Nov. 1, 1913 was an unforgettable day on the Plains of West Point. With seconds left in a scoreless game against Army, Notre Dame had the ball near midfield. On fourth and eight, Irish Quarterback Knute Rockne dropped back to pass. His primary receiver, Left End Gus Dorais, was double-covered. Downfield, Halfback George Gipp was clear but unnoticed by Rockne, who was retreating before the onrushing Cadets. Rockne circled to his right, dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it on the bounce toward the Army goal 62 yards away. The ball traveled in a very flat trajectory, one so low the ball would surely have fallen short if it had not struck Gipp on the helmet and caromed over the crossbar as the gun sounded. In the press box, caught up in the drama of it all, sportscaster Grantland Rice shouted, "There's one off the Gipper!" thereby coining a phrase that has rung down through the years.
Any quiz-kid scholar of gridiron rules will instantly spot a serious error in the foregoing account: in 1913 a drop-kicked field goal did not count if the ball ricocheted off a player. And any casual devotee of football trivia will find other glaring discrepancies. Knute Rockne played fullback and left end at Notre Dame, never quarterback. His teammate Gus Dorais was the quarterback who did the drop-kicking. George Gipp, the most celebrated of the 96 All-Americas who have come from Notre Dame, did not play with Rockne and Dorais but for them in their coaching days. It was Gipp, not Rockne or Dorais, who, in an obvious punting situation, once foxed the opposition and his own team by drop-kicking a 62-yard field goal.
To distort the truth about old Notre Dame heroes so extravagantly may seem irreverent, but in the case of Rockne there is ample precedent. In the 48 years since he died, the legend of Rockne has been so heavily laced with fiction and mawkish exaggeration that at this point to adhere strictly to facts might seem to dishonor him.
Knute Kenneth Rockne was a multi-faceted genius of the sort that defies easy cataloguing. He was worldly yet homespun. He was a rah-rah team man who felt at home with screwballs and loners. As both football coach and chemistry instructor, he was a fundamentalist with a revolutionary flair. He was a brainy, nit-picking perfectionist with the broad appeal of a circus clown. He was quite a man, but not quite the man legend would have him.
September 9, 1979
Rockne was born in Voss, Norway on March 4, 1888. He died 43 years later in a plane crash near Bazaar, Kans. The last 21 years of his short life were devoted in large part to football and his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame du Lac. Before completing his secondary education in Chicago, he worked as a clerk and dispatcher for the Chicago Post Office. Convinced after four years that the "temple of loafing" (as he described the Post Office) was a dead end where merit meant nothing, in 1910 Rockne, who still did not have a high school diploma, took exams for admission to Notre Dame.
In his undergraduate years, 1910-14, Rockne was an all-arounder. He wrote for the college weekly, The Notre Dame Scholastic, and was an editor of the annual, The Dome. He played the flute vigorously in concerts and at informal get-togethers. In a boyhood free-for-all in Chicago, he was once swatted so solidly across the face with a baseball bat that when he entered Notre Dame as a balding 22-year-old he looked like a club fighter. Despite his pug features, in campus theatricals he occasionally played the parts of femmes who were almost fatales. He was a very good student and a versatile athlete—a combination so commonplace in that more innocent time that it was scarcely remarked upon. On the way to a degree in chemistry, he averaged 92.4% in 31 full-and part-time courses, and while carrying that load, he also audited lectures in other courses.
In the winter and spring, Rockne won points for Notre Dame as a sprinter, quarter-miler, long jumper, shotputter and pole vaulter, setting indoor and outdoor university records in the vault that lasted 15 years. During his football playing days, Notre Dame drubbed inferior rivals by scores as lopsided as 116-7 and toppled such giants as Pitt and Army while winning 24 games, losing one and tying three. In the next four seasons, during which Rockne assisted Coach Jesse Harper, Notre Dame's record was 27 wins, five losses, one tie. In Rockne's 13 years as head coach—1918-30—his teams won 105, lost 12 and tied five, for a won-lost percentage of .881, which is still the major-college record.
Upon graduating in 1914, Rockne had intended to study medicine at St. Louis University, while coaching on the side to pay his way. When St. Louis insisted that the football job would not be compatible with a med student's work load, Rockne returned to Notre Dame. He could easily have gotten a position exclusively as a chemistry instructor under Dr. Julius Nieuwland, a pioneer in the development of synthetic rubber. Rockne elected instead to go several ways at once. While teaching, he also served as track coach and assisted Harper in football.
