Knute Kenneth Rockne spent only 43 years and 27 days on Earth, but during that relatively short stay he embodied the meaning of immortality.
Rockne and Notre Dame combined to make football more than just a recreational activity. Together, they became the embodiment of America and symbolized the initiative required to attain supremacy.
They were the top draw in an era that became known as “The Golden Age of Sports” (Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, etc.), and they were one of the nation’s few beacons during the age of the Great Depression.
Rockne was born on March 4, 1888 in Voss, Norway. Less than four months earlier, football had been born at the University of Notre Dame, more than half-a-world away. It seemed unlikely the two would ever be linked. Then again, Rockne’s life was filled with a pattern of ironies.
He was a high school dropout — yet he would graduate from the University of Notre Dame magna cum laude in chemistry.
He was mortified as a freshman at Notre Dame when he wasn’t good enough to make the scrubs for the football team – yet by his senior year he would be captain of the varsity en route to earning some All-America mention.
His knowledge and ambition dictated a future in science as he dreamed of great wealth — yet he remained in coaching, where he would live by mostly modest standards despite his enormous fame.
He was considered a shy, self-conscious person when he arrived at Notre Dame — yet today he is recognized as one of the most magnetic personalities and powerful motivators in our nation’s history.
Rockne’s emigration to the States was made possible by the craftsmanship of his father, Lars, whose entry of a hand-made carriage at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago earned him a second-place prize. Impressed by the freedom and opportunity in America, Lars eventually sent for his family back in Voss, which included 5-year-old Knute.
Growing up in Chicago, Knute developed an early appreciation of football while watching his boyhood idol, Walter Eckersall, the All-America back for the University of Chicago, lead Amos Alonzo Stagg’s teams to gridiron prominence.
When he enrolled at North West Division High in 1901, Rockne didn’t make a mark in football, but he became one of the city’s top track and field men in the half-mile and pole vault. Yet the once a dedicated student and voracious reader began devoting too much time to his athletic exploits, and it eventually prevented him from earning his high school diploma.
In the ensuing four years, Rockne worked as a mail dispatcher in the Chicago Post Office, an experience that provided a new perspective. He saved $1,000 in order to have the opportunity to go to college.
Rockne’s intent was to enroll at the University of Illinois, but a couple of track compatriots recommended a small Catholic University (where they too would enroll) just 90 miles east of Chicago. Only 400 undergraduates were enrolled there, but what swayed the frugal Rockne was the tuition would be less and there would be opportunity for him to work while in school.
The still athletic-minded Rockne in later years enjoyed pointing out his first reaction to the suggestion of enrolling there.
“Why?” he inquired. “Whoever heard of Notre Dame? They’ve never won a football game in their lives.”
Actually, in the year prior to his enrollment – 1909 – Notre Dame was unbeaten in eight games and upset Michigan (11-3), the premier powerhouse in Western football. Nevertheless, Rockne’s reaction to Notre Dame was the norm. For years, the school had been trying to make itself worthy of acceptance from the elite who snubbed it. The Western Conference (now the Big 10) barred it from admittance.
When Notre Dame was clobbered by Western Conference members Wisconsin and Purdue in 1904 by respective scores of 58-0 and 36-0, yet still had the chutzpah to apply for membership after the season, it was akin to the class nerd asking the head cheerleader to the prom. Even the 1909 shocking upset of Michigan led only to further resentment, as Michigan coach Fielding Yost canceled the game with Notre Dame the following year.
Regardless, Rockne wanted to attend Notre Dame’s College of Pharmacy, and he gained admittance by scoring 92.5 on the entrance examination.
What Tho’ The Odds…
At first, Rockne second-guessed his decision. He was a Norse Protestant in a Catholic environment. Somewhat an oddity as a 22-year old freshman, Rockne’s shyness permeated his personality.
Physically, he was balding prematurely and his flattened nose (wrought from an encounter with a baseball bat as a youth) led to stinging inquiries from onlookers about the “homely Swede.”
Rev. John Cavanaugh, president of the University from 1905-1919, remembered the withdrawal of Rockne as a freshman.
“He did not make many close friends,” wrote Cavanaugh. “He was secretive about himself and his affairs. He asked many questions and answered few. He seldom shared confidences with anyone.”
Rockne’s initial tryout in football didn’t mitigate his lack of self-assuredness.
“I was a dud, a washout, not even good enough for the scrubs,” wrote Rockne of his stint at fullback.
Shorty Longman, the head coach, yanked him from the team scrimmage and sent him back to the dorm.
Devastated by his ineptitude, Rockne channeled his ambition into scholastic endeavors and other interests. In his chemistry major, Rockne impressed Professor Julius Nieuwland (who discovered one type of synthetic rubber that led to DuPont’s invention of Neoprene) to be hired as his research assistant while still an undergraduate. After graduating in 1914, Rockne tabled medical school ambitions in St. Louis to work for Nieuwland and as a coach in various sports.
