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Knute Rockne

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Knute Rockne

Knute Rockne
Date of birth: (1888-03-04)March 4, 1888
Place of birth: Voss, Norway
Date of death: March 31, 1931(1931-03-31) (aged 43)
Place of death: Bazaar, Kansas, United States
Career information
Position(s): End
College: Notre Dame
As administrator:
1920–1930 Notre Dame
As coach:
Notre Dame (assistant)[1]
South Bend J. F. C.s
Notre Dame
As player:
Notre Dame
Akron Indians
Massillon Tigers
Career highlights and awards
, 1951

Knute Kenneth Rockne ( ; March 4, 1888 – March 31, 1931) was an American football player and coach, both at the University of Notre Dame. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in college football history.[2] His biography at the College Football Hall of Fame calls him "without question, American football's most-renowned coach." A Norwegian American, he was educated as a chemist at the University of Notre Dame. He popularized the forward pass and made Notre Dame a major factor in collegiate football.

Early life

Knute Rockne was born Knut Larsen Rokne[3] in Voss, Norway, to the smith and wagonmaker Lars Knutson Rokne (1858–1912) and his wife Martha Pedersdatter Gjermo (1859–1944). He emigrated with his parents at five years old to Chicago.[4] He grew up in the Logan Square area of Chicago, on the northwest side of the city.[5] Rockne learned to play football in his neighborhood and later played end in a local group called the Logan Square Tigers. He attended North West Division High School in Chicago playing football and also running track.

After Rockne graduated from high school, he took a job as a mail dispatcher with the Chicago Post Office for four years. When he was 22, he had saved enough money to continue his education. He headed to Notre Dame in Indiana to finish his schooling. Rockne excelled as a football end while at the university, winning All-American honors in 1913. He also helped to transform the collegiate game in a single contest. On November 1, 1913, the Notre Dame squad stunned the highly regarded Army team 35–13 in a game played at West Point. Led by quarterback Charlie "Gus" Dorais and Rockne, the Notre Dame team attacked the Cadets with an offense that featured both the expected powerful running game but also long and accurate downfield forward passes from Dorais to Rockne. This game was not the "invention" of the forward pass but it was the first major contest in which a team used the forward pass regularly throughout the game.

He graduated from Notre Dame in 1914 with a degree in pharmacy. After graduating he was the laboratory assistant to noted polymer chemist Julius Arthur Nieuwland at Notre Dame and helped out with the football team, but rejected further work in chemistry after receiving an offer to coach football. In 1914, he was recruited by Peggy Parratt to play for the Akron Indians. There Parratt had Rockne playing both end and halfback and teamed with him on several successful forward pass plays during their title drive.[1] Knute wound up in Massillon, Ohio, in 1915 along with former Notre Dame teammate Dorais to play with the professional Massillon Tigers. Rockne and Dorias brought the forward pass to professional football from 1915 to 1917 when they led the Tigers to the championship in 1915.[6] Pro Football in the Days of Rockne by Emil Klosinski maintains the worst loss ever suffered by Rockne was in 1917. He coached the "South Bend Jolly Fellows Club" when they lost 40 to 0 to the Toledo Maroons.[7]

Notre Dame coach

[8] During 13 years as head coach, Rockne led his "Fighting Irish" to 105 victories, 12 losses, five ties, and three national championships, including five undefeated seasons without a tie. Rockne posted the highest all-time winning percentage (.881) for an American FBS/Division I college football coach.[9] His players included Four Horsemen" (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden), Frank Thomas, Frank Leahy, and Curly Lambeau.

Rockne introduced the "shift", with the backfield lining up in a T formation and then quickly shifting into a box to the left or right just as the ball was snapped. Rockne was also shrewd enough to recognize that intercollegiate sports had a show-business aspect. Thus he worked hard promoting Notre Dame football so as to make it financially successful. He used his considerable charm to court favor from the media, which then consisted of newspapers, wire services and radio stations and networks, to obtain free advertising for Notre Dame football. He was very successful as an advertising pitchman, for South Bend-based Studebaker and other products.