Had he gone into medicine or stayed with chemistry and never again set foot on an athletic field, Rockne would still be remembered for his role in one football game. There truly was an unforgettable Notre Dame-Army game on the Plains of West Point in 1913. On that afternoon, little-known Notre Dame, a denominational institution with 470 undergraduates, whomped Army, an established Eastern power, 35-13. It was more than a lopsided upset, more than a portent that dominance of the sport was moving west; it was the first game of modern football—a good 15 years ahead of its time. The mastermind of that revolution was Harper, a dry-looking Midwesterner who, despite thin-rimmed specs that gave him a professorial air, had more winning ways than a snake-oil salesman. The star on the field that day was the quarterback, Dorais. He was supported by four other heroes: Fullback Ray Eichenlaub, Right Halfback Joe Pliska and the ends, Rockne and Fred Gushurst. Seventeen times Dorais dropped back and spiraled the ball 10, 20, 30 yards and more to his receivers. With each pass he was, in effect, propelling the game farther into the 20th century.
Major-college quarterbacks now average 20 passes a game and complete 48% of them for 128 yards. Dorais was a 5'7" 145-pounder with hands of ordinary size; yet while throwing a football almost one and a half inches fatter than today's, he completed 13 of his 17 attempts for 243 yards. Such a performance would still be impressive. In 1913 it was incredible. Harry Cross of The New York Times reported with understandable hyperbole, "The yellow leather egg was in the air half the time, with the Notre Dame team spread out in all directions over the field waiting for it. The Army players were hopelessly confused and chagrined before Notre Dame's great playing, and their style of old-fashioned, close, line-smashing play was no match for the spectacular and highly perfected attack of the Indiana collegians. All five of Notre Dame's touchdowns were the result of forward passes."
Though Rockne's contribution to this memorable afternoon was considerable, it was his coaching, not playing, that led to the erection of monuments to him in widely scattered places. There is one in the Norwegian town where he was born and there are two near the spot where he died in Kansas. There is a Knute Rockne Memorial athletic building at Notre Dame. There is a plaque in his honor on the wall of a bathhouse in Cedar Point, Ohio, hard by the Lake Erie beach where in the summer of 1913 he and Dorais developed the passing and catching skills that beat Army in November. In 1932 the Studebaker Corporation of South Bend, Ind. produced a six-cylinder motor car called the Rockne. The Liberty ship Knute Rockne served in World War II. A service area on the Indiana toll road is named for him.
He was a much-loved storybook hero, and for love and/or money, a lot of people had a lot to say about him. Within a year of his death in 1931, five Rockne biographies were published. Now there are 11, and about one and a half dozen other books on Notre Dame football that feature him. Two full-length movies were made about his life as player and coach and about the great players he coached. Because the films were Hollywood products, the scenarists took liberties in depicting Rockne's life—but then so did just about everyone else.
Who's to blame? Rockne more than anyone. For all his precision when it came to coaching football, he was at heart theatrical and romantic—and inaccurate. Many of his admirers emulated him, at times even disregarding logic if it happened to get in the way of romance.
Typical of the Rockne biographies hastily published following his death is one by Harry Stuhldreher, the quarterback in the Four Horsemen back-field of 1923-24. His book, Knute Rockne: Man Builder, begins with a vignette of Rockne on the sidelines at a big away game. As the scene opens, Rockne is seated in a camp chair in front of the visiting team's bench, within earshot of his assistant coaches and substitute quarterbacks. "Watching his team operate on the field," Stuhldreher wrote, "he chatters constantly." As the unspecified opposing team tries an end sweep, Rockne says, "Now they are coming back with the same play. Kosky diagnosed the play properly this time. He's floating wide with their interference. Doing a good job, too. Running low, crossing over his legs, with his arms outstretched, keeping the opponents away from his body. He doesn't necessarily have to make the tackle but he's keeping them from getting outside him. He has chased the runner out of bounds."
If spattered out at machine-gun rate, the above monologue takes about 15 seconds to say. Any back who needed 15 seconds to run a sweep could have been ridden out of bounds by Fatty Arbuckle. But let's just chalk that off as poetic license.
