Knute (pronounced "noot") Kenneth Rockne (March 4, 1888 – March 31, 1931) was an American football player and is regarded by many as the most famous college football coach in history. Rockne is not only remembered as the most successful and dominant, but one of the most innovative and charismatic coaches of his era. He was the first football coach to initiate inter-sectional rivalries and build a national schedule. He is well known for coaching the most dazzling, dramatic, idolized athlete of all time, George "Gipper" Gipp. Rockne's famous, "Win one for the Gipper" speech is one of his more known and lasting legacies in the lore of college football.
Rockne was born Knute Rokne in Voss, Norway, and emigrated while still a child to Chicago, Illinois, U.S. Gifted athletically, Knute ran or vaulted for exercise, and worked for four years at the post office to support himself financially. He then entered Notre Dame University, where he not only impressed with his physical prowess, but also with his brilliant mind. He was the laboratory assistant to Julius Arthur Nieuwland at Notre Dame, but rejected further work in chemistry after receiving an offer to coach football.
Rockne put his stamp on the world by first surprising the number one ranked Army team—who had invited Notre Dame to play because of an opening in their schedule—as he scored the first touchdown en route to a major upset. His theory of forward-passing spread rapidly thereafter.
Following his graduation, Knute married Bonnie Skiles, and had two children: Bill and Knute Jr. Soon thereafter, 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 percentage of .897, that is, we won nearly 90 percent of the games he coached. He produced five unbeaten and untied teams.
As head coach of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, from 1918–1930, he set the greatest all-time winning percentage of 88.1 percent. During 13 years as head coach, he oversaw 105 victories, 12 losses, five ties, and six national championships, including five undefeated seasons. His players included George "Gipper" Gipp and the "Four Horsemen" (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden), and Frank Leahy. No other coach has even come close to these legendary achievements, and in the modern day, will probably never come close to shattering these marks. His twenty-five commandments shed light on Rockne's own character:
While there are myriads of coaches who are blessed with talented players in any sport, and thus, have amazing runs and coaching careers (for example, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, etc.), few coaches have made their presence felt like legendary Knute Rockne, football player and coach of Notre Dame University.
Rockne made football worth watching for the individual spectator. Before the 1920s, football formations characteristically featured crowded player movements, very much like rugby. The game of football emphasized brute force over finesse. "Rockne opened up the game by instituting his famous "box formation" and a system that emphasized speed and deception rather than brute force. His "smart football" plays were designed for long, game-breaking and crowd-pleasing touchdowns rather than the standard slow, grinding, three-yard power plays. As a result, slighter, quicker athletes were necessary for the Notre Dame "shift," a carefully choreographed movement of players designed to spread the offense and defense. The shift worked so well that the rules committee of the Coaches Association twice tried to have it banned. In modern day, it is definitely entertaining to see players plow through other players to score touchdowns; however, without the finesse of interceptions, running plays, Hail Mary passes, etc., that distinctly carry Rockne's influence, football would not be what it is today.
Knute's vision of football based on finesse bore fruit in 1922, when Rockne assembled the "Four Horsemen"—named after the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—which included Elmer Layden at fullback, Jim Crowley at left halfback, Don Miller at right halfback, and Harry Stuhldreher at quarterback. Though small and light, averaging 158.5 pounds, this backfield was one of the greatest in college football history. Rockne employed the idea of "team ball." Instead of playing individual stat-stuffers, Rockne focused on assembling a fine-tuned unit that could put individual ambition aside and aspire for team glory. "The Notre Dame backfield became known as the Four Horsemen, so-named in sportswriter Grantland Rice's famous description: 'Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.' To complement the Four Horsemen and perhaps to emphasize their crucial but less glamorous function, the Notre Dame linemen were nicknamed the Seven Mules." In nine regular season games, the 1924 team won convincingly en route to an unbeaten season, which was capped off with a victory (27-10) over Pop Warner's Stanford team.
This speech is weaved in with Notre Dame folklore. George Gipp, one of the most famous players to wear a Fighting Irish uniform, was lying on his death bed when his last visitor, his coach, Knute Rockne, entered the hospital room. It is said that Gipp urged Rockne to "win just one for the Gipper."
During halftime of the following game, Rockne made a famous, often fictionalized and dramatized speech, to rally his team to a 12-6 victory over a tough Army team. The speech has become a staple of American sports culture.
Rockne died in a plane crash in Kansas, while en route to participate in the production of the film The Spirit of Notre Dame.
Shortly after taking off from Kansas City, where he had stopped to visit his two sons, Bill and Knute Jr., who were in boarding school there at the Pembroke-Country Day School, one of the aircraft's wings separated in flight. Authorities and aviation journalists at first speculated that the plane came apart after penetrating a thunderstorm and experiencing strong turbulence and icing, which, it was suspected, blocked the venturi tube that provided suction to drive the flight instruments. That was thought to have resulted in a graveyard spiral under instrument flight conditions and structural failure from excessive load. But this hypothesis was not backed up by meteorological records and observations; there was no isolated thunderstorm cell or other notable buildup in the area. Also, the failure involved the sturdy wing, not the tail surfaces. A long, thorough and well-publicized investigation concluded that the Fokker, operated by the newly-formed company TWA, broke up in clear weather due to fatigue cracks in its famous cantilever-stressed plywood wing, around the area where one of the engine mounting struts joined.
The Fokker Super Universal fleet was inspected and grounded after similar cracks were found in many other aircraft, ruining the manufacturer's American reputation (the Dutch designer Anthony Fokker was then in business in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey) and resulting in a complete overhaul of standards for new transport aircraft and a competition that eventually resulted in the all-metal Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-2. The Rockne crash dominated the news for some time and was thus a tragic catalyst in the progress of civil aviation. The plane crashed into a wheat field near Bazaar, Kansas, killing a total of eight individuals including Rockne.
On the spot where the plane crashed, a memorial dedicated to the victims stands surrounded by a wire fence with wooden posts. The memorial has been kept up all these years by Easter Heathman, who, at age thirteen in 1931, was one of the first people to arrive at the site of the tragedy.
Rockne was buried in Highland Cemetery in South Bend, and a student gymnasium building on campus is named in his honor, as well as a street in South Bend, and a travel plaza on the Indiana Toll Road. The Matfield Green travel plaza on the Kansas Turnpike, near Bazaar, contains a memorial to him.
The actor Pat O'Brien portrayed Rockne in the 1940 Warner Brothers film, Knute Rockne, All American.
Rockne is one of the coaches credited with popularizing the forward pass. Most football historians agree that a few schools, notably Saint Louis University, Michigan, and Minnesota had passing attacks in place well before Rockne arrived at Notre Dame, but few of the major Eastern teams used the pass. In the summer of 1913, while he was a life guard on the beach at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, Rockne and his college teammate and roommate, Gus Dorais, worked on passing techniques. That fall, Notre Dame upset heavily-favored Army, 35-13, at West Point thanks to a barrage of Dorais-to-Rockne passes. The game played an important role in displaying the potency of the forward pass and "open offense" and convinced many coaches to consider adding a few pass plays to their play books. The game is dramatized in the movie, The Long Grey Line.
In 1988, the United States Postal Service honored Rockne with a postage stamp. President Ronald Reagan, who played George Gipp in the movie, Knute Rockne, All American, gave an address at the Athletic & Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame on March 9, 1988, and officially unveiled the Rockne stamp.
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