Knute Rockne: The Father of Notre Dame Football
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is one of preeminence among the football teams in the United States. It is one of the oldest programs and one known for its coaches. Even those who do not follow or care for Notre Dame Football probably have heard the names Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, and Dan Devine; however, the most prominent of the Fighting Irish football coaches was Knute Rockne. His avant-garde innovations of the game, his campaign to build Notre Dame Stadium, and his addition to game-day traditions helped to make college football one of the most popular sports in the United States.
The legendary football coach was born Knute Kenneth Rockne on March 4, 1888 in Voss, Norway. When he was five years old, he and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois where he became fascinated with football. In 1910, he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. He tried out for the football team, but his small stature prevented him from earning a spot on the roster. During his sophomore year, Notre Dame hired a new football coach, Jesse Harper, under whom Rockne made the team and played for three years (Gustainis).
Jesse Harper noticed Rockne’s intelligence and love of the game, so when Rockne graduated in 1914, he was immediately hired as an assistant coach to the football team. Harper gave him this job for selfless reasons as well—Rockne wanted to pursue the medical field, and his coaching job was to pay his tuition, but the college where he would study medicine would not take him if he was working as a coach. He went back to Notre Dame and was hired by the University to teach undergraduate chemistry (Brondfield 71-72).
In 1918, Rockne took over Harper’s position as head coach and athletic director for a $5,000 annual salary (Brondfield 81). During his four years as assistant coach and thirteen years as head coach, Rockne made countless contributions to the strategy and technique of football. His most important contributions that are still used in football today include the forward pass, offensive and defensive line shifts, the correct way to catch the ball, trick plays, and usage of media (Cavanaugh 255-261).
The forward pass is the technique used when, instead of handing off the ball to a running-back, the quarterback waits until a receiver is downfield to catch the pass. He then throws the ball multiple yards to gain maximum play increase. This play, invented in 1905, was not commonly used until Rockne figured out how to utilize it. He first used it against Army in a game that Notre Dame won 35-13. Rockne claimed that the play was not used to achieve victory; rather, it was used to “scatter the opposing line and backfield opposition” which made rushing an easier play (Cavanaugh 256). The forward pass is now very often seen in football games at high school, college, and professional levels.
The shift, used by both the offense and defense, is when players move around to adapt to the opposing team’s line before the ball is snapped. It helps to gain maximum advantage and deception over the opposition. Just as the forward pass, Rockne did not invent the play; in fact, Rockne credits the play creation to Coach Stagg of the Chicago Bears (Cavanaugh 257). In 1921, Rockne had his team use the shift against Army (a game they won 28-0). Charley Daly, the West Point coach complained to the referee, but since there were neither rules for nor against the shift, the play was not penalized. However, Rockne promised Daly that he would not use the move again for the duration of that game (Brondfield 113-114).
Rockne’s greatest contribution, however, may have been changing football from a game of size to a game of skill and agility. His personal experience with rejection because of size made him want to help smaller men play the game they loved. He needed smaller men to run fast and to be able to catch the ball. One of Rockne’s linemen for the South Bend Silver Edge Team stated, “Rockne looked for speed, quickness, and guts in his players. Most coaches in those days were impressed with size and went for big men” (Sperber 58). Without quick-footed and quick-thinking players, his forward pass would be useless making the shift a pointless move as well.
Rockne also had to teach his receivers to catch the ball the right way—with stiff, cradling arms rather than letting the ball bounce off the chest—and he used them for trick plays (Cavanaugh 255). These trick plays are still used and can fool the opposition, fans, and commentators. A fake hand-off to an alternate rusher could allow the running-back with the ball to run it all the way down the field for a touchdown. A fake punt could allow for a rush. The trick plays allowed for the deception Rockne was looking for and helped to make football a game of deep thought and knowledge in addition to size and power (Cavanaugh 258).
Another technique Rockne used to develop college football’s fame was not actually used on the field. Rockne understood how he could use the media to his advantage. At that point in time, many coaches were reluctant to give interviews or allow photographers on their fields—not Rockne. He welcomed interviews, photos, and film all onto his football field. With the increasing coverage of his football games, Notre Dame’s fame skyrocketed—fans were gained nation-wide and more people began watching football (Krause and Singular 24-25).
With football’s rising popularity, attendance at the games subsequently rose. To accommodate more fans, a larger stadium was needed. This made Rockne begin his campaign to build Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish had been using Cartier Field (which is still used as the outdoor practice field to this day) and Soldier Field in Chicago for their games with larger attendance, but this caused many scheduling problems. Rockne’s solution was simple. He suggested that Notre Dame begin charging $5 a ticket and they would soon have money to build a stadium (Sperber 88-89).