Stuhldreher's sideline glimpse of Rockne in action ends at halftime, with Notre Dame leading 13-0. Considering the names of the players Stuhldreher mentions in other portions of his vignette, the scene could have occurred only at the Pitt or Penn game of 1930. On the Saturdays when Notre Dame played these teams, Stuhldreher was in other cities coaching Villanova against Temple and Bucknell. Stuhldreher's vivid scene must be largely fabrication, and apparently not even he had much faith in his contrivance. After elaborately portraying Rockne as a chatterer on the sidelines, Stuhldreher begins his very next chapter by describing Rockne as "a quiet man who doubled up in a camp chair and twirled a cigar" while watching his men play.
A Rockne autobiography that first appeared as a serial in Collier's in 1930 was published a year later in book form with a foreword by Rev. John Cavanaugh, who was president of Notre Dame in Rockne's playing and early coaching years. Cavanaugh wrote of Rockne's arrival at Notre Dame in September 1910: "He was duly matriculated after severe examination and was assigned to 'the subway' in Sorin Hall. The subway was a group of half subterranean and half superterranean rooms. There he met his roommate.
" 'My name is Dorais.'
" 'Mine's Rockne.'
" 'Evidently we're going to room together.' "
Father Cavanaugh's account would make a peachy beginning for an authentic scenario: Dorais and Rockne, soon to be an unbeatable passing combination, are by fate linked as roommates right from the start of their days beneath the Golden Dome. Marvelous. The stuff of legend. Or, in this case, myth. Apparently Father Cavanaugh never bothered to read the autobiography that followed.
True, Rockne and Dorais eventually roomed together in Corby Hall, but as a freshman Rockne was first assigned to single quarters in Brownson Hall that were downright monastic. In each cubicle there was barely space for one student, his bed and his innermost thoughts. Clothes were kept in a community locker room or a studyhall desk.
Of his first days in South Bend, Rockne wrote, "Notre Dame University in 1910, when I felt the strangeness of being a lone Norse Protestant—if the word must be used—invader of a Catholic stronghold, comprised six halls, in one of which, Brownson Dormitory, I was installed. There were 400 undergraduates, physical training was compulsory, and a fellow wasn't thought much of unless he went out for his hall team in football."
But one had best not condemn Stuhldreher or Cavanaugh too quickly, because Rockne himself was not an impeccable source on Rockne. Further on in his autobiography, Rockne recalls that, after he went out for the Brownson Hall team, Joe Collins, a varsity end, recommended him to the Notre Dame coach, Frank (Shorty) Longman. "Longman sent me out with the scrubs in a test game with the regulars," Rockne wrote. "He made me fullback. They should have changed my position to drawback. Never on any football field was there so dismal a flop. Trying to spear my first punt, I had frozen fingers and the ball rolled everywhere it wasn't wanted. Longman kept me in that agonizing game. Finally I tried to punt. Nothing happened...I was half-paralyzed. A 200-pound tackle smashed into me. My 145 pounds went back for a 15-yard loss.
"Longman yanked me out of the scrubs and sent me back to Brownson Hall. I was a dub, a washout, not even good enough for the scrubs."
From Rockne's account one can easily visualize his ignoble debut as a Notre Dame football player: on the sidelines students laugh uproariously and loyal chums like Gus Dorais stand tight-lipped as Rockne, the over-aged scrub, scrambles around trying to hold on to the ball while eluding first-string behemoths. Another fine storybook beginning for his career, except that it, like Father Cavanaugh's account, is so much baloney.
In the autumn of 1910 the Notre Dame team won its opener against Olivet College of Michigan 48-0, abetted by a 165-pound freshman who started at fullback. Who was that frosh starter? Why none other than Rockne, the man who said he was a "a washout, not even good enough for the scrubs."