For all his success, Rockne also made what an Associated Press writer called "one of the greatest coaching blunders in history."[10] Instead of coaching his 1926 team against Carnegie Tech, Rockne traveled to Chicago for the Army–Navy Game to "write newspaper articles about it, as well as select an All-America football team."[10] Carnegie Tech used the coach's absence as motivation for a 19–0 win; the upset likely cost the Irish a chance for a national title.[10]

On November 10, 1928, when the "Fighting Irish" team was losing to Army, 6-0, at the end of the half, Rockne entered the locker room and told the team the words he heard on Gipp's deathbed in 1920: "I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy." This inspired the team, who then outscored Army in the second half and won the game, 12-6.

Personal life

Rockne was married to Bonnie Gwendoline Skiles (December 18, 1891 – June 2, 1956), the daughter of George Skiles and Huldah Dry. They had four children. He converted from the Lutheran to the Roman Catholic faith in 1923. They were married at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Sandusky, Ohio.

Plane crash and public reaction

Rockne died in the crash of an airplane—TWA Flight 599—in Kansas on March 31, 1931, while en route to participate in the production of the film The Spirit of Notre Dame (released October 13, 1931). He had stopped in Kansas City, to visit his two sons, Bill and Knute, Jr., who were in boarding school there at the Pembroke-Country Day School. A little over an hour after taking off from Kansas City, one of the Fokker Trimotor's wings separated in flight. The plane crashed into a wheat field near Bazaar, Kansas, killing Rockne and seven others.[11]

Coincidentally, Jess Harper, a friend of Rockne's and the coach whom Rockne had replaced at Notre Dame, was living about 100 miles from the spot the crash, and was called to identify Rockne's body.[12][13] On the spot where the plane crashed, a memorial dedicated to the victims stands surrounded by a wire fence with wooden posts; it was maintained for many years by James Easter Heathman, who, at age 13 in 1931, was one of the first people to arrive at the site of the tragedy.[14]

The sudden, dramatic death of Rockne startled the nation, and triggered a national outpouring of grief, comparable to the deaths of presidents. President Herbert Hoover called Rockne's death "a national loss."[14][15] King Haakon VII of Norway (Rockne's birthplace) posthumously knighted Rockne, and sent a personal envoy to Rockne's massive funeral. Tens of thousands of people from across the nation gathered for the funeral, which was broadcast around the globe.[16][17]

Rockne was buried in Highland Cemetery in South Bend, which is several miles from the Notre Dame campus.[18]

Driven by the public feeling for Rockne, the crash story played out at length in nearly all of the nation's newspapers, and gradually evolved into a demanding public inquiry into the causes and circumstances of the crash.[12][19][20]

The national outcry over the air disaster that killed Rockne (and the 7 others) triggered sweeping changes to airliner design, manufacturing, operation, inspection, maintenance, regulation and crash-investigation—igniting a safety revolution that ultimately transformed airline travel worldwide, from the most dangerous form of travel to the safest form of travel.[12]


Knute Rockne bronze sculpture in Voss, Norway.

Rockne was not the first coach to use the forward pass, but he helped popularize it nationally. Most football historians agree that a few schools, notably St. Louis University (under coach Eddie Cochems), Michigan, Carlisle and Minnesota, had passing attacks in place before Rockne arrived at Notre Dame. The great majority of passing attacks, however, consisted solely of short pitches and shovel passes to stationary receivers. Additionally, few of the major eastern teams that constituted the power center of college football at the time used the pass. In the summer of 1913, while he was a lifeguard on the beach at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, Rockne and his college teammate and roommate Gus Dorais worked on passing techniques. These were employed in games by the 1913 Notre Dame squad and subsequent Harper- and Rockne-coached teams and included many features common in modern passing, including having the passer throw the ball overhand and having the receiver run under a football and catch the ball in stride. That fall, Notre Dame upset heavily favored Army, 35-13, at West Point thanks to a barrage of Dorais-to-Rockne long downfield passes. The game played an important role in displaying the potency of the forward pass and "open offense" and convinced many coaches to add pass plays to their play books. The game is dramatized in the movies Knute Rockne, All American and The Long Gray Line.