The 1927 football season gained a $331,454 profit lifting them to their $800,000 goal—enough to begin the construction of the new stadium. Notre Dame Stadium would be the biggest stadium at that time, seating over 50,000 people. Most football stadiums at that time used school financing, which was quite problematic during the Great Depression; however, Rockne’s original idea of self-financing proved to be successful during this time because it took no extra money from the University (Sperber 268-271). A nickname for Notre Dame Stadium often heard today is “The House That Rockne Built.”
Many game-day traditions, legends, and myths were established under Rockne’s reign as Athletic Director at Notre Dame. Many of these are still very much a part of the Notre Dame community. The “Win One for the Gipper” speech, the Four Horsemen, and Notre Dame’s biggest rivalries were all established under Knute’s watch at the school.
On November 23, 1920 George Gipp, Rockne’s star player whom Rockne had recruited himself, entered the hospital because of a high fever and sore throat. After three weeks in the hospital, he died of pneumonia (Chelland 184, 192). Before his death, he whispered to Rockne these famous last words:
I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Sometime, Rock, when the team’s 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 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. (qtd. in Rockne 236)
Rockne proceeded to give the speech to his 1928 team when they were playing against Army. “These lads on that 1928 team had never met Gipp—had never seen him. But Gipp is a legend in Notre Dame. Every football writer at that half time said that Notre Dame would be beaten badly….But the boys came out for the second half exalted, inspired, overpowering. They won. As Chevigny slashed through for the winning touchdown he said, ‘That’s one for the Gipper!’” (Rockne 236)
In 1924, George Strickler, a Notre Dame student publicist, wanted a simple picture of Rockne’s successful backfield line-up. These four men, Harry Struhldreher, Don Miller, Jimmy Crowley, and Elmer Layden, were asked to each sport their uniforms and a football while mounted on a horse. Rockne had originally been reluctant to let his backfield pose on horses for fear of them being injured, but he allowed the photo. The photo of the Four Horsemen became very famous, still remains famous, and gave the 1924 team a reputation of being powerful and undefeatable (Brondfield 121-123).
The Notre Dame rivalries are some of the most attended games in college football. One of its oldest rivalries is against the West Point Cadets, more commonly called simply “Army.” In fact, the games against Army hosted some of the most memorable events in Notre Dame History. However, its most played (and often considered contentious) rivalry is with the University of Southern California.
The idea of a Midwestern school playing a West Coast school in the 1920s was pretty far-fetched. No one had done it before, and it would require hours of travel by one or both teams and it would cost a lot of money. In 1923, Notre Dame Alumni living on the West Coast urged Coach Rockne to bring the Fighting Irish to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to play the USC Trojans. Rockne was not opposed to this idea; on the other hand, the faculty at the University was because they did not want to lose money for their own programs (Sperber 139).
In 1926, football history was made. Notre Dame was finally granted permission to travel to the West Coast to play would-be future rival USC. Notre Dame won the first game played in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a score of 13-12. It was also the most profitable game to that date for Notre Dame bringing in $75,619. This would lead the University to have the Irish play the Trojans the next year and every year for 80 years after that, only with the exception of 1943, 1944, and 1945 due to World War II (Sperber 221-222).
After such a productive and too-short career at Notre Dame, tragedy struck on March 31, 1931. While Rockne was on a on a promotion tour, his flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles crashed in Bazaar, Kansas. Thousands of calls were made to the University and Chicago newspapers trying to confirm his death. The news was shocking. His funeral was held in South Bend, to which thousands attended—a testament to the great number of lives Rockne touched (Cavanaugh 239-241).
From building a nearly nonexistent football program to one of the greatest in the United States to inspiring fans, athletes, and coaches, Knute Rockne definitely carved his name in gridiron history with an iron pen. His innovations, construction campaigns, and addition to tradition were just leaves on the tree of his contribution to football. Even though neither Rockne nor his players or associates are still with us, the program he raised from the ground up lives on with the game it plays.
Brondfield, Jerry. Rockne: The Coach, The Man, the Legend. First ed. New York: Random House, 1976. Print.
Cavanaugh C.S.C., John, and Knute K. Rockne. The Autobiography of Knute K. Rockne. First ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1931. Print.
Chelland, Patrick. One For the Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and Notre Dame. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1973. Print.
Gustainis, Justin. "Rockne, Knute (1888-1931)." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 4. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 243-
Krause, Moose, and Stephen Singular. Notre Dame’s Greatest Coaches. New York: Pocket Books, 1993. Print.
Sperber, Murray. Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football. First ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993. Print.
**Note: I do personally recommend "Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football" by Murray Sperber. It was a very interesting book. It's worth the purchase.