Although they often spelled his name "Rochne" instead of "Rockne," the South Bend Tribune and the student-run Scholastic both kept track of the former postal clerk in his freshman year. In its coverage of a football workout on Oct. 1, 1910, the Tribune said, "Another new candidate reported yesterday in the person of Rockne. The new candidate is a husky individual, and in the light workout given him, showed that he was possessed of much speed." A week later, in its preview of the Olivet game, the Scholastic observed, "Almost every day Cartier Field produces a new star. Second team men are being shifted daily to the regulars, and some regular sees his star fall as he lines up with the 'yanigans.'... Of the new men, Rockne and Bergman have been hitting the line in a way that would make a billy goat blush with envy." Over one of its pregame stories, the Tribune ran the headline: ROCHNE MAKING GOOD AT FULLBACK; in another preview, the paper reported that Fullback Rochne had broken away in practice for long gains, scoring three of the varsity's five touchdowns against the scrubs. About the only criticism of Rockne in the two publications appeared in the Tribune's story of the Olivet game. "Rochne proved to be a good man at full," the Tribune said. "He managed to find his way through the defense many times, but lost many yards on fumbles."
If Rockne had applied to football the same cavalier disregard for reality that he often applied to the other facets of his career, he would have gone nowhere as a player or coach. In his life there were interesting—and true—tales aplenty, but apparently not enough for him. In his inspirational after-dinner talks and in his popular writing, Rockne had a habit of digressing into long, saccharine, moralistic stories about fictitious players. His phony accounts were never self-serving; to the contrary, they were often humorously belittling. Recounting his high school days, he wrote in his autobiography, "Persistence at track meets won me a small reputation, and when a whimsical switch to pole vaulting brought me into the news by making an indoor record of 12'4"—which today wouldn't qualify a boy to be a mascot—I began to think I'd arrived." In point of fact, when Rockne was a high school senior, the world outdoor record was only 12'2". By 1914, when Rockne did indeed vault 12'4" to set a Notre Dame indoor mark, the world record had increased to only 13'2¼". Even in 1930, when Rockne wrote so disdainfully of his mark, it was still good enough to win many high school conference meets.
Savoring the famous 1913 upset of Army, Rockne wrote: "Nationwide discussion of Notre Dame by football followers after the first Army game had tremendous effect on our own varsity spirit. Everybody in the school, save the older professors, wanted to be a football player. I recall even Cy Williams, celebrated home-run slugger of the Philly Nationals, clamoring for football togs. As he came out on the field for first practice, he said, 'Come on, fellows, let's kick up a few flies.' The baseball coach barred Cy from football, afraid that Cy might get hurt."
It is true that Fred (Cy) Williams, the Phillies' long-ball hero of the '20s, did play football with Rockne—in 1910, the year Rockne says he himself was not good enough to make the squad. But Williams could not have tried out in 1913 nor been barred from doing so by the baseball coach for three reasons: 1) he finished at Notre Dame in 1912; 2) he was the Notre Dame baseball coach in 1913; and 3) he had already played with the Chicago Cubs, and therefore had lost his amateur eligibility.
When Rockne's literary excesses are pointed out to his former players, they tend to dismiss them with a knowing smile as they recall what a ham their coach could be. James (Sleepy Jim) Crowley, the left half of the Four Horsemen quartet, an able coach and a wag in his own right, recalls, "We used to love to go to practice because Rock was such a character. His pep talks depended on the importance of the game. I only recall his giving a few.
"One involved a telegram from his little boy, Billy, before the Georgia Tech game in 1922. Rockne probably sent the wire himself. He came into the locker room with a bunch of telegrams from prominent alumni and said to us, 'I have one wire here, boys, that probably doesn't mean much to you, but it does to me. It's from my poor sick little boy, Billy, who is critically ill in the hospital.'
"Rock was a great actor," Crowley adds as he remembers the moment. "He got a lump in his throat and his lips began to tremble as he read Billy's wire: 'I want Daddy's team to win.' We won the 1922 Georgia Tech game for Billy, and when we got home we found out that Billy hadn't been sick at all. There was a big crowd to meet us at the station, and running around in front of everyone was 'sick' little Billy Rockne, looking healthy enough for a Pet Milk ad.
"When Rock played Southern Cal at Soldier Field in '29—while the Notre Dame stadium was being built—his team was the underdog," Crowley continues. "As he was walking from the hotel to the field with Joe Byrne, an alumnus who was considered the Eastern representative of Notre Dame, Rock says, 'We're going to lose today; the team has been lethargic all week. Only way to win is if I could think of something that would give the boys an emotional lift. I've racked my brain; I didn't sleep a wink last night.' Joe Byrne, who had a little deviltry in his heart, suggested, 'Why don't you tell the boys you are receiving such vitriolic letters from alumni that you can't take it any longer, and that you are resigning and would like to go out a winner?'
