Though his encouragement to “Win one for the Gipper” is all that many know about him, legendary football coach Knute Rockne may be credited with changing the face of the game and putting South Bend, Indiana on the map. As the coach of the Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” from 1918 to 1931, Rockne had the most winning record of any college or professional football coach before or since. His 88.1% record included 105 victories, 12 losses, 5 ties, and 6 national championships. Five of his thirteen seasons the team was undefeated without a tie.
The Norwegian-born Rockne immigrated as a child to the United States, and eventually enrolled in Notre Dame at the age of 22. Over the course of his college career, the Protestant became a Catholic, and the five-foot-eight, 160-pounder, a football star, known for putting the “forward pass” to great use. After graduating, Rockne remained in South Bend to teach chemistry and coach football. Such tactics as a passing offense and a unique movement by his backfield–the soon-to-be-outlawed “Notre Dame shift”–won games and fans for the Fighting Irish. Away from the gridiron, Rockne’s skills as a promoter enhanced the game’s purview as well. The coach managed publicity for the team, designed uniforms, wrote a weekly news column, and contributed regularly to radio broadcasts. Attendance swelled at games, and the small parochial school in northern Indiana became the focus of a growing cadre of football fans. Rockne’s teams held a particular appeal for the immigrant, Catholic population. The Notre Dame fight song became a national sports anthem.
Though Rockne suffered from phlebitis and spent some time coaching from a wheelchair, he remained active in many arenas. He worked in promotions for the Studebaker auto company, and two models of the locally manufactured car bore his name. In early 1931, he was en route to Hollywood to assist in the production of the film The Spirit of Notre Dame when his plane crashed in Kansas, killing Rockne at the age of 43. More than 100,000 people paid him homage in the procession from his South Bend home to his funeral at Notre Dame, the first to be broadcast internationally.
Though the coach was knighted posthumously in Norway, it is as “Knute Rockne: All-American” that he may be best remembered, thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s reprise of a line from that 1940 film in which he co-starred: “Win one for the Gipper”. Ironically, it has been suggested that Rockne fabricated George Gipp’s dying words in order to rally the team during a close game eight years after the star player’s death.
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