Born March 4, 1888
Died March 31, 1931
College football player and coach
"[A football star must have] brains, courage, self-restraint, coordination, fire of nervous energy and an unselfish point of view. Of course, he must have a bit of speed and a bit of physique, but then these things are taken for granted."
A s a legendary player and coach for the University of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne helped to change the game of football and increase its popularity. A player from 1911 to 1913, he helped lead Notre Dame to three straight undefeated seasons. The 1913 team revolutionized football by using the forward pass more frequently; rushing, or running, the football had been the standard and dominant way football was played since American football was introduced three decades earlier. As a coach from 1918 to 1930, Rockne led his team to five more undefeated seasons, and Notre Dame won nearly 90 percent of its games under his leadership.
Rockne's teams played before overflow crowds throughout the country, and many of the school's players became famous. Coach Rockne was the most famous of all—a colorful speaker and tireless promoter of football as well as an exceptional motivator and football strategist. The nation was shocked when he died in a plane crash at the age of forty-three in 1931. The popular 1940 film Knute Rockne: All American recalled his life and his ability to motivate players.
Academic and athletic
Knute Kenneth Rockne was born in Voss, Norway, on March 4, 1888, the second child and only son among five children of Lars Knutson and Martha (Gjermo) Rockne. His father was an engineer who traveled to the United States in 1891 to work on a carriage he invented and wanted to exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, a fair that showed new inventions from around the world. In 1893, the remaining family members joined him, and the Rocknes settled in Chicago.
As a boy, Rockne loved playing and watching sports, especially football and track. He was an excellent student in math and history but soon before graduating from high school his love of sports interfered and cost him a diploma. He cut classes to practice for a track meet. Rockne was suspended and told to transfer to another school, but he never completed his high school education.
Beginning that summer, Rockne held a series of odd jobs: he washed windows, worked on a ferry boat, and picked crops. He passed a Civil Service examination and then worked for four years in the Chicago Post Office. He continued to read and write during this period, saved his money, and won acceptance to the University of Notre Dame in 1910, starting college at the age of twenty-two. Four years later, he graduated with distinction, earning a bachelor of science degree with a specialty in chemistry. He was editor of the annual collection of student writings in his senior year.
During his college years, Rockne starred as an end on the Notre Dame football team. At 5 feet 8 inches tall and 165 pounds, he was small and fast, which the team used to good advantage. During Rockne's three seasons as a player, Notre Dame did not lose—winning twenty games and playing to two ties. The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame outscored its opponents 879-77 during the period. College football games were played during the months of October and November back then, were dominated by rushing plays (running with the football), and featured teams battling head-to-head, yard by yard. Notre Dame's speed and deceptive plays made it difficult to defend. After having been tied twice in 1911, Notre Dame's record was perfect in 1912 (seven wins, no losses, no ties), and it was halfway to another perfect season in 1913. Standing in its way was Army, another football powerhouse.
Notre Dame had a new coach in 1913. His name was Jesse Harper (1884–1961), and unlike his predecessor, John L. Marks, who was successful with the traditional style of football, Harper liked to experiment. He encouraged Rockne, who was the team's captain in 1913, to practice running patterns and having his roommate, quarterback Gus Dorais (1891–1954), throw to him while he was running. During the summer of 1913, they practiced while hanging out at a beach on Lake Michigan. "I'd run along the beach," explained Rockne, "Dorais would throw from all angles. People who didn't know (that) we were two college seniors making painstaking preparations for our final season probably thought we were crazy."
Early in the game against Army, which was playing out as a typical bruising football game, Rockne faked a limp as he went to his end position. When the next play started, Rockne began running downfield, past Army defenders, and Dorais tossed the football to him in full stride, resulting in a long touchdown and six points. "Everybody seemed astonished," said Rockne, afterward. "There had been no hurdling, no tackling, no plunging, no crushing…. Just a long distance touchdown by rapid transit."
Caught off guard by Notre Dame's ability to pass the football, Army changed its strategy and began defending against the pass. Notre Dame ran the football, instead, with great success. When Army changed back to defending against the run, Notre Dame passed. The result was a stunning 35-13 victory for Notre Dame. Football historians agree that Notre Dame's ability to pass the football effectively changed the game of football forever, as the passing game became more important. Notre Dame went on to an undefeated, championship season.