"So in the dressing room, Rock says, 'Boys, I am getting this pressure from the alumni. My wife Bonnie can't take it any longer, and my children are being ridiculed at school. I am resigning. Please let me go out a winner. So go out there and win, WIN!' While Rock is saying all that, over in a corner of the room Joe Byrne, the archfiend of the diabolical plot, is shedding crocodile tears. When Byrne bends over, reaching for a handkerchief to dry his eyes, a pint of Johnnie Walker Black Label slips out of his pocket and smashes on the floor.
"Notre Dame beat Southern Cal, and on the walk back to the hotel Byrne asks Rockne what he will tell his boys when he sees them at practice next Monday. 'What do you mean, what will I tell them?' Rock says, 'I am resigning unless I get a letter of apology from the alumni.' Rock gave such a good talk before that game," Crowley concludes, "that he even convinced himself."
In an article titled "Psychology in Football," Rockne blithely confessed that he used a bogus telegram from little Billy to fire up the 1922 team, and he also admitted that three years later, when Notre Dame trailed Northwestern 10-0 at half-time, he quit as coach in order to goad his players into a 13-10 win. "It was really a great comeback," Rockne observed by way of justifying his fraud. "However, it was the first and last time I did anything like it." (Not so. According to a variety of sources, Rockne "quit" at least three times in his coaching career.)
When it came to weeping over the team's chances, wringing hands and prophesying defeat week after week, one of Rockne's protègès, Frank Leahy, is generally considered to have been without equal. Actually, because he was more likable than Leahy and wept less, Rockne was more convincing as a dispenser of pregame gloom. The premier example came in his last season. Seven days before Carnegie Tech and the Irish met in 1930, The New York Times reported glowingly that Notre Dame, which had been the undefeated national champion in 1929, had its "usual wealth of material." Then, only three days before the game, the Times related, "After watching his Notre Dame regulars vainly attempt to stop Carnegie Tech plays in scrimmage today, Knute Rockne tossed up his hands in despair and predicted the Tartans would win by 'eight or nine touchdowns.' " One day later, having heard from the Rock himself, the Times said, "If the Notre Dame team loses, the result cannot in any sense be termed an upset." Rockne was so convincing in his pessimism that by kickoff time Carnegie Tech was favored over undefeated Notre Dame. The next day the Times' headline above its account of the game read: NOTRE DAME UPSETS CARNEGIE TECH 21-6.
In the 1920s, football practice at Notre Dame started every weekday afternoon at about 3:30, when Rockne would call out in his metallic voice, "Everybody up." Then, for one and a half or two hours, the boys would get a lot of sweaty truth and little champagne from the battered old oil can. Until his later years—particularly the last two when he suffered greatly from phlebitis—Rockne often went one-on-one with his boys when they practiced tackling and blocking, the touchstones of his success.
In contrast to his public utterances, Rockne's talks on the practice field and at football clinics and his technical writings about the game contain little malarkey or windiness. At times he was homespun, at times learned, at times epigrammatic. In discussing attitude, he once said, "One loss is good for the soul; too many losses are not good for the coach." In his book, Coaching: The Complete Notre Dame System, the first of the 36 injunctions he addressed to quarterbacks was: "Know when not to forward pass." His second admonition has since become famous: "When in doubt, punt." He opened his chapter on halfbacks by saying, "Halfbacks are born. Some coaches take a lot of credit for having developed certain halfbacks. What is generally meant by that is that a man with a lot of talent comes to a coach, and the coach does him no particular harm." In explaining how he developed his Four Horsemen backfield, Rockne modestly observed with tongue in cheek, "How it came to pass that four young men so eminently qualified by temperament, physique and instinctive pacing to complement one another perfectly and thus produce the best coordinated and most picturesque backfield in the recent history of football—how that came about is one of the inscrutable achievements of coincidence, of which I know nothing save that it's a rather satisfying mouthful of words."
