COLLEGE FOOTBALL COACH
In the over 75 years since his death, the name Knute Rockne remains synonymous with both Notre Dame University and football coaching excellence. Rockne combined innovative approaches in both game strategy and practice techniques to become the best known college coach of his era.
Knute Rockne's legendary coaching career was founded upon a number of remarkable and almost improbable sequences. Born in Norway, Rockne immigrated with his family to the United States at age 7. Rockne was a very proficient high school athlete, but he did not graduate from high school in the usual course; he left school at age 17 to work in a series of different jobs in the Chicago area. It was only at the urging of friends that Rockne enrolled at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana in 1910, when Rockne was 22 years old.
Rockne joined the Notre Dame football team, know as the 'Fighting Irish' in 1911, where he played both running back and offensive end. Rockne captained the Notre Dame team during his senior year in 1914, helping the team to its third undefeated season. The Fighting Irish were one of the first college teams to incorporate the forward pass into their regular offensive strategies (a tactic that had only be legalized in 1909), as the Notre Dame offence was described in the national media as possessing football's first all out air attack.
Rockne was 26 years old when he graduated from Notre Dame magna cum laude in pharmacy. When his application to enter medical school was rejected, Rockne took an assistant professor position in chemistry at Notre Dame, where he also worked as an assistant football coach.
Rockne assumed the Notre Dame head coaching duties in 1917, and by the 1919 season he had directed the Fighting Irish to an unbeaten season. In the course of his coaching career at Notre Dame, the team would enjoy five such unbeaten campaigns.
It was Rockne's various innovations that propelled Noter Dame's success during this period. Rockne introduced the box formation and the technique known as influence blocking, the coordinated line blocking schemes where the offence uses a variety of stratagems to maneuver the defensive players into a particular position on the field, as opposed to simply attempting to overpower the defense with strength. In this fashion, Rockne helped to make football a much more exciting game for its spectators, as his strategies emphasized deception and speed. Rockne also instituted what came to be called the Notre Dame shift, also known as the precision back-field move, where the running backs would adjust their positions in a synchronized fashion prior to the snap of the ball in an effort to confuse the defense.
The most enduring of the Rockne innovations may be platoon football, a technique later perfected by coaches such as Paul Brown and a standard procedure in football at every level today. Rockne was the first coach to organize groups of players, or platoons, into specific formations in an attempt to wear down the opposing team.
The innovations implemented by Rockne were so popular with spectators and so effective in neutralizing Notre Dame's opponents that other prominent college football coaches banded together in an attempt to limit some of these strategies by having them declared illegal, without success.
In the course of his tenure at Notre Dame, Rockne proved to be as skilled at the promotion of his team and program as he was a football tactician. By the time of Rockne's death in 1931, Notre Dame was the most recognizable and the most popular football team in the United States. Rockne was known by the nickname 'Rock', and he possessed the ability to turn a colorful and effective phrase when ever he was interviewed by the media. Rockne was held in considerable affection by the sports writing fraternity, who generally celebrated his coaching abilities in favorable articles in newspapers and magazines across America.
Rockne was, in many respects, both the coach and the equivalent of the modern sports information director at Notre Dame, as he promoted star players to ultimately promote his team. Rockne was one of the first coaches to cultivate and publicize star players as he did with George Gipp, an outstanding all purpose running back. During the 1924 season, the first in which Notre Dame finished with a national championship title, Rockne relied heavily on a quartet of players that he had trumpeted to the national media as the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame: Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, James Crowley, and Elmer Layden. This nickname has endured as one of the most evocative in the history of American college sports.
The most intense rivalry enjoyed by any of Rockne's teams was that with the United States Military Academy, the Army football team. It was during the half time of a game against Army that Rockne delivered one of the most famous of half time speeches, where he is reputed to have urged the Notre Dame team to go out and, "Win one for the Gipper," a reference to the then deceased former Notre Dame star and captain. This phrase was made famous through a 1940 film that starred future American President Ronald Reagan as George Gipp.
Rockne took on the duties of athletic director as well as his coaching duties in 1925. One of his major projects in this role was to direct the construction of a large on campus football stadium. In 1930, Rockne's final season as the Notre Dame coach, the Fighting Irish captured their third national championship under Rockne.
Rockne was a multi-dimensional personality and he was one of the most celebrated Americans of his time. Rockne wrote a regular newspaper column and authored two books during his Notre Dame career. By 1931 he had also begun a second career as a motivational speaker under contract with the Studebaker Corporation, a South Bend auto maker, to deliver inspirational speeches to its sales force. Rockne capitalized on his football fame in the launch of his own automobile company in 1931. Rockne was on his way to Los Angeles to discuss a movie project when the plane carrying him crashed in a Kansas wheat field on March 31, 1931, an event that President Herbert Hoover described as a national loss.
Rockne's enduring legacy is cemented by the fact that his winning percentage as a coach, .881, remains the best ever record among major college programs. Rockne was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1951. His statute stands in front of the College Football Hall of Fame.