Rockne, Knute Kenneth
ROCKNE, Knute Kenneth
(b. 4 March 1888 in Voss, Norway; d. 31 March 1931 near Bazarr, Kansas), legendary football coach at the University of Notre Dame credited with three national championships, five undefeated seasons, a lifetime winning percentage of .881, and one of the initial members elected to the National Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
Rockne was the only son in a Norwegian family of five children. His father, Lars Knuson Rockne, was a stationary engineer and amateur inventor. Lars Rockne came to the United States in October 1891 to demonstrate a carriage he built for the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Eighteen months later, his wife, Martha Gjermo Rockne, and his children settled in Chicago. Rockne grew up in Chicago, where he attended Brentano Grammar School and Northwest Division High School. However, academics were not important to him during his formative years, and he was dropped from the high school rolls for cutting classes.
At the age of twenty-two, after completing the necessary preparatory courses to qualify for admittance and saving money by working several jobs, Rockne was accepted to the University of Notre Dame in 1910. By then serious-minded in his academic pursuits, he graduated with distinction in 1914 with a B.S. in chemistry. At Notre Dame, Rockne distinguished himself in other ways as well. He was editor of the college literary annual in his senior year and captain of the 1913 football team that defeated a powerful Army squad.
Rockne was an all-around athlete, but his first effort with the football team ended in failure. He subsequently turned his attention to track. His speed, however, convinced football coach Frank Longman that Rockne's talents could be an asset to the team. Rockne's roommate, Wisconsin native Charles "Gus" Dorais, already had an excellent reputation as a baseball player. With Rockne's speed and Dorais's strong arm, the game of college football was about to change.
In early 1913 Jess Harper was named football coach and athletic director at Notre Dame. During that summer Dorais and Rockne worked and reworked passing combinations. Their efforts have been credited for the introduction of the buttonhook play in football. The buttonhook, based on the forward pass, was put into play during Notre Dame's 1913 game against Army.
Arranged to fill a vacant spot in Army's schedule, Notre Dame was considered a pushover for the West Point team. Notre Dame's name in football meant nothing in the East at that time. But with quarterback Dorais throwing to end Rockne and to back Joe Pliska, Notre Dame caught Army completely unprepared and scored an easy 35–13 victory over the Black Knights of the Hudson. Football historians agree that the work of Dorais and Rockne against Army opened the eyes of football coaches throughout the country to the possibilities of what was then termed the "open game."
On 15 July 1914 Rockne married Bonnie Gwendoline Skiles of Sandusky, Ohio. They had four children. After receiving his undergraduate degree, Rockne signed on as a chemistry instructor and assistant football coach at Notre Dame. Coaching seemed to suit his personality more than classroom instruction. When Harper retired in 1918, Rockne became the head coach. Under his leadership Notre Dame football became synonymous with national success. In thirteen seasons Rockne's teams won 105 games, while losing only twelve and tying five. Notre Dame was undefeated in five of those years, and was considered consensus national champion three times. Six times during his coaching tenure his teams were voted national champions by at least one organization. Rockne trained such famous players as George Gipp and the 1922–1924 backfield men known as the "Four Horsemen." Rockne prefigured the modern "platoon system" by substituting complete teams, which he called "shock troops," during games. His .881 winning percentage remains the highest in college football history.
Rockne and Notre Dame established their preeminence in intercollegiate football in 1924. That year's team featured the "Four Horsemen" and an offensive line known as the "Seven Mules." Loaded with talented athletes, Notre Dame went undefeated during the regular season, outscoring their opponents 258–44. The closest game was a 13–7 victory over Army at the Polo Grounds in New York. Their 1 November victory over Georgia Tech also marked the university's 200th win. Accepting an invitation to play Stanford in the Rose Bowl, the "Ramblers," as Rockne's teams were then called, defeated legendary coach Glenn "Pop" Warner and his star player, Ernie Nevers, 27–10. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the game, one revealing Rockne's flair for theatrics and guile, was his decision to start his second team to the complete surprise of all in attendance.
