irritated some supporters but did nothing to slow his program. Notre Dame lost only twice over the next two years, though one defeat brought adverse publicity. Rockne put an assistant coach in charge against Carnegie Tech in 1926 while he went to the Army-Navy game to do some publicity work and to scout the Midshipmen for the next fall. Carnegie Tech won 19-0, ruining Notre Dame's bid for an unbeaten season.
While slumping to 5-4 in 1928, Rockne's worst record, Notre Dame recorded one of its more memorable victories when it rallied to upset Army 12-6 after the "Gipper" speech.
Notre Dame rebounded the next season, when Rockne was diagnosed with life-threatening phlebitis in his leg, missed some games and at times directed the team from a wheelchair. The team went 9-0, punctuated by a 13-12 victory over powerful USC, and won the national title. Notre Dame followed up with a 10-0 record and another national championship in 1930 as Rockne regained his health.
Early the next year, Rockne received a lucrative offer to help in the production of a Hollywood movie, "The Spirit of Notre Dame." Traveling to Los Angeles on March 31, he was killed when his plane crashed in a pasture near Bazaar, Kan. Knute Rockne was 43.
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