Rockne of Notre Dame

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The Book of the Week is “Rockne of Notre Dame, The Making of a Football Legend” by Ray Robinson, published in 1999.

Knute Rockne was born in March 1888 in western Norway. Two friends convinced him to become a student at Notre Dame (located in South Bend, Indiana), which had open enrollment for anyone who could pay the tuition. In the 1910’s, Rockne was able to get paid for playing and coaching American football simultaneously. The financial rules of football played at schools and football played as a form of work, were still evolving.

Rockne took full advantage: he knew all the public-relations tricks for building a reputation and maximizing his earnings. He sometimes played under a fake name, or sent a substitute to play under his real name. He got away with that because few people knew what he looked like.

In the nineteen-teens, Rockne became an assistant coach and trainer for the Notre Dame football team. He was promoted to head coach in 1918 when the previous one retired. One team member was a colorful character named George Gipp (as in “Win one for the Gipper”). His life outside football consisted of drinking, gambling and cutting classes.

Rockne condoned Gipp’s behavior because he helped the team achieve a winning record with his extraordinary talent. However, by March 1920, when Gipp’s sins became excessive and he was a bad influence– hurting the reputation of the school– Notre Dame’s administration basically told him “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son” (like in the movie, Animal House) and expelled him.

In a not-uncommon situation, by late April 1920, local businessmen pressured Notre Dame’s president into reinstating Gipp, because they wanted to see a winning football team, and they were major investors in the school’s then- and future facilities.

Rockne always had a profit-making pot of irons in the fire, that included betting on the games of his own team. Gambling was rampant among numerous stakeholders of the American sports scene at the time. By the early 1920’s, Rockne could even control his own press, becoming a weekly columnist (sometimes published by ghostwriters) in syndicated newspapers. No one seemed to care that conflicts abounded among Rockne’s other (concurrent!) positions– Notre Dame’s athletic director, football recruiter, track-team coach, etc.

The Notre Dame football team’s profitability rose when the team was finally invited to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year’s Day 1925. The school (pursuant to Rockne’s negotiations) collected a portion of the gate receipts (of paying fans at the stadium). The game was broadcast on the radio.

The Notre Dame team played against Army every year. The football community had yet to feel the effects of the Great Depression in their big game of November 1929 at the then-Yankee Stadium. “A special train brought in Notre Dame’s eighty-piece marching band, and hundreds of South Benders came along with them.”

Through the decades, Rockne’s influence spread far and wide, as he served as a father-figure to dozens of his players. He recommended them for coaching positions after they graduated.

Read the book to learn much more about how Rockne became a legend in Notre Dame football.