Knute Rockne, college football legend

Nordmenn of American football

Knute Rockne

Photo: PerPlex / Wikimedia Commons
Knute Rockne bronze statue sculpture by Jerry McKenna, unveiled in Voss, Norway, March 31, 2006, the 75th anniversary of Rockne’s death.

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

There is a statue of Knute Rockne in his hometown of Voss, the stone indicating simply “he left Norway as a small boy and became a pioneer and all-time great in American football as a player and coach at University of Notre Dame.” A stone can only say so much.

Rockne was born March 4, 1888, and crammed much into his 43 years: winningest college football coach, innovator, author, ghostwriter, chemistry teacher, stockbroker, husband, father of four children—and was often recognized for it: with his image on a stamp (1988), a car (1931-33) and ship named after him (1943), two movies made about Notre Dame, induction into the College Football Hall of Fame (1951), and to the Scandinavian Hall of Fame (1988).

The family arrived in Chicago in 1893 when Knute was 5. He was immediately enthralled with American sports. At 7, he purportedly told his father: “Poppa, don’t talk Norwegian, talk American. We’re all Americans now, especially me. I’m left end.”

In his senior year in high school, Rockne played football and baseball, ran track, and was a pole vaulter. He dreamed of attending the University of Illinois and becoming a pharmacist, but couldn’t afford the tuition. He worked for the postal service for four years. Two friends coaxed him to attend Notre Dame, then a small Catholic school in South Bend, Ind. Off the field, he would graduate summa cum laude in chemistry, work on the yearbook, and play flute in the orchestra. On the field and on the sidelines, he would become one of the game’s master innovators.

By 1913, Notre Dame had started playing more college teams and quite successfully. Army was the powerhouse team of the age. The game was still dominated by the run. The idea of pass routes and patterns or quarterbacks throwing overhand had never been used before. On Nov. 1, 1913, quarterback Gus Dorias passed to Rockne in stride and downfield for scores as Notre Dame upset Army, 35-13—and football was changed forever. The conversation between Rockne and Coach Jesse Harper is alleged to have been:

Rockne: “Coach, let us use the forward pass, I know it’ll work.”

Harper: “I’m not so sure. We’ve never seen it in a game.”

Rockne: “Neither has the Army; what can we lose?”

Upon graduation, Rockne was hired as assistant football coach, head track coach, and chemistry professor. In 1918, he was named head football coach. Over the next 13 years, he would accrue the highest collegiate winning percentage of .881—a record that still stands—with 105 wins, 12 losses, and five ties; win three national championships; and compile five undefeated seasons. He would author Coaching: The Way of the Winner, and a novel, The Four Winners: The Head, The Hands, The Foot, The Ball.

His first teams were led by Leonard Bahan, Curly Lambeau, and receiver George Gipp. The 1919 team went undefeated and won the national championship. Gipp was Notre Dame’s first All-American in 1920 but died two weeks later on Dec. 14, 1920. With Rockne at his bedside, Gipp is believed to have told his coach to win one for the Gipper.

Knute Rockne

Photo: Bain Collection / Wikimedia Commons
Knute Rockne on a ship’s deck.

Eight years later, Notre Dame was trailing undefeated Army at halftime, when Rockne delivered the pep talk immortalized in the 1940 movie, Knute Rockne, All-American, with Pat O’Brien as Rockne, and Ronald Reagan as Gipp. “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 going 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.” The Fighting Irish returned to the field and upset Army 12-6.

Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice said the 1921 team “was the first team … to build its attack around a forward passing game, rather than use a forward passing game as a mere aid to the running game.” In 1924, Rockne invented a four-man backfield, quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, halfbacks Don Miller and Jim Crowley, and fullback Elmer Layden, who became known as “The Four Horseman.” The undefeated Irish won the national title, beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

Back-to-back national championships occurred in 1929-30. All four players in the backfield were named All-Americans in 1930, the only time it has ever happened. His “Notre Dame Shift” had all backfield players move to one side of the ball before it was snapped. His other legacies were traveling around the country for games; designing the Irish’s equipment and uniforms—reducing the bulk and weight while improving the protection—and being the main designer for Notre Dame Stadium. Thirty of his players went on to become coaches.

Rockne’s last game was on Dec. 14, 1930, coaching past Notre Dame all-stars against the New York Giants before 50,000 fans in New York City to raise money for the Mayor’s Relief Committee for the unemployed and needy of New York.

Among his adages:

“We can all be geniuses, because one definition of genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains. Perfection in petty detail is most essential.”

“Practice, Practice, Practice! Practice makes perfect and perfect practice makes a winning team.”

“Build up your weaknesses until they become your strong points.”

“The secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my 11 best, but my best 11.”

On March 31, 1931, Rockne, 43, was killed in a plane crash en route to assisting the production of a film, The Spirit of Notre Dame. A memorial marks the spot of the crash in Kansas. President Hoover and King Haakon VII of Norway sent condolences to his widow. Children in a town in Texas voted to name the town Rockne. Editorials extolled the story of the immigrant boy who became a beloved American.

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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