Rockne's promotional skills were also revealed in his advocacy of intersectional football. His teams traveled all over the country, "meeting strong opponents in the East, the West, and the South." Rockne's colorful and highly trained teams became favorites with the non-college public. The advent of the "subway alumni" began with Notre Dame's regular appearance in New York City against Army. His teams constantly attracted huge crowds. Over 112,000 fans witnessed the 16 November 1929 game between Notre Dame and the University of Southern California at Soldier Field in Chicago. Rockne possessed a magnetic personality and he knew how to motivate players. The most repeated story, immortalized in the 1940 movie Knute Rockne—All-American, took place during a game against the powerful Army team in 1928, when Rockne implored his players to "Win one for the Gipper." The veracity of Rockne's speech remains debatable, but Johnny O'Brien's winning touchdown catch and the so-called pep talk are forever embedded in Notre Dame folklore.
As a coach, Rockne knew best how to utilize players. He relied on a large pool of recruits to match his multiple offenses and defenses. The so-called "Rockne System" featured speed and deception and "provided a place for the lighter and faster man on the football field." This was a product of his own experience as a player. He also introduced the forward pass, another byproduct of his days as a player; the shift, "in which the backs moved just before the snap of the ball from their T-formation into a box alignment behind the left or right side of the line"; the spinner plays; and the "flexing-end play to a high type of perfection."
In spite of all these tactical innovations, Rockne and the university's football reputation rested largely in the hands of one person. In 1924 sportswriter Grantland Rice began his account of that year's Notre Dame–Army game with the following words, which would be forever etched in college football memory: "Outlined against the blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they were known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."
Rockne was not without detractors. Michigan head coach Fielding Yost despised him and the small Midwestern Catholic college he represented. Yost constantly blocked Notre Dame's efforts to join the Big Ten. Because of religion and success on the field, Big Ten schools were reluctant to provide any additional exposure to Notre Dame. Notre Dame's geographic location in northwestern Indiana, a pro–Klu Klux Klan state in the 1920s, also generated anti-Catholic sentiment. Ironically, Rockne himself did not become a Catholic until the mid-1920s.
At Notre Dame, moreover, a constant battle ensued between the academicians determined to improve the learning curve, and Rockne, who was even more determined "to manipulate the educational system for his own ends." It is true that most of his early recruits came from working-class backgrounds and "felt comfortable within Notre Dame's traditional 'masculine democracy.'" It is also true that his recruits were willing converts in Rockne's efforts to abuse the system in order to benefit the football program. If Rockne was unable to obtain athletic scholarships that included on-campus jobs for recruits, he had Notre Dame alumni sponsor them. He tolerated, or simply chose to ignore, his players' personal indiscretions, particularly drinking and gambling, for the sake of victory. Yet Rockne's successes on the field outweighed these shortcomings. As such, he knew how to negotiate his worth as a coach. He realized that Notre Dame was not about to lose its most valuable asset and instrument of recognition. His contract flirtations with other universities, including Iowa and Columbia, led the Reverend Matthew Walsh, in 1924, to ink Rockne to an agreement for "ten academic years of ten months" per annum at an annual salary of $10,000, a very high income in the 1920s.
The 1920s were the golden era of college football, and Rockne was the beneficiary of such exciting times. At the height of his earning power, Rockne's estimated income from coaching and his outside deals was close to $75,000 a year—a sum "not matched by anyone in his profession for another forty years."
On 31 March 1931, while traveling on a business trip to the West Coast, his plane crashed in a barren cornfield near Bazarr, Kansas. There were no survivors. He died at the age of forty-three and is buried in Notre Dame, Indiana. In 1988 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. He became the first athletic coach in any sport to be so honored. Forever immortalized in the 1940 Warner Brothers film Knute Rockne—All-American, featuring actors Pat O'Brien, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, and future president of the United States Ronald Reagan, Rockne's success was as much a product of the "growth of Notre Dame's unique athletic culture" and religious ties to Catholicism as it was to his coaching greatness. He remains the most famous coach in college football history. He was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame in the first year of its inception, 1951.
The best primary source is the Athletic Department Records and Presidential Records, University of Notre Dame Archives, Hesburgh Library. Of special importance are the presidential records of the Reverends John W. Cacanaugh, 1905–1919; James Burns, 1919–1922; Matthew Walsh, 1922–1928; and Charles L. O'Donnell, 1928–1934. The Autobiography of Knute Rockne (1931), was probably written by John B. Kennedy. Scholarly histories of the university are numerous but two stand out: Reverend David J. Arthur, "The University of Notre Dame, 1919–1933: An Administrative History" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1973), and Thomas Schlereth, The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of Its History and Campus (1976). By far the best scholarly work is Murray Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (1993). Rockne's obituary is in the New York Times (1 Apr. 1931).
Charles F. Howlettm