SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
September 17, 1979
Was that famed line, attributed to George Gipp, a real deathbed request or just a Rockne ploy?
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September 17, 1979

'win One For The Gipper'

Was that famed line, attributed to George Gipp, a real deathbed request or just a Rockne ploy?

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By January of 1931 Rockne seemed to have recovered fairly well from the phlebitis that troubled him for most of two years. He was busy half a dozen ways. In addition to his work at Notre Dame and as a marketing executive for Studebaker, he was writing a syndicated football column, collaborating on movie shorts, running football clinics and keeping an eye on his investment in a brokerage firm. At the time of his death in a plane crash on March 31, 1931, he was bound for California on Studebaker business and to start a full-length movie on Notre Dame football.

If he had not died, where would Rockne have gone in the years ahead?

Westbound from New England on a train in 1943, Tackle Joe Kurth ran into Rockne's widow, Bonnie. In a club-car chat she told him Knute had planned to coach for a few more years, and then serve Notre Dame only as athletic director. Schwartz remembers on the train back from the Rock's last victory over USC in 1930, he asked Rockne, "How much longer are you going to coach?"

Rockne replied, "When autumn comes and the leaves fall off the trees, I'll be on the football field."

There is little doubt that, no matter how long he might have continued coaching, he would have been a winner. He had a magnificent capacity for adapting and an eye always on tomorrow. However football might change, he would have picked up the latest strategies and used them well. Schwartz recalls that in his freshman year, 1928-29, "there were rumblings that Rock was too old, that the game was ahead of him. He had stayed with the box formation too long, and Notre Dame had better look for a new coach with more zing. Honest to God, that was the thinking in the only season that Rock lost more than two games."

When Schwartz, then a freshman halfback, returned to his home in Mississippi for Christmas, Rockne telephoned him from the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. He was there for a coaches' meeting, but he wanted "to discuss something." Carnegie Tech had beaten Notre Dame that fall with spinner plays, and what Rockne wanted Schwartz to do was spin in his hotel room. "He had some chalk," Schwartz says, "and he drew a yard circle on the rug of his room, and he said, 'I'm worried about the halfback getting the ball and spinning. You practice. I'll be the center.' After an hour of centering the ball to me, Rock was delighted. 'That's it. That's it for next year,' he said. And by God," Schwartz concludes, "we won two national championships, and our best attack to the weak side was with those spinners."

In the '20s, before half of America had a radio or knew the meaning of the word television, Rockne wrote, "There is no question but that within a year or so a man will be able to sit down at home at his radio and not only hear an account of the game but see it by means of television. There is no doubt, too, but that the rapid transit strides made possible by aviation will increase intersectional games, bringing more color into the various college schedules. I don't believe that television will affect the crowds any more than radio does today. There will be some of a certain temperament who will be content to sit at home and get the account by radio television. But the real, dyed-in-the-wool fan will want to be out there in the throng."

If there had never been a Knute Rockne or a game called football, today there still would be a great University of Notre Dame. If Rockne had never gone to Notre Dame or played the game, he would have been a winner somewhere in some way. However, the school, the game and the man happened together. They were what Rockne, educated as a chemist, might have called an ideal stoichiometric mix. By any name they were a trinity well met.

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