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Coles Phinizy
September 10, 1979
Fact: the real Knute Rockne was the most successful of football coaches. Fancy: the Rockne of books and film was largely myth
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September 10, 1979

We Know Of Knute, Yet Know Him Not

Fact: the real Knute Rockne was the most successful of football coaches. Fancy: the Rockne of books and film was largely myth

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It is true that Fred (Cy) Williams, the Phillies' long-ball hero of the '20s, did play football with Rockne—in 1910, the year Rockne says he himself was not good enough to make the squad. But Williams could not have tried out in 1913 nor been barred from doing so by the baseball coach for three reasons: 1) he finished at Notre Dame in 1912; 2) he was the Notre Dame baseball coach in 1913; and 3) he had already played with the Chicago Cubs, and therefore had lost his amateur eligibility.

When Rockne's literary excesses are pointed out to his former players, they tend to dismiss them with a knowing smile as they recall what a ham their coach could be. James (Sleepy Jim) Crowley, the left half of the Four Horsemen quartet, an able coach and a wag in his own right, recalls, "We used to love to go to practice because Rock was such a character. His pep talks depended on the importance of the game. I only recall his giving a few.

"One involved a telegram from his little boy, Billy, before the Georgia Tech game in 1922. Rockne probably sent the wire himself. He came into the locker room with a bunch of telegrams from prominent alumni and said to us, 'I have one wire here, boys, that probably doesn't mean much to you, but it does to me. It's from my poor sick little boy, Billy, who is critically ill in the hospital.'

"Rock was a great actor," Crowley adds as he remembers the moment. "He got a lump in his throat and his lips began to tremble as he read Billy's wire: 'I want Daddy's team to win.' We won the 1922 Georgia Tech game for Billy, and when we got home we found out that Billy hadn't been sick at all. There was a big crowd to meet us at the station, and running around in front of everyone was 'sick' little Billy Rockne, looking healthy enough for a Pet Milk ad.

"When Rock played Southern Cal at Soldier Field in '29—while the Notre Dame stadium was being built—his team was the underdog," Crowley continues. "As he was walking from the hotel to the field with Joe Byrne, an alumnus who was considered the Eastern representative of Notre Dame, Rock says, 'We're going to lose today; the team has been lethargic all week. Only way to win is if I could think of something that would give the boys an emotional lift. I've racked my brain; I didn't sleep a wink last night.' Joe Byrne, who had a little deviltry in his heart, suggested, 'Why don't you tell the boys you are receiving such vitriolic letters from alumni that you can't take it any longer, and that you are resigning and would like to go out a winner?'

"So in the dressing room, Rock says, 'Boys, I am getting this pressure from the alumni. My wife Bonnie can't take it any longer, and my children are being ridiculed at school. I am resigning. Please let me go out a winner. So go out there and win, WIN!' While Rock is saying all that, over in a corner of the room Joe Byrne, the archfiend of the diabolical plot, is shedding crocodile tears. When Byrne bends over, reaching for a handkerchief to dry his eyes, a pint of Johnnie Walker Black Label slips out of his pocket and smashes on the floor.

"Notre Dame beat Southern Cal, and on the walk back to the hotel Byrne asks Rockne what he will tell his boys when he sees them at practice next Monday. 'What do you mean, what will I tell them?' Rock says, 'I am resigning unless I get a letter of apology from the alumni.' Rock gave such a good talk before that game," Crowley concludes, "that he even convinced himself."

In an article titled "Psychology in Football," Rockne blithely confessed that he used a bogus telegram from little Billy to fire up the 1922 team, and he also admitted that three years later, when Notre Dame trailed Northwestern 10-0 at half-time, he quit as coach in order to goad his players into a 13-10 win. "It was really a great comeback," Rockne observed by way of justifying his fraud. "However, it was the first and last time I did anything like it." (Not so. According to a variety of sources, Rockne "quit" at least three times in his coaching career.)

When it came to weeping over the team's chances, wringing hands and prophesying defeat week after week, one of Rockne's prot�g�s, Frank Leahy, is generally considered to have been without equal. Actually, because he was more likable than Leahy and wept less, Rockne was more convincing as a dispenser of pregame gloom. The premier example came in his last season. Seven days before Carnegie Tech and the Irish met in 1930, The New York Times reported glowingly that Notre Dame, which had been the undefeated national champion in 1929, had its "usual wealth of material." Then, only three days before the game, the Times related, "After watching his Notre Dame regulars vainly attempt to stop Carnegie Tech plays in scrimmage today, Knute Rockne tossed up his hands in despair and predicted the Tartans would win by 'eight or nine touchdowns.' " One day later, having heard from the Rock himself, the Times said, "If the Notre Dame team loses, the result cannot in any sense be termed an upset." Rockne was so convincing in his pessimism that by kickoff time Carnegie Tech was favored over undefeated Notre Dame. The next day the Times' headline above its account of the game read: NOTRE DAME UPSETS CARNEGIE TECH 21-6.

In the 1920s, football practice at Notre Dame started every weekday afternoon at about 3:30, when Rockne would call out in his metallic voice, "Everybody up." Then, for one and a half or two hours, the boys would get a lot of sweaty truth and little champagne from the battered old oil can. Until his later years—particularly the last two when he suffered greatly from phlebitis—Rockne often went one-on-one with his boys when they practiced tackling and blocking, the touchstones of his success.

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