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Happy birthday, Knute

Mar 4, 2013, 3:49 PM EDT

Knute Rockne

After celebrating a magical 125th football season, it’s a nice little coincidence that today is Knute Rockne’s 125th birthday. The man who has been immortally intertwined with the history and traditions of Notre Dame football was born on March 4, 1888 in Voss, Norway.

I will not pretend to have the historical chops to properly quantify what Rockne meant to Notre Dame and its football program. But rare is the coach that means more to a team than Rockne to Notre Dame.

(That’s a debate worth having. What individual has embodied a team or a franchise more than Rockne to Notre Dame: Lombardi? Bryant? Steinbrenner? Paterno? Pitch in in the comments below…)

As we go through a bit of a lull between recruiting and spring football, here are some nice reads on Rockne that I thought were worth sharing.

This from a great piece by ND historian Jim Lefebvre at Forever Irish:

Wherever he was in life, Knute Rockne always seemed to have a vision.

He had a vision for how athletics – starting with his beloved track and field, and eventually including football – could serve as a means of striving toward the best person one could be.  Dedication, self-discipline, sportsmanship, fairness. These were among the attributes not always self-evident in athletic competition at the time, yet were the gospel Rockne would preach, and live, throughout his athletic career.

He saw how athletics could fit comfortably into the education of a fully developed man. And how collegiate athletics complemented classroom work to challenge and draw out the best traits of young student-athletes. Rockne fought hard against critics of collegiate athletics, always advocating for its inclusion in the academy.

Rockne also had a vision for how football could be played in a different way than in the early years of the 20th century, when its brutality and danger nearly caused its demise.

In Rockne’s mind, football became a combination chess game and track meet on grass, with an emphasis on speed, precision and teamwork.

This from a wonderful article by Lou Somogyi:

It would enough to say that in 13 seasons he posted 105 wins, only 12 losses and 5 ties (.881), recorded six national championships in one poll or another, compiled five unbeaten and untied campaigns and produced 20 first-team All-Americans.

But that would be like viewing 10 percent of the iceberg that is visible while the other 90 percent is under water..

Rockne became a national institution and Notre Dame became the national school. “Subway Alumni” were born in every section of the country, from the steelworker in Pittsburgh to the executive in California. In Rockne and Notre Dame, an identity of struggle, hope and triumph could be found — as was the glamour and popularity of sport.

“Football and all athletics should be a part of culture, the culture that makes the whole man, not a part-time thinker,” wrote Rockne. “Ancient Greece was a cradle of culture, and Ancient Greece was a nation of athletes… Boys must have an outlet for animal spirits. Their education must contain a training in clean contests, otherwise they’ll be lost in a world that thrives on competition and in which those who cannot compete cannot hope to thrive.

“Four years of football are calculated to breed in the average man more of the ingredients of success in life than most any academic course he takes…(Athletics) stirs the pulse, captures the imagination and, at the same time, builds character without which culture is valueless.

“Sportsmanship means fair play. It means an application of the Golden Rule. Bragging and gloating or any form of dishonesty have no place in it.”

And finally, this in-depth read from Andrew Owens, a student journalist for The Observer, who traveled to Rockne’s memorial, at the site of his fatal plane crash, near Bazaar, Kansas:

We trek through the bumpy trail, and after a few minutes we can see the memorial atop the hill.

Upon sight, we are speechless. Nothing but plains stretch beyond the memorial for miles. Engraved on the granite monument are eight names. Atop the list it reads, “ROCKNE MEMORIAL.” There is a small wiry fence around the monument Easter constructed years ago to protect it from the cattle.

Even today you’ll find bits of glass from the plane sitting atop the soil. It was a cloudy day when we were there, but Tom said when the sun shines or the rain pours down, you can see the hill shine from miles away.

Perched atop the hill, the world comes to a halt. I picked up a couple small shards of glass, and was immediately humbled as I realized I was handling one of the last remaining physical connections to Knute Rockne, the man.

Suddenly, it all makes sense. Rockne needed to die a heroic death for the myth to be this grand and everlasting.

While his name is the only one remembered of the eight who died in the crash, in that moment he was just as vulnerable and helpless as the others aboard the flight. When it dove into the hill in the middle of America with nothing around them, Knute Rockne the man ceased to exist, but the legend found a new beginning.

If you are feeling like a deep dive into the life of Rockne, these three are just the beginning. All articles linked are worth reading in their entirety, and nice remembrances of a complex man that was ahead of his time and responsible for so much of what we still see today.

Happy birthday, Rock.


  1. dudeacow - Mar 4, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    Happy birthday, Knute. Without you Notre Dame never would have risen to prominence. Every great football team has a cornerstone to look back on, and you are ours.

  2. 11thstreetmafia - Mar 4, 2013 at 6:08 PM

    Go Irish!!!!