After he graduated in 1914, Rockne applied to the medical school of Saint Louis University. His admission was denied because of his intention to coach football while studying medicine, which was considered unrealistic by medical school officials. Instead, Rockne was hired by Notre Dame as a chemistry instructor, head track coach, and assistant football coach. He married Bonnie Gwendoline Skiles on July 15, 1914. They would have four children.
Rockne was an assistant football coach under Jesse Harper from the 1914 through 1917 seasons. Notre Dame continued to be successful, but it no longer had the surprise passing game it enjoyed in 1913. Both Army and Yale defeated Notre Dame in 1914. When Harper retired in 1918, Rockne became head football coach. With the United States involved in World War I (1914–18), Notre Dame played only six games that year. In 1919, the war was over and the Rockne coaching legend truly began. The team won all nine games that year, outscoring its opponents 229-47.
Under Rockne's leadership, Notre Dame began developing and showcasing colorful players who had a national following through reports in the press. The first of those players, George Gipp (1895–1920), was convinced to play football by Rockne when he was still an assistant coach. On a campus athletic field one day, he observed Gipp drop-kicking a football up to 70 yards. (The dropkick involves a player taking a few steps for momentum, dropping the ball, and then kicking the ball immediately after it hits the ground. Since footballs were rounder before World War II [1939–45], a player could kick the ball higher and farther by using the dropkick.) Rockne encouraged Gipp, who had come to Notre Dame in 1916 to play baseball and had never played organized football, to try out for the team. By the time Gipp hit the field in a Notre Dame uniform, he could do it all—run, pass, kick, and play on defense. He was named the outstanding college player in America in 1920.
Gipp was fun-loving and broke team rules. In his first college game, for example, Gipp was supposed to punt the ball to the other team, but instead he drop-kicked the ball and turned the play into a sixty-two-yard field goal, a record then and still one of the longest in football history. The three points from the field goal proved to be the margin of victory. Gipp was so popular that Notre Dame's next-to-last game in the 1920 season, his final year of college eligibility, was designated George Gipp Day. But Gipp was ill with fever resulting from a throat infection. He did not play for three quarters on George Gipp Day, and the crowd became increasingly loud, demanding that he play. He entered the game in the fourth quarter and threw two long touchdown passes.
When a mediocre Notre Dame team was trying to salvage a losing season in 1928 by defeating football powerhouse Army, Rockne gave his famous locker-room speech. The team knew of George Gipp's accomplishments, but Rockne told them something they did not know: that on his deathbed, Gipp said to Rockne, "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." Whether or not Gipp actually said those words is subject to debate. But the deathbed scene and the words spoken by Gipp made for a great scene in a movie.
Gipp's days were numbered. His illness turned into pneumonia, and he died on December 14, 1920, less than three weeks after Notre Dame had completed an undefeated season. Rockne would later recall to his 1928 Notre Dame team an exchange he had with his star player while Gipp was on his deathbed. That mediocre 1928 team was trying to salvage a winning season by defeating football powerhouse Army, when Rockne gave his famous locker-room speech. The 4–4 Notre Dame was playing Army in front of more than seventy thousand fans in New York's Yankee Stadium. To motivate his team, Rockne told them about Gipp on his deathbed, and Rockne implored the team to "Win one for the Gipper." The inspired Notre Dame squad went on to defeat Army, 12-6. The deathbed scene and Rockne's speech were recreated in the movie Knute Rockne: All American. Gipp was played by a young actor named Ronald Reagan (1911–), who would later become president of the United States. Although Reagan preferred "Dutch" as his nickname, he was fondly called "the Gipper" by his supporters.
Notre Dame posted a 10-1 record in 1921 featuring three stars: Jim Crowley (1902–1986) at left halfback, Don Miller (c. 1902–1972) at right halfback, and Harry Stuhldreher (1901–1965) at quarterback. In 1922, Rockne added Elmer Layden (1903–1973) at fullback. Small and quick, the four became one of the greatest back-fields in college football history. They played as a unit, carrying out Rockne's increasingly sophisticated strategies for surprising opponents. They were popular and became nationally renowned after being nicknamed "The Four Horsemen" by sportswriter Grantland Rice (1880–1954). To complement the Four Horsemen, the hardworking linemen in front of them were nicknamed the Seven Mules.