Memorial plaque to Knute Rockne in his birth town of Voss, Norway
  • Notre Dame memorializes him in the Knute Rockne Memorial Building, an athletic facility built in 1937, as well as the main football stadium.[21]
  • The Rockne Memorial, crash site, Bazaar, Kansas, at the site of the crash of TWA Flight 599, memorializes Rockne and the 7 others who died with him. Erected by Easter Heathman (d.), who as a boy was a crash eyewitness, and among the first to respond. Every five (5) years since the crash, a memorial ceremony is held there (and at a nearby schoolhouse), drawing relatives of the victims, and Rockne / Notre Dame fans, from around the world. Now part of the Heathman family estate, accessible only by arrangement, or during memorial commemorations.[12]
  • The Matfield Green rest stop travel plaza (center foyer), on the Kansas Turnpike, near Bazaar (where TWA Flight 599 crashed, killing Rockne), has a large, glassed-in exhibit commemorating Rockne (chiefly), as well as the other crash victims, and the crash.[12]
  • The town of Rockne, Texas, was named to honor him. In 1931, the children of Sacred Heart School were given the opportunity to name their town. A vote was taken, with the children electing to name the town after Rockne, who had died in a plane crash earlier that year. On March 10, 1988, Rockne opened its post office for one day, during which a Knute Rockne twenty-two-cent commemorative stamp was issued. A life size bust of Rockne was unveiled on March 4, 2006.
Knute Rockne memorial on the Kansas Turnpike.
  • The Studebaker automobile company of South Bend marketed the Rockne automobile between 1931 and 1933. It was a separate product line of Studebaker and priced in the low cost market segment.
  • Symphonic composer Ferde Grofe composed a musical suite in Rockne's honor shortly after the coach's death.
  • The short film I Am an American (1944) featured Rockne as a foreign born citizen[22]
  • In 1988, the Knute Rockne, All American, gave an address at the Athletic & Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame on March 9, 1988, and officially unveiled the Rockne stamp.
  • A biographical musical of Rockne's life premiered at the Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, on April 3, 2008. The musical is based on a play and mini-series by Buddy Farmer.[24]
  • The US Navy named a ship in the Liberty ship class after Knute Rockne in 1943. The name of the ship was SS Knute Rockne. The ship was scrapped in 1972.[25]

Head coaching record

Year Team Overall Conference Standing Bowl/playoffs
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Independent) (1918–1930)
1918 Notre Dame 3–1–2
1919 Notre Dame 9–0
1920 Notre Dame 9–0
1921 Notre Dame 10–1
1922 Notre Dame 8–1–1
1923 Notre Dame 9–1
1924 Notre Dame 10–0 W Rose
1925 Notre Dame 7–2–1
1926 Notre Dame 9–1
1927 Notre Dame 7–1–1
1928 Notre Dame 5–4
1929 Notre Dame 9–0
1930 Notre Dame 10–0
Notre Dame: 105–12–5
Total: 105–12–5
      National championship         Conference title         Conference division title

Further reading

  • Jerry Brondfield, "Rockne: The Coach, the Man, the Legend" (1976, reissued 2009)
  • Ray Robinson, "Rockne of Notre Dame: The Making of a Football Legend" (1999)
  • Murray Sperber, "Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football" (1993)
  • Norsk Biografisk leksikon (NBL)
  • Kelly, Jason. "St. Knute had a ruthless side too." South Bend Tribune. July 28, 2006.
  • Carter, Bob, Sports Century Biography:"Knute Rockne was Notre Dame's master motivator,", Special to
  • Lindquist, Sherry C. M., "Memorializing Knute Rockne at the University of Notre Dame: Collegiate Gothic Architecture and Institutional Identity," "Winterthur Portfolio" (Spring 2012), 46#1 pp 1–24. DOI: 10.1086/665045

