Skip to main content
Select Source:

Rockne, Knute

Knute Rockne


American college football coach

Knute Rockne holds college football's record for career wins as a coach. Rockne led Notre Dame's "Fighting Irish" team for 13 seasons before his untimely death in 1931, and made the Indiana school a powerhouse in the game during its day. Known for his spirited, if sometimes truth-stretching, team pep talks, Rockne helped popularize the sport at the college level and bring itand his teamto national prominence. He revolutionized the game by introducing new strategies and techniques, still in use more than seventy years after his death.

Rockne was a native of Norway, born in a town called Voss in 1888, and came with his family to the Chicago area when he was five. They settled in a heavily Scandinavian neighborhood near Logan Square, and as a teen Rockne emerged as a star high-school athlete, though he was not particular impressive in size. He played football and baseball, and was a standout on the track team as a pole vaulter as well. He left school without graduating in 1905 after facing disciplinary measures for cutting class in order to practice track. He worked in the Chicago post office for four years as a mail handler and dispatcher, and when two friends enrolled at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, they encouraged him to join them at the Catholic school. A gifted student, Rockne worked as a janitor in the chemistry department to help pay his expenses, and began playing for its football team in 1911 as a fullback and left end.

Rockne captained the Notre Dame team during his senior year, leading the team to its third undefeated season. In one of college football's most famous plays, he and his roommate, Gus Dorais, used an impressive forward pass in a game against Army that made gridiron history. With the West Point Cadets heavily favored to win, Rockne faked a limp on the field, and when Dorais threw a forward pass, he caught it running. "In 1913, you did two things with a football: You ran with it or you kicked it," explained Los Angeles Times writer Earl Gustkey, and described the passing-and-running plays the two completed as "football's first all-out air attack." Notre Dame won the game, 35-13.

After he graduated magna cum laude in 1914 with a pharmacy degree, Rockne's application to enter the medical school at St. Louis University was rejected, and he took a job instead as a chemistry teacher at Notre Dame and assistant football coach. He became head coach in 1917, and though the team's first full season under him was a dismal one, with many top players serving in the U.S. military as the country entered World War I, Rockne's 1919 team finished its first unbeaten season under his watch. They repeated the feat the next year, and for the 1921 contest against rival Army, a record crowd of 20,000 turned out.

In all, Rockne would have five unbeaten, untied seasons as Notre Dame coach, and he modernized the game of football along the way. Prior to his era, teams huddled in compact groups and fought for the ball in contests of physical strength. Rockne introduced the box formation and influence blocking, and made the game more exciting for spectators with a strategy that emphasized deception and speed. He instituted what came to be called the "Notre Dame shift," also known as the precision backfield move. These and other moves perfected under Rockne were such crowd-pleasersand so effective in eliminating opponentsthat other coaches banded together and attempted have some of them barred from the official rulebook. He also began what developed into platoon football, using groups of players in various formations in an attempt to wear down the opposing team.

Notre Dame alumni and American Catholics became some of the Fighting Irish's most devoted fans. "Rock," as he was called, was regularly celebrated in newspapers and magazines for his coaching abilities, but his ability to turn a good phrase also made him famous. He was one of the first coaches to cultivate and publicize star players like George Gipp, an all-purpose back. In his 1924 seasonthe first in which Notre Dame finished with a national championship titleRockne relied heavily on a quartet of players trumpeted by sportswriters as the "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame," Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, James Crowley, and Elmer Layden.

The 1928 season proved the Fighting Irish's worst under Rockne, with a 5-4 season finish. In one showdown that year-yet again against Army-Rockne allegedly told his losing team at halftime to "win one for the Gipper," a phrase that later gained currency through a 1940 film that starred Ronald Reagan as the gridiron hero Gipp. That day, the Irish rallied and routed Army in a game that ended 12-6. The team won two more national titles, in 1929 and 1930. By then Rockne had become Notre Dame's athletic director and designed a new stadium to hold the record home crowds.

Rockne was one of the most celebrated Americans of his era. He wrote a regular newspaper column and authored two books; he also began a second career as a motivational speaker under contract with the Studebaker Corporation, a South Bend auto maker, to deliver inspirational speeches to its sales force. Rockne even launched his own automobile company in 1931, but movie offers also came his way, and Rockne was on his way to Los Angeles to discuss one project when the plane carrying him crashed in a Kansas wheat field. The March 31, 1931 accident killed all aboard. International condolences poured in, and even U.S. President Herbert Hoover sent a telegram that called his death "a national loss."

Rockne was survived by a wife and four children. He was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1951. His every successor as Notre Dame coach has endured the inevitable comparisons. During the 2002 season, Rockne's mythic greatness was still a vivid presence: students and supporters of the Fighting Irish, elated about the wins under a new coach Tyrone Willinghamthe first African-American to hold the job at the schooltook to wearing t-shirts emblazoned with one of Rockne's famous phrases, "Return to Glory."


The Autobiography of Knute K. Rockne. Edited, with prefatory note, by Bonnie Skiles Rockne (Mrs. Knute K. Rockne) and with introduction and postscript by Father John Cavanaugh, C.S.C.; illustrated from photographs. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1931.