The Four Horsemen
Notre Dame, located in South Bend, Indiana, became a nationally popular team in part because of colorful players, some of whom inspired sportswriters. After Notre Dame defeated Army on October 18, 1924, Grantland Rice, one of the best known sportswriters of the day, wrote a memorable story about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in 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, Crowley 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.
Notre Dame not only continued to win, but it drew ever larger crowds. Rockne was the first football coach to play a national schedule. Total attendance for Notre Dame games in 1921 was over one hundred thousand, but by the end of the 1924 season, it had played in front of over three hundred thousand spectators. The 1924 team was undefeated in nine regular season games and outscored its opponents, 258-44. Notre Dame was invited to play in the Rose Bowl game, held on New Year's Day, 1925, against Stanford University, coached by football great Pop Warner (1871–1954). Notre Dame won 27-10. Beginning in 1927, Notre Dame played an annual game at Soldier's Field in Chicago that alone drew over one hundred thousand fans.
In 1928, Notre Dame played in front of more than four hundred thousand fans, despite a mediocre 5-4 record. That was Rockne's worst record as a coach, but he quickly turned things around. Notre Dame went undefeated in each of Rockne's final two seasons. It won all nine games in 1929, and all of them were played away from the Notre Dame campus because a new football stadium was under construction. In 1930, Notre Dame won all ten games, including a 7-6 thriller over Army before over one hundred thousand fans at Soldier's Field.
Dies at forty-three
Rockne was a colorful man—an excellent speaker who spent much of the off-season touring the country. He was popular with the press and with fans, who enjoyed Notre Dame's exciting offensive play and the football heroes on the team. Rockne promoted his team and his sport in new media of the time, including radio and motion pictures. He conducted summer schools for football coaches, went on tour in Europe, and in 1928 he worked briefly as a sales promotion manager with the Studebaker Corporation, a major automobile manufacturer of the era. He published a nonfiction book, Coaching (1925), and a novel, The Four Winners (1925).
In 1926, he wrote an article for Popular Mechanics titled, "How to Be a Football Star." The most important requirements, wrote Rockne, are "brains, courage, self-restraint, co-ordination, fire of nervous energy and an unselfish point of view. Of course, he must have a bit of speed and a bit of physique, but then these things are taken for granted." The key was hard work. "It is so much pleasanter," wrote Rockne, "to go out and play a game than to spend hours working over tackling, running, signals and other drill points. Without the training, however, there can't be much success in the playing."
The nonstop activity eventually took its toll when Rockne suffered a serious breakdown in 1929. He bounced back by coaching a national championship in 1930 and began to tour again. He was on his way to California for a meeting about a motion picture when the airplane he was flying in crashed in southeastern Kansas on March 31, 1931. He was buried at Notre Dame.
Rockne had made a tremendous and lasting impression on football. Notre Dame, which had been a small college with a little over one hundred students, became a football legend. By 1931, ninety of Rockne's former players had become college coaches, and fifty would become head coaches.
For More Information
Robinson, Ray. Rockne of Notre Dame: The Making of a Football Legend. New York: Oxford Press, 1999.
Rockne, Bonnie Skiles, ed. The Autobiography of Knute K. Rockne. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1931.
Steele, Michael R. Knute Rockne: A Portrait of a Notre Dame Legend. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing, 1999.
Chowder, Ken. "When Notre Dame Needed Inspiration, Rockne Provided It." Smithsonian (November 1993): pp. 164–77.
Seelhorst, Mary. "Knute Rockne." Popular Mechanics (November 2003): pp. 46–47.
"Notre Dame Football Memories: Knute Rockne." Notre Dame. Official Athletic Site.http://und.ocsn.com/trads/rockne.html (accessed on March 23, 2004).
Official Knute Rockne Web Site.http://www.cmgww.com/football/rockne/index.html (accessed on March 23, 2004).
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 it—and his team—to 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-pleasers—and so effective in eliminating opponents—that 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 season—the first in which Notre Dame finished with a national championship title—Rockne 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 Willingham—the first African-American to hold the job at the school—took to wearing t-shirts emblazoned with one of Rockne's famous phrases, "Return to Glory."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY ROCKNE:
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|
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.
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).
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. □