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Knute Rockne Biography

Selected Writings By Rockne:, Chronology, Further Information, Awards And Accomplishments


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.

Knute Rockne

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."

Sketch by Carol Brennan

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Famous Sports StarsFootball