  3. 9irish - Mar 4, 2013 at 11:04 PM

    Good post. He not only made Notre Dame, he (and some contemporaries) made college football. Just such a poetic, dramatic way to go out. He was a leader. People don’t understand how directly the coach’s personality bleeds into the team. He had that. Great man.

    Go Irish

  4. dillonbigred - Mar 5, 2013 at 12:16 AM

    Great article. While traveling around Europe after graduating in 1983, I came across a memorial commemorating the birthplace of Rockne in Voss, Norway. Totally unexpected and a cool moment. Of course I had to get a picture. Showed me the international respect for Knute and ND football.

  5. yaketyyacc - Mar 5, 2013 at 6:31 AM

    I was a new freshman at ND. Didn’t want to go to college, so I aplied to ND, sure that I would be rejected. But, here I was, walking around these new surroundings, and, passing Wahsingtoon Hall, saw a movie cannister. Couldn’t make out the name: K te Rock… somthing. bacd at Breen Phili[ps hall, one of the guys asked generally,, if anyone knew what the moviie was going to be.
    speqaking up, it’s an indian movie about chief K te Rock. They laughed. Good joke Yacc. So what was the joke?
    Seated in Washington Hall, the lights went out and the movie began, and the story of ND and Knute Rockne developed. All I could think of, was, I’d give my right arm to go to Notre Dame. And then, I realized that I was at NOtre Dame. How can you have a dream come true before you have the dream? Needless to say, my life has been profoundly affected. thank you Knute Rocken for coming to Noitre Dame, and thank you Notre Dame for being dumb enough to admit me.
    Happy Birthday, Rock.

  6. nchdomer - Mar 5, 2013 at 7:03 AM

    Nice article. Rockne has always defined Notre Dame. It was him and his teams that created the lore and legend of Notre Dame. I once spoke with Jim Seymour of “Hanratty to Seymour” fame about ND possibly joining the Big Ten and whether he would be in favor of such a move. His answer was an emphatic NO but the reason was what I found both surprising and interesting. He cited to Rockne and the history he created at Notre Dame. He was afraid it would all be lost if ND ever became part of the Big Ten (or any conference) in football. Penn State, the “Beast of the East” was used as an example that lost, at least in the public eye, its previous identity that existed before it was a conference member. Years later I equated the analysis to the NFL Championship. It is rare to see any reference to those games and teams. NFL history now seems to begin and end with the Super Bowl. Only the Green Bay Ice Bowl or Colts televised championship game get much attention in the media. In any event, it is Rockne, the Gipper and the Four Horsemen that keep Notre Dame’s past alive and I for one hope the school continues to embrace that past. Every season I make a journey over to the Rock to rub Rockne’s nose on his famous bust – not just for luck in winning the day’s game but to also remember the past, both of the school and my days there. Go Irish!

    • 9irish - Mar 5, 2013 at 1:23 PM

      Very good points……nobody remembers the NFL Championships of the Cleveland Browns. Notre Dame is all about continuity.

  7. nolanwiffle - Mar 5, 2013 at 9:27 AM

    Art Rooney…..Pittsburgh Steelers
    Babe Ruth…..New York Yankees
    Red Auerbach…..Boston Celtics
    Tom Landry…..Dallas Cowboys
    John Wooden…..UCLA

    • nudeman - Mar 5, 2013 at 11:31 AM

      George Halas?

  8. stedward - Mar 5, 2013 at 10:18 AM

    Don’t forget his contributions under Fr. Nieuwland to help create one of the first types of synthetic rubber. Fr. Nieuwland thought he was wasting his talent as a chemist by coaching football. I think he made the right choice.

  9. jem5b - Mar 5, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    My dad ran track under KKRockne from 1923-1927, he was as humble a man as Rock would have liked.

  10. alsatiannd - Mar 5, 2013 at 1:18 PM

    Rockne’s passionate belief that atheltics makes better men saved college football. There was a time, when football was gaining popularity, that death was frequent. Congress, lawmakers, and social reformers feared that football was not only lethal, but bad for society. There was a serious national debate about it during Rockne’s time.

    I came aross a clipping from the era that listed all of the football fatalities for that year at the high school and collegiate level. It wasn’t so much the number of deaths that was shocking, it was the gruesomeness of the injuries that caused death. There were the expected head injuries and punctured lungs that led to death, but also “blood poisoning” (since this preceded peniciliin and othe anti-biotics) but also a few poor souls who’s cause of death was listed as “kick to the groin.”

    • 9irish - Mar 5, 2013 at 1:35 PM

      Owwww! I think that was Teddy Roosevelt that was on that crusade, which seems odd. You are right though, it wasn’t just the injuries it was the inability to take care of them at that time.

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