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Whittingham, Richard (2001). "3". Rites of autumn: the story of college football. New York: The Free Press. pp. 58–61.  
  3. ^ "Baptism certificate". 
  4. ^ "Death of Rockne".  
  5. ^ Cutler, Irving (2006). Chicago, Metropolis of the Mid-continent. SIU Press. p. 75. 
  6. ^ PFRA Research (n.d.c). "Thorpe Arrives: 1915".  
  7. ^ Emil Klosinski. Pro Football in the Days of Rockne. p. 135. 
  8. ^ :Portions of this section are adapted from Murray Sperber's book Shake Down The Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football
  9. ^ Fortuna, Matt (July 9, 2012). "Numbers don't tell story of Knute Rockne". Retrieved July 24, 2012. 
  10. ^ a b c Robinson, Alan (September 9, 2007). "Rockne's gaffe remembered". The Daily Texan (Texas Student Media). Retrieved 2007-09-06. 
  11. ^ The Official Knute Rockne Web Site. URL accessed 03:54, 29 January 2006 (UTC)
  12. ^ a b c d e Fans & Family Remember the Crash Heard 'Round the World, 2011, by aviation historian Richard Harris
  13. ^ The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame,'s%20body&f=false
  14. ^ a b Sudekum Fisher, Maria (2008-02-01). "J. E. Heathman; found crash that killed Rockne".  
  15. ^ Hoover, Herbert, President of the United States, message to Mrs. Knute Rockne, 119 - "Message of Sympathy on the Death of Knute Rockne", April 1, 1931, Washington D.C., cited on the web site of The American Presidency Project
  16. ^ "The Last Flight of Knute Rockne" web page, in "Moments" section of "125 Football" website, University of Notre Dame: photos of funeral, newspaper clippings, video of Irish coach Ara Parseghian's boyhood reminiscence about the tragedy.
  17. ^ Lindquist, Sherry C.M., "Memorializing Knute Rockne at the University of Notre Dame: Collegiate Gothic Architecture and Institutional Identity", in Winterthur Portfolio, Vol_ 46, No_ 1 (Spring 2012), pp_ 1-24 on
  18. ^ "In Search of Rockne's Grave,"
  19. ^ Johnson, Randy, M.A. (Ph.D. candidate, Ohio Univ., Athens, OH; certified airline transport pilot & flight instructor), "The 'Rock': The Role of the Press in Bringing About Change in Aircraft Accident Policy.", Journal of Air Transportation World Wide, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2000, Aviation Institute, University of Nebraska at Omaha.
  20. ^ O'Leary, Michael, "The Plane that Changed the World", Part 1., Air Classics, vol.46, no.10, Nov.2010, pp.28-48, including sidebar: "Effects of the Rockne Crash".
  21. ^ Sherry C. M. Lindquist. "Memorializing Knute Rockne at the University of Notre Dame: Collegiate Gothic Architecture and Institutional Identity," Winterthur Portfolio (Spring 2012), 46#1 pp 1-24
  22. ^ The 16 minute film, I Am an American, was featured in American theaters as a short feature in connection with "I Am an American Day" (now called Jay Silverheels. See: I Am An American at the TCM Movie Database and I Am an American at the Internet Movie Database.
  23. ^ Scott catalog # 2376.
  24. ^ Playbill News: Notre Dame Coach Gets Spotlight in Knute Rockne Musical in Indiana, April 3-May 11
  25. ^ List of Liberty ships: Je-L
  26. ^ Knute Rockne, Dick Vermeil and Ki-Jana Carter to be Inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, Tournament of Roses Association, August 26, 2014

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