Notre Dame's memorable upset of Army in 1913 has obscured the fact that it was a defeat in Rockne's first year of coaching that may have been the pivotal game for the Irish in the long run. There is a quote that, in many variations, has often been attributed to Rockne. Once when asked if a particular football trick was original with him, he replied, "Everything started with Yale, and Yale got it all from God." Impressed by the Notre Dame upset of Army in 1913, Yale took on the Irish the next year when Rockne was serving as an assistant under Harper. The Elis beat the Irish 28-0—the worst Notre Dame defeat in the 18 years that Harper and Rockne coached. It had rained for three days before the game, and the field was a swamp. In the first six plays, Yale and Notre Dame exchanged possession four times on fumbles. In such soggy conditions, a slugging team might logically have won with an unrelenting ground attack. But the Yalies did something far cuter. In the week preceding the game, they had worked out against Canadian rugby players. Taking a cue from their practice opponents, the Elis retreated 40 years to the original open, rugby style of football. They handed the ball off, pitched it back, and tossed it out and still farther out. On some plays four Yalies handled the ball before it reached the line of scrimmage. As Rockne summed up the game, "They lateral-passed Notre Dame out of the park.... It was the most valuable lesson Notre Dame ever had in football. It taught us never to be cocksure. Modern football at Notre Dame can be dated from that game. On the following Monday Jesse Harper put in the backfield shift, with my idea of shuttling or flexing the ends." Although Harper had experimented in 1913 with backfield realignment before the center snap, it was not until after the soggy defeat at Yale in 1914 that the famous Notre Dame shift came to be.
Although devoid of color and sound, the old, grainy newsreel movies of Rockne's men in action are still a thing of beauty. The line sets up; the backfield moves into the T formation. Then, with each man traveling a different distance with a different number of steps, as if guided by inner music, the backfield flows out of the T into the famous trapezoidal "Notre Dame box." In the next instant the ball is centered, and the backs are off, still in perfect unison, each on a different mission.
Since the early 1900s there had been many shift formations, simple and fancy, but none created as much of a stir as the Notre Dame shift installed by Harper and exploited by Rockne. Working on the theory that the Notre Dame shift gave the Irish offense the advantage of having momentum when the ball was snapped, the rules makers of the 1920s twice tightened the restrictions on shifts. The original injunction that every man's feet be solidly planted before the snap was modified to prohibit even the slightest swaying of the body. Later, the rules were amended again, stipulating a full second without any motion. In spite of the restrictions, Notre Dame kept on winning.
Throughout the haggling, Rockne insisted that the virtue of the shift was not momentum but the advantage gained from perfect timing and execution. When Illinois Coach Bob Zuppke protested that momentum was at issue, Rockne reputedly replied, "My good friend Zuppke knows that the only creature that can make forward progress by moving sideways is a crab." It was not a system worth much to mediocre teams with lone stars. It was designed for 11 men working as one. That was Rockne's credo, and it was far more a factor in Notre Dame's winning than his occasional harangues or psychological ploys.
To appreciate fundamental football as preached and practiced by Rockne, here's what we will do. We will assemble about half a dozen Harper-Rockne men who played between the years 1914 and 1930 and let Frank Carideo, the best of Rockne's quarterbacks, give them a one-question quiz.
The first candidate for this test will be Mal Elward, who subbed for Rockne at left end in 1913 and started in 1914, when the shift was first adopted. At the other chronological extreme we will call on Edward (Moose) Krause, the current athletic director of Notre Dame, who scrimmaged as a freshman against Rockne's last varsity squad. In the test group we should certainly include Donald Chester Peter (Chet) Grant, who quarterbacked for Harper in 1916 and then—after time off for World War I—returned to serve under Rockne in 1920 and '21. Other likely participants would be Halfback Norm Barry, who played in the back-field with Gipp, and Halfback-Fullback Paul Castner, who played with both Gipp and the Four Horsemen. To balance out the group, we should add a couple of interior linemen, perhaps the 148-pound All-America guard of 1930, Bert Metzger, and his 195-pound teammate, All-America Tackle Joe Kurth.
On a desk before each of these men we will place a piece of paper marked only with the diagram of a classical seven-man defensive line and diamond secondary. Then Carideo will simply call out, "25-14-63 hup." By the time Carideo completes half the call, it's a safe bet that every man in the room, from Elward, class of '16, to Krause, '34, could diagram his assignment. From the first three digits of the call they would know that the shift was to the right and that the play was off-tackle.
Notre Dame players came and went, but for nearly 20 years the off-tackle play, "Old 51," lived on. It was the epitome of simple success based on timing and execution. When a key block was muffed. Old 51 often went nowhere. When everyone got his man—and most of the blocking was one-on-one—it was a long gainer. With perceptive candor, Grant recalls that, "Old 51 always worked, sometimes."