1888 Born in Voss, Norway
1893 Emigrates to United States and settles in Chicago, Illinois
1905 Leaves high school without a diploma
1907 Passes civil service examination and becomes mail handler at Chicago post office
1910 Begins courses at Notre Dame University
1914 Graduates from Notre Dame with a bachelor of science degree in pharmacy
1914 Marries Bonnie Skiles in Sandusky, Ohio
1914 Becomes assistant football coach and chemistry instructor at Notre Dame
1917 Advances to head coach of Notre Dame's team
1919 Finishes first unbeaten season as coach
1924 Fighting Irish win first national college football championship title
1925 Converts to Roman Catholicism
1925 Becomes athletic director at Notre Dame
1930 Finishes fifth unbeaten season and team wins third national championship title
1931 Dies in plane crash near Bazaar, Kansas on March 31

Coaching: The Way of the Winner. New York: Devin-Adair, 1931.



"Rockne, Knute." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Wallace, Francis. Knute Rockne. New York: Doubleday, 1960.


Drape, Joe. "Return to Glory? For Notre Dame, the Answer Just Might Be Yes." New York Times (September 15, 2002): 1.

Gustkey, Earl. "A Day-by-Day Recap of Some of the Most Important Sports Moments of the 20th Century." Los Angeles Times (January 6, 1999): 6.

Gustkey, Earl. "Rockne's Last Game Produced National Title." Los Angeles Times (December 6, 1999): D14.

Heller, Dick. "When Notre Dame Learned How to Win one for the Gipper." Washington Times (November 13, 2000): 14.

Sketch by Carol Brennan

Awards and Accomplishments

1919 Leads Notre Dame to its first undefeated season
1924 Notre Dame wins first national college football title
1925 Notre Dame beats Stanford 27-0 in Rose Bowl game
1929 Notre Dame wins second national college football title
1930 Notre Dame wins third national college football title
1930 Ends 13th season with 105-12-5 record, or .881 average
1951 Inducted into National Football Foundation Hall of Fame

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Rockne, Knute." Notable Sports Figures. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Rockne, Knute." Notable Sports Figures. . (December 15, 2017).

"Rockne, Knute." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Knute Rockne

Knute Rockne

Knute Rockne (1888-1931), a genius in the sport of football, became an American folk hero and left his stamp of greatness on the entire sport.

Knute Rockne was born on March 4, 1888, in Voss, Norway. In 1891 his father came to America to exhibit his carriage-building art at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and 18 months later he sent for his family. Swiftly absorbed in the Chicago melting pot, Knute played football and baseball (and had his nose permanently flattened by a carelessly swung bat). In high school he also ran on the track team and pole-vaulted.

Lacking the finances to enroll at the University of Illinois, Rockne worked in a post office for 4 years. For exercise he ran or vaulted. Two foot-racing buddies begged him to matriculate at Notre Dame University; he reluctantly joined them. Before he impressed athletic coaches with his physical prowess, Rockne dazzled professors with his brilliant mind. (He graduated summa cum laude. ) His roommate was Gus Dorais, quarterback on the Notre Dame football team. In 1913 the two experimented with forward-passing techniques, a stratagem that was legal but little used.

That autumn top-ranking West Point invited little-known Notre Dame to fill a schedule opening: the result stunned the football world. Dorais passed to Rockne for the first touchdown; Notre Dame took the game. The forward-passing show revolutionized football.

After graduation Knute married Bonnie Skiles. Notre Dame named him assistant football coach, head track coach, and chemistry professor. By 1918 he was head football coach; a season later he had his first unbeaten team. As a strategist, Rockne was imaginative and inventive. With his Notre Dame team, he became the top-ranking coach in the history of intercollegiate football, with a winning average of .897. He produced five unbeaten and united teams. But it was Rockne's witty, dynamic personality that dominated every gathering. He was not only a spellbinding orator but a funny one as well.

Rockne had not even approached his peak when he died in a plane crash on March 31, 1931. The nation mourned. The President of the United States sent condolences to his widow; so did the king of Norway. Knute's death was front-page news in every paper in America, and editorials lavished praise on the immigrant boy who had become one of America's best-loved figures.

Further Reading

Generally regarded as authoritative biographies are Arthur Daley, Knute Rockne: Football Wizard of Notre Dame (1960), and Francis Wallace, Knute Rockne (1960). A wealth of detail on Rockne is in Wallace's The Notre Dame Story (1949).

Additional Sources

Brondfield, Jerry, Rockne, the coach, the man, the legend, New York: Random House, 1976.

Knute Rockne, his life and legend: based on the unfinished autobiography of Knute Rockne, United States: October Football Corp., 1988.

Steele, Michael R., Knute Rockne, a bio-bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Knute Rockne." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Knute Rockne." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 15, 2017).

"Knute Rockne." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Rockne, Knute Kenneth

Knute Kenneth Rockne (nōōt, rŏk´nē), 1888–1931, American football coach, b. Norway, B.S. Notre Dame, 1914. In 1893 he settled with his parents in Chicago. He excelled at football at Notre Dame and with Gus Dorais scored a sensational upset (1913) of the heavily favored Army team through the use of the forward pass—a legal but then seldom-used tactic. Rockne became (1914) a Notre Dame chemistry instructor and served (1918–31) as head football coach. In his 13 years as coach, Notre Dame won 105 games, lost 12, and tied 5; he had five undefeated, untied seasons. Rockne not only made Notre Dame the country's leading football center but also revolutionized football theory. He stressed offense, developed the precision backfield or Notre Dame shift, perfected line play, and developed many stars, including the most famous backfield of all time, the "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame" (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, James Crowley, and Elmer Layden).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Rockne, Knute Kenneth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Rockne, Knute Kenneth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 15, 2017).

"Rockne, Knute Kenneth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from