Rockne, Knute (1888-1931)

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Rockne, Knute (1888-1931)

The legend of Knute Rockne goes beyond football. Every school with an active athletic program has its share of sports legends—stories about great athletes and coaches of the past and the games that made them famous. The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, is no exception; the school's athletic tradition has produced many legendary figures, especially from its Fighting Irish football team, but the tale of Knute Rockne has transcended Notre Dame to become part of Americana.

Knute K. Rockne was born in Voss, Norway, on March 4, 1888. His family immigrated to the United States in 1893, settling in Chicago. Rockne entered the University of Notre Dame in 1910 and tried out for the football team—unsuccessfully. In that era, football was almost entirely a game of brute force, and Rockne was deemed neither large enough nor muscular enough. The following year, with the Irish under a different coach, Rockne made the team and played for three years, striving to make up in speed and guile what he lacked in size and strength.

Upon graduating in 1914, Rockne was immediately hired as assistant coach of Notre Dame's football team. During his four years in that position, he was credited with introducing two innovations into the game: the forward pass and the shift. In fact, Rockne probably did not invent these tactics (and never claimed that he had), but his teams were the first to integrate these new moves into their regular game plan. The use of the forward pass greatly increased the role of strategy in the game, and the shift (lateral movement on the part of offensive players before the ball is snapped) allowed the offense to adapt to the defense's formation and made the game more exciting.

It was while he was assistant coach in 1916 that Rockne recruited a young man named George Gipp to the team. Gipp turned out to be the best all-round athlete that Rockne ever coached, and when Rockne was appointed Notre Dame's head coach in 1918, George Gipp was his star player. However, in his senior year, Gipp contracted pneumonia following a game. Despite hospitalization, his condition worsened and, tragically, Gipp died on December 13, 1920. But the story of George Gipp did not end with his death. Years later, when a surprisingly mediocre Notre Dame team was trying to salvage a winning season by defeating football powerhouse Army, Rockne gave the locker-room speech that is the centerpiece of the Rockne legend. The team knew who George Gipp had been, but Rockne told them something they didn't know: Gipp's last words to his coach. According to Rockne, the dying Gipp had told him, "I've got to go, Rock. It's all right, I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock, but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."

This sentimental story of Gipp's last wish may well be fiction, but it worked for the Fighting Irish, who went on to defeat Army, the heavy favorites. It also became the key scene in the 1940 film about Rockne's life, Knute Rockne, All American. Pat O'Brien portrayed the great coach, and the young Ronald Reagan played George Gipp. The role haunted Reagan for the rest of his life, and when he left movies for a career in politics, the name was revived by journalists, who sometimes referred to Reagan in print as "the Gipper." This led to "Win one for the Gipper" being used as a campaign slogan when Reagan ran for President in 1980, and reporters used the term occasionally during his presidency and afterward.

The skill and spirit of Rockne also resides in another enduring aspect of sports mythology that has passed into popular culture, and is arguably the most famous passage in American sports journalism. After another Rockne-coached Notre Dame team defeated Army on October 18, 1924, Grantland Rice wrote in the next day's edition of the New York Herald Tribune : "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowly and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out on the green plain below."

Rockne's team was undefeated that season, one of five such triumphant seasons that he enjoyed during his 13 years as Notre Dame's head coach. His overall record during that time was 105 wins, 12 losses and 5 ties. Knute Rockne was killed in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Brondfield, Jerry. Rockne: The Coach, the Man, the Legend. New York, Random House, 1976.

Sperber, Murray. Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football. New York, Henry Holt, 1993.