To augment his field in science, Rockne also loaded up on foreign courses and literature to get a slant on other cultures and subjects. Before taking the research assistant’s position for Nieuwland in later years, Rockne worked as a janitor in order to supplement what he had already saved.
During his undergraduate days, he also found the time to try his hand at his No. 1 sport — track. After earning a monogram as a freshman, his confidence received enough of a boost to give football a second attempt. This time, Rockne moved to end, where his speed became an asset.
With that, he became the campus Renaissance Man. He played flute for the school orchestra, took a major role in every student play, wrote for the school newspaper and yearbook, fought semi-professionally in South Bend, and one year even reached the finals of the Notre Dame marbles tournament.
By his senior year in 1913, Rockne was the easy choice for captain of the football team.
Under first-year coach Jesse Harper, the ambitious, success-starved school assembled a national schedule, highlighted by powers such as Texas in the South and Penn State and Army in the East. Such extensive travel was unheard of in those days, but if the mountain wasn’t going to come to Notre Dame, then Notre Dame would set out to conquer the mountain.
Shaking Down The Thunder
In Rockne’s three varsity seasons, Notre Dame compiled a 20-0-2 mark, including a 7-0 mark as a senior. On November 1, 1913, Rockne and quarterback Gus Dorais had a hand in revolutionizing the game by perfecting the forward pass in a 35-13 upset of unbeaten and heavy-favorite Army.
Tempted to take the head coaching position at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State) in 1917, Rockne was dissuaded by Harper, who told him he would soon be his successor at Notre Dame. Prior to succeeding Harper in 1918 as the head coach, Rockne was his assistant for four seasons.
It would enough to say that in 13 seasons he posted 105 wins, only 12 losses and 5 ties (.881), recorded six national championships in one poll or another, compiled five unbeaten and untied campaigns and produced 20 first-team All-Americans.
But that would be like viewing 10 percent of the iceberg that is visible while the other 90 percent is under water..
Rockne became a national institution and Notre Dame became the national school. “Subway Alumni” were born in every section of the country, from the steelworker in Pittsburgh to the executive in California. In Rockne and Notre Dame, an identity of struggle, hope and triumph could be found — as was the glamour and popularity of sport.
“Football and all athletics should be a part of culture, the culture that makes the whole man, not a part-time thinker,” wrote Rockne. “Ancient Greece was a cradle of culture, and Ancient Greece was a nation of athletes… Boys must have an outlet for animal spirits. Their education must contain a training in clean contests, otherwise they’ll be lost in a world that thrives on competition and in which those who cannot compete cannot hope to thrive.
“Four years of football are calculated to breed in the average man more of the ingredients of success in life than most any academic course he takes…(Athletics) stirs the pulse, captures the imagination and, at the same time, builds character without which culture is valueless.
“Sportsmanship means fair play. It means an application of the Golden Rule. Bragging and gloating or any form of dishonesty have no place in it.”
Among the innovations he introduced were intersectional rivalries (hence the nickname “Rockne’s Ramblers”), reducing the amount of bulk and weight of the equipment while increasing its protectiveness, using “shock troops,” a full team of second stringers, at the start of some games and offenses that created massive throngs in stadiums throughout the country.
From Yankee Stadium in New York to the Coliseum in Los Angeles, stadiums — and city streets — overflowed to catch Rockne and the magic of heroes such as “The Gipper,” the Four Horsemen and the Joe Savoldis, Frank Carideos and Jack Elders.
During the 1919 unbeaten campaign, the most in attendance for a Notre Dame game was approximately 10,000. By 1927, more than 120,000 fans filled Chicago’s Soldier’s Field to watch Notre Dame’s 7-6 victory over USC.
In 1929, all nine of Notre Dame’s games were on the road — so to speak — while Notre Dame Stadium (“The House that Rock Built”) was under construction. But because Notre Dame had become “America’s Team,” every place was like home. Despite a severe case of phlebitis that could have killed him at any time, Rockne traveled with the team, imploring it to “Fight to Live! Fight to Win!”
From 1918 through 1927, the University enrollment and endowment doubled. By 1930, 3,200 students were enrolled at Notre Dame – eight times more than when Rockne enrolled in 1910.
On March 31, 1931, Rockne was killed in the prime of his life in a plane crash at Bazaar, Kansas. A nation mourned as more than 50 million people listened to his funeral service broadcast over the radio. The manner and suddenness of his death intensified the shock.
As his casket was removed from Sacred Heart Church at Notre Dame, airplanes circled overhead and dipped their wings in salute. Meanwhile, the Cathedral bells tolled the Notre Dame Victory March in funeral cadence.
When written in 1909, the Victory March was just another lyric. By the time of Rockne’s death, the verses had been translated to a dozen languages.
At times the echoes slumber and the thunder dims…but Rockne’s impact remains everlasting