Tale of the coaching tape: Nick Saban vs. Knute Rockne

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to the greatest coaches in college football, there’s definitely a top tier when it comes to the all-time greats.

Knute Rockne is definitely on it. He coached only 13 years at Notre Dame, but left the legacy of a lifetime.

Actually, Rockne’s influence on college football started to be felt before he became a coach, when he was a player. Born in Norway, his family moved to the Chicago area, and after high school he took a job as a mail dispatcher with the Chicago Post Office for four years until he had enough money to enroll at Notre Dame.

Rockne continued to work during the summer and in 1913 he and his roommate, quarterback Gus Dorais, were janitors and busboys for a beachfront hotel in Cedar Point, Ohio. During their down time they worked on a new weapon that had been legalized in 1906, the forward pass.

Their pass patterns and timing routes caught Army by surprise for a 35-13 victory to key an undefeated season.

But that was nothing like what was to come, with the coaching prowess possibly only exceeded by his abilities as a showman and motivator. His "Notre Dame shift," a quick, pre-snap movement by his backfield was so successful that it was banned (and is why only one player can go in motion).

After graduating with a degree in pharmacy, Rockne was hired as an assistant coach at Notre Dame and continued to play on the side through the 1917 season with the Akron Indians and Massillon Tigers. When Jesse Harper stepped down after five seasons as head coach, with a 34-5-1 record and 86.3 percent winning percent, Rockne was promoted. It was a tough act to follow, but he got through a 3-1-2 rookie season shortened by World War I, and came back to go 9-0 in 1919.

One of his star players that year was George Gipp, perhaps the greatest player in Notre Dame history. The halfback is still high on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,341 yards, and he also passed for 1,769 yards, scored 156 points, punted and returned kicks. But most people know him from Rockne’s inspirational "Win just one for the Gipper" speech in 1928, even through he died from strep throat and pneumonia in 1920.

Rockne considered the 1924 national champions his favorite team. Notre Dame outscored the opposition 258-44 during its nine-game regular season and then crushed Stanford in the Rose Bowl, 27-10. It was the last bowl game the Irish would play for 45 years, but the team was best known for the backfield including Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden.

“I think I sensed that the backfield was a product of destiny,” Rockne said. “At times they caused me a certain amount of pain and exasperation, but mainly they brought me great joy.”

Here’s the more famous quote about the backfield: “Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again,” Grantland Rice wrote in the New York Herald-Tribune on October 19, 1924. “In dramatic lore, they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. Those are only aliases. Their real names at Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”

The program was at an all-time high when it won back-to-back national championships in 1929 and 1930 with undefeated seasons. The 1929 Fighting Irish, with guard Bert Metzger, helmetless guard Jack Cannon, and quarterback Frank Carideo, played every game on the road with Notre Dame Stadium under construction. Despite Rockne describing his team’s prospects as “fair” it finished 9-0, and then successfully defended its title in 1930 (10-0).

Incidentally, the stadium was designed by Rockne and built by the same company that constructed Yankee Stadium, the Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland. Rockne also served as Notre Dame's athletic director, business manager, ticket distributor, track coach and equipment manager. He wrote a newspaper column once a week, authored three books (one fiction for young adults), and even “Fighting Irish” became the nickname of Notre Dame during his time there, with university president Rev. Matthew Walsh making it official in 1927 (many had been calling them Rockne’s Ramblers, which he didn’t especially like).

However, right at the peak of his success, Rockne died in a plane crash at the age of 43. He had a remarkable record of 102-12-5, with the 88.1 winning percent still the best in Division I college football history.

While celebrities, prominent figures, and even some foreign dignitaries like the King of Norway attended his funeral on campus, thousands had to be turned away, and it was estimated that more than 100,000 people lined the procession route from Rockne’s house to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

“It was almost the size of President Kennedy’s impact,” Layden said of the funeral years later. “It was amazing. They turned out on the train and at the funeral. He was a national hero.”

Even humorist and social commentator Will Rogers paid tribute: “Notre Dame was Knute Rockne’s address, but every gridiron in America was his home.”

Nick Saban vs. Knute Rockne

(For consistency reasons, statistics through 2018 season)

Category,  Saban; Rockne

Seasons 23; 13

Consensus national titles 6; 3

Top five finishes 9; NA

Top 25 finishes 16; NA

Overall record 232–63–1*; 105-12-5

Percentage 78.5; 88.1

Losing seasons 0; 0

Bowl/CFP record 14-10; 1-0

Percentage 58.3; 100

Conference titles 9; NA

Conference record 138-42-1; NA

Consensus All-Americans 41; 11

First-round draft picks 34; NA

Record against ranked teams 82-40; NA

Percentage 67.2; NA

Record against top 10 teams 42-21; NA

Percentage 66.7; NA

Ratios/percentages

National title seasons One every 3.8 seasons (2.4 at Alabama); 4.3

Consensus All-Americans (through 2018) 1.78 every season; .85

First-round draft picks (through 2019 draft) 1.48 every season; NA

Average wins vs. ranked teams 3.57 each season; NA

Wins over top-10 teams per year 1.82 every season; NA

* vacated games

i-The first Associated Press poll and NFL Draft were conducted in 1936. Wade was at Duke from 1931 until 1950 minus the four years he served in World War II.

A version of this chart originally appeared in the book, “Nick Saban vs. College Football,” Triumph Books, 2014

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