On Nov. 10, 1928 Knute Rockne delivered the quintessential pep talk—yes, that one: "The day he died, George Gipp asked me to wait until one day when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, and tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. He said to me, 'Rock, I don't know where I'll be then, but I'll know and I'll be happy.' All right, boys! Let's go get them! This is that game." You might not recall the score of the game (Notre Dame 12, Army 6), but there's no forgetting the Gipper—or the guy who played him in the movie.
Extravagant emotionalism has always had a home in college football. Harvard coach Percy Haughton is said to have strangled a bulldog before the Yale game in 1910. A few years later, in the Eli locker room, T.A.D. Jones uttered the immortal words, "Gentlemen, you are now going out to play football against Harvard. Never in your whole life will you do anything so important."
In 1955, Bear Bryant stood each of his Texas A & M Aggies before a mirror on their way out to play LSU. "Every morning when you shave you'll ask yourself if you gave your best," he told them. The next year he told them they would whip Texas in Austin because "Our mamas and papas are better than their mamas and papas." And then in 1978 Grant Teaff of Baylor went to that bait shop...but more on that later. Most everyone in the game has his favorite story, but the Gipper speech immortalized the pep talk.
One likes to believe that Notre Dame beat Army that day because Rockne's oratory inspired a team of Davids who rose up and slew Goliath. But modern-day cynics pooh-pooh the power of pep talk persuasion. "Once the first play is over, they forget what you've said," says Al Kincaid of Wyoming. "Today's kids are too intelligent for that kind of stimulation," adds Texas A & M's Jackie Sherrill. "If you've done your job during the week, you don't need any artificial emotion on Saturday." Sherrill's point was proved, in a way, when he asked actor Gary Busey, in costume for his title role in the movie Bear, to give the Aggies a Bryant-like address the night before the 1983 Texas game. A & M went ahead 13-0 but lost 45-13.
"We don't need the rah-rah stuff," says Fred Akers of Texas. "The players know it just uses up energy they'll need during the game."
Discouraging words indeed, but the fact is, coaches—Akers included, as we will see—do talk, and players do listen. "Since the days of Caesar, leaders have inspired their people with words," says Grambling's Eddie Robinson, who is four victories away from becoming the winningest coach of all time. "Don't undersell kids today when it comes to emotion," says Jim Sweeney of Fresno State. "They want to be led into battle. They want to have a fierce, positive attitude, to set goals and achieve them."
No two coaches speak to their teams in the same way, but many of them agree on certain principles. So, after surveying coaches across the country, we offer the nine most frequently cited principles for firing up a team:
•No. 1: The Apocalypse Is Not Now
Skilled orator that he was, Rockne was well aware that words lose their weight when overused. He once described how Frank (Shorty) Longman, Notre Dame's coach in Rockne's freshman year, waxed eloquent before the opener against poor Olivet: "Men of Notre Dame, the eyes of the nation are upon you. Our alumni from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine are awaiting with taut nerves and bated breath the results of this contest.... The honor of the old school is at stake. Now or never, we must fight the battle of our lives.... You've all got to be heroes—heroes, or I never want to see any of you again. Go out and conquer. It is the crisis of your lives."
The young Rockne was impressed by that oration and by an identical one the following week until he overheard two veterans.