Rival teams came to know Old 51 and to recognize it by its call. They designed defenses specifically for it. Still it worked. Other coaches adopted Old 51, which provoked Rockne to grouse, "If they are going to use it, at least they could give it a different number."
When Notre Dame and Army met late in the 1926 season, both were undefeated. In the first half, Army contained Notre Dame by dropping its tackles off the line to defend against Old 51. In the second half, when Irish Right End John Wallace reported that Army's left tackle, a Texan named Mortimer (Bud) Sprague, had moved back up on the line, the next play Quarterback Red Edwards called was Old 51 to the right. That year Christy Flanagan, also a Texan, was the back who carried the ball on that play. Reviewing the game, sportswriter Tim Cohane reported, "That one play was enough. It was a perfect play. After a scoreless first half, Christy Flanagan, Notre Dame's left halfback, broke off Army's left tackle and ran 63 yards for a touchdown. The blocking, both in the line and downfield, eradicated every potential Cadet tackler, so that Christy went his way without so much as a finger being laid on him." Final score: Notre Dame 7, Army 0.
In the book We Remember Rockne, Flanagan recalls that some years later when he was coaching at the Naval Academy, a limousine drove up to the practice field and out stepped Bud Sprague. After graduating as an All-America, Sprague had married a Congressman's daughter and was on his way up the military ladder. Flanagan says, "I went back to the scrimmage and told the quarterback, 'Listen, if you don't mind, run O1' 51 to the right, will ya?' I then turned and shouted to Bud to watch. Well, you should have seen his expression. The instant the formation started. Bud knew what it was.... 'You ol' rascal you!' he cried. 'You never will forget, will you.' "
When Notre Dame and Army met at Soldier Field in Chicago late in the 1930 season, again they were both undefeated. It was a wretched day; icy rain fell on a fog-shrouded field that was partly frozen and mostly mush. It figured to be a sellout of 115,000, but there were 15,000 no-shows. Army punted 20 times, Notre Dame 14. Army completed one of three passes for no gain, Notre Dame one of eight for three yards. Army made three first downs, Notre Dame five. Army gained 63 yards on the ground, Notre Dame 188, most of it with Old 51.
Kurth believes the Irish used only five running plays, Old 51 at least 15 times. Carideo, who called most of the plays, believes Kurth's estimate is conservative. Whatever the count, with only five minutes to go, Old 51 was the difference. In his game story, Robert Kelley of The New York Times wrote, "For one play Marchmont Schwartz, Notre Dame's left halfback, found the stage completely arranged for him, and he ran 54 yards to a touchdown over turf that was as slippery as an ice rink.... Schwartz went off tackle. It was the perfect play toward which Notre Dame aims through all its games." Final score: Notre Dame 7, Army 6.
To succeed with a play as shopworn as Old 51, a coach needs 11 good men. "Football is not and should not be a game for the strong and stupid," Rockne observed. "It should be a game for the smart, the swift, the brave and the clever boy." In his theatrical moments away from the game, Rockne tolerated all sorts of entrepreneurs and toadies, but when it came to football, he was suspicious, particularly of eager alumni who claimed they had just met Notre Dame's next starting tackle in the person of a neighborhood newsboy. "A coach with such keen sight would be more of a marvel than any player," said Rockne. "The only man who can pick men by simply looking at them is a hotel night clerk, who is suspicious by nature of men without baggage."
Rockne's men came from near and far, from cities and hamlets, from high schools large and small. Some on arrival in South Bend were heralded stars, some were unsung.
In the first two decades of this century, before recruiting and eligibility rules became stringent, there was an amicable exchange of players between South Bend and the ivied East. Charles Crowley, who was later to become coach of Columbia, played for Notre Dame after playing for Harvard. Robert (Pete) Vaughan, the estimable Wabash coach, played for Notre Dame before playing for Princeton.
But the East was not the only field Notre Dame recruiters plowed. Kurth was recruited from within a stone's throw of the admissions office of the University of Wisconsin. As a high-schooler in Madison, he had been All-City for three years. He played freshman football at Wisconsin, but then quit school, disenchanted by a chemistry professor who openly admitted downgrading jocks in his private war against athletic overemphasis. A year and a half later, as Kurth, who was now planning to finish college without playing football, was on his way to reregister at Wisconsin, he was hailed by Badger Assistant Coach Tom Lieb, who had played for Rockne in '21 and '22. Three days later Kurth had a scholarship at Notre Dame.
