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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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Nov. 1, 1913 was an unforgettable day on the Plains of West Point. With seconds left in a scoreless game against Army, Notre Dame had the ball near midfield. On fourth and eight, Irish Quarterback Knute Rockne dropped back to pass. His primary receiver, Left End Gus Dorais, was double-covered. Downfield, Halfback George Gipp was clear but unnoticed by Rockne, who was retreating before the onrushing Cadets. Rockne circled to his right, dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it on the bounce toward the Army goal 62 yards away. The ball traveled in a very flat trajectory, one so low the ball would surely have fallen short if it had not struck Gipp on the helmet and caromed over the crossbar as the gun sounded. In the press box, caught up in the drama of it all, sportscaster Grantland Rice shouted, "There's one off the Gipper!" thereby coining a phrase that has rung down through the years.

Any quiz-kid scholar of gridiron rules will instantly spot a serious error in the foregoing account: in 1913 a drop-kicked field goal did not count if the ball ricocheted off a player. And any casual devotee of football trivia will find other glaring discrepancies. Knute Rockne played fullback and left end at Notre Dame, never quarterback. His teammate Gus Dorais was the quarterback who did the drop-kicking. George Gipp, the most celebrated of the 96 All-Americas who have come from Notre Dame, did not play with Rockne and Dorais but for them in their coaching days. It was Gipp, not Rockne or Dorais, who, in an obvious punting situation, once foxed the opposition and his own team by drop-kicking a 62-yard field goal.

To distort the truth about old Notre Dame heroes so extravagantly may seem irreverent, but in the case of Rockne there is ample precedent. In the 48 years since he died, the legend of Rockne has been so heavily laced with fiction and mawkish exaggeration that at this point to adhere strictly to facts might seem to dishonor him.

Knute Kenneth Rockne was a multi-faceted genius of the sort that defies easy cataloguing. He was worldly yet homespun. He was a rah-rah team man who felt at home with screwballs and loners. As both football coach and chemistry instructor, he was a fundamentalist with a revolutionary flair. He was a brainy, nit-picking perfectionist with the broad appeal of a circus clown. He was quite a man, but not quite the man legend would have him.

Rockne was born in Voss, Norway on March 4, 1888. He died 43 years later in a plane crash near Bazaar, Kans. The last 21 years of his short life were devoted in large part to football and his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame du Lac. Before completing his secondary education in Chicago, he worked as a clerk and dispatcher for the Chicago Post Office. Convinced after four years that the "temple of loafing" (as he described the Post Office) was a dead end where merit meant nothing, in 1910 Rockne, who still did not have a high school diploma, took exams for admission to Notre Dame.

In his undergraduate years, 1910-14, Rockne was an all-arounder. He wrote for the college weekly, The Notre Dame Scholastic, and was an editor of the annual, The Dome. He played the flute vigorously in concerts and at informal get-togethers. In a boyhood free-for-all in Chicago, he was once swatted so solidly across the face with a baseball bat that when he entered Notre Dame as a balding 22-year-old he looked like a club fighter. Despite his pug features, in campus theatricals he occasionally played the parts of femmes who were almost fatales. He was a very good student and a versatile athlete—a combination so commonplace in that more innocent time that it was scarcely remarked upon. On the way to a degree in chemistry, he averaged 92.4% in 31 full-and part-time courses, and while carrying that load, he also audited lectures in other courses.

In the winter and spring, Rockne won points for Notre Dame as a sprinter, quarter-miler, long jumper, shotputter and pole vaulter, setting indoor and outdoor university records in the vault that lasted 15 years. During his football playing days, Notre Dame drubbed inferior rivals by scores as lopsided as 116-7 and toppled such giants as Pitt and Army while winning 24 games, losing one and tying three. In the next four seasons, during which Rockne assisted Coach Jesse Harper, Notre Dame's record was 27 wins, five losses, one tie. In Rockne's 13 years as head coach—1918-30—his teams won 105, lost 12 and tied five, for a won-lost percentage of .881, which is still the major-college record.

Upon graduating in 1914, Rockne had intended to study medicine at St. Louis University, while coaching on the side to pay his way. When St. Louis insisted that the football job would not be compatible with a med student's work load, Rockne returned to Notre Dame. He could easily have gotten a position exclusively as a chemistry instructor under Dr. Julius Nieuwland, a pioneer in the development of synthetic rubber. Rockne elected instead to go several ways at once. While teaching, he also served as track coach and assisted Harper in football.

Had he gone into medicine or stayed with chemistry and never again set foot on an athletic field, Rockne would still be remembered for his role in one football game. There truly was an unforgettable Notre Dame-Army game on the Plains of West Point in 1913. On that afternoon, little-known Notre Dame, a denominational institution with 470 undergraduates, whomped Army, an established Eastern power, 35-13. It was more than a lopsided upset, more than a portent that dominance of the sport was moving west; it was the first game of modern football—a good 15 years ahead of its time. The mastermind of that revolution was Harper, a dry-looking Midwesterner who, despite thin-rimmed specs that gave him a professorial air, had more winning ways than a snake-oil salesman. The star on the field that day was the quarterback, Dorais. He was supported by four other heroes: Fullback Ray Eichenlaub, Right Halfback Joe Pliska and the ends, Rockne and Fred Gushurst. Seventeen times Dorais dropped back and spiraled the ball 10, 20, 30 yards and more to his receivers. With each pass he was, in effect, propelling the game farther into the 20th century.

Major-college quarterbacks now average 20 passes a game and complete 48% of them for 128 yards. Dorais was a 5'7" 145-pounder with hands of ordinary size; yet while throwing a football almost one and a half inches fatter than today's, he completed 13 of his 17 attempts for 243 yards. Such a performance would still be impressive. In 1913 it was incredible. Harry Cross of The New York Times reported with understandable hyperbole, "The yellow leather egg was in the air half the time, with the Notre Dame team spread out in all directions over the field waiting for it. The Army players were hopelessly confused and chagrined before Notre Dame's great playing, and their style of old-fashioned, close, line-smashing play was no match for the spectacular and highly perfected attack of the Indiana collegians. All five of Notre Dame's touchdowns were the result of forward passes."

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