Take the case of Schwartz, an All-America halfback who still ranks as one of Notre Dame's top ground-gainers. He learned his football in Bay St. Louis, Miss., at St. Stanislaus, a tiny parochial school that many years later produced Felix (Doc) Blanchard. Out of several dozen offers from schools as far away as Dartmouth, Schwartz accepted one from Loyola of New Orleans that was loaded with fringe benefits. A shipping tycoon named Blaise D'Antoni had determined that Loyola should become sort of a Notre Dame du Bayou. To persuade Schwartz to go to Loyola, D'Antoni gave him a 10-day cruise to Havana and Honduras, promised him train fare home on weekends and free theater tickets and two suits of clothes a year, as well as room, tuition and board all the way through law school. On top of that, Schwartz would be given a law clerk's job when his studies were done. "We spent an awful lot of time on the football field," Schwartz recalls. "Then I found out that there were about 10 players on the squad who were taking only a one-hour course at night and were still eligible.... I wanted to leave after two weeks."
Compared to the manner in which he had been wooed by Loyola, Schwartz' contact with Notre Dame had been scant indeed. There was no written promise of even free board or tuition; indeed, all he heard from the Irish was word passed along by an undergraduate that Rockne wanted him. In the winter of Schwartz' one year in New Orleans, Rockne—apparently in a tampering mood—visited Loyola's highly regarded coach, Clark Shaughnessy. Schwartz recalls that the Loyola squad was assembled to meet the great visitor, and when Rockne shook Schwartz' hand, he stared at him intently and said, "Why didn't you show up last fall? You're all set at Notre Dame. I'll see you next fall."
In contrast to some other schools, the atmosphere at Notre Dame was definitely not the sort to delude a player about his own importance. Kurth remembers, "When I walked into the equipment room with 117 other Notre Dame freshmen, I was given pants about four sizes wrong and a pair of very long shoes handed down from the hamburger squad. I told them, 'My God, I'll have to take four steps to catch up with the toes of these things.' " Jim Crowley says, "The equipment manager would throw an athletic supporter over the counter at you, and if you pointed out that it would take an elephant to fill it, he'd say, 'It's the one Gipp used.' " In his freshman year Don Miller, another of the Four Horsemen, was more than a week late reporting for freshman practice because the supply room had run out of pieces of equipment in his size. It is the sort of thing a freshman should accept, but Miller could reasonably have taken offense. In the 13 years before he entered Notre Dame, three of his brothers had given the school 10 years of varsity service.
Although its inducements were modest, Notre Dame got the talent Rockne wanted because he was a recruiter with imagination. Perhaps the most unusual of his recruits was Paul (Lefty) Castner, who had never played a minute of organized football but was given a scholarship by Rockne largely because he had won a kicking competition in France during World War I. "I was perfect material," Castner says. "Since I had never been coached, everything Rockne said was gospel." Castner, an All-America fullback, is one of four Notre Dame men who played both with Gipp and with the Four Horsemen. Indeed, it was because Castner's pelvis was cracked—and his career was ended—by a deliberate kneeing in the 1922 Butler game that the Horsemen first played together as a varsity backfield.
Castner also was instrumental in finding a position for his coach. While Rockne was often getting jobs for others, including rival players and coaches, Castner landed part-time work for Rockne that doubled his annual earnings. In the late '20s, while Castner was working for the Studebaker Corporation, he persuaded Paul Hoffman, then vice-president for sales, to hire Rockne to give inspirational talks to marketing personnel. By the time of his death, Rockne had been appointed director of sales promotion at Studebaker. Speaking on behalf of South Bend's leading industrial firm was a perfect job for Rockne. Despite the legendary halftime talks and transparent inspirational devices he sometimes employed, Rockne was a man who deeply respected the role he had been handed in life. Though he had received offers to coach at other colleges which would have more than doubled the $10,000 annual salary Notre Dame paid him, Rockne preferred to stay at the school he loved.
Next week: Coles Phinizy concludes his examination of the Rockne legend and scrutinizes the Gipper, the player who became almost as mythical a figure as his coach.