Before USC and Notre Dame ever took the football field, they clashed over a head coach. Knute Rockne, one of the all-time greats of football and a man immortalized by his coaching career at Notre Dame, very nearly left Notre Dame to accept a lucrative offer to become USC’s football coach.
It’s amazing to think about Rockne’s legacy had he left South Bend for Southern California. But as Rockne biographer Jim Lefebvre writes, it very nearly happened. After a three week barnstorming trip ended the 1924 season with the Irish winning the Rose Bowl, Rockne and his wife stayed in Southern California for some much needed R&R.
The red carpet that was rolled out by Irish fans all across the country stayed on the ground for the nation’s most popular coach. In between meetings with movie stars and enjoying the pleasant January climate, the trip also included a meeting with officials from Southern Cal, who were desperate to improve their football program.
I’ll let Lefebvre take it from here:
Already, Bonnie Rockne had fallen in love with southern California. The sunny days, soft breezes, comfortable nights, open spaces and orange groves all spoke to a more relaxing existence than back in cold, snowy, sometimes stark South Bend. Here, kids could easily play outdoors year-round, with plenty of activities from which to choose. For Knute, now a celebrity himself, the idea of being around the movie stars and other notables had a certain appeal. And when they were taken on a tour of the recently constructed Coliseum, its columns and arches mimicking its Roman namesake, its huge field surrounded by nearly 76,000 bleacher seats, the Rocknes were all but sold. No more would Rockne have to dream of the far-off day when the authorities at Notre Dame and in South Bend could become perfectly aligned and the coffers full enough to erect a proper stadium. Here, he envisioned year-round use of the magnificent structure for not just football games, but track meets, athletic festivals, and coaching schools.
Southern Cal was willing to meet a number of conditions – and make Rockne a relatively wealthy man. This was vastly different from some of the other schools who had approached him. Northwestern, Iowa, Carnegie Tech – most of these were trial balloons being floated by schools officials hoping to get a read on Rockne’s willingness to leave South Bend. As recently as December, a prominent alumnus at Wisconsin made it known to Rockne he could take over as football coach and athletic director; but Rock didn’t pursue the lead, in deference to his great friend, Badger basketball coach Doc Meanwell, himself a candidate for athletic director. But this offer, from a land with so much to offer, this was different. Rockne’s pledge that he would never leave Notre Dame seemed long ago and far away, even after winning a national championship.
The Rocknes wrapped up their stay, said goodbye to the palm trees and sweet smells of jasmine, and headed back to snowy South Bend. On January 15, 1925, the Southern Cal comptroller wired Rockne that all of his conditions had been met. But the agreement soon took an awkward course. News of the offer made the Los Angeles papers, and then those across the country, before Rockne was able to meet with Father Walsh and attempt to get out of his long-term Notre Dame contract. Walsh, like many others, found out about the offer from the newspaper reports, and threatened legal action if it proceeded. Southern Cal officials apologized for the leaked story, but reiterated its desire to sign Rockne. In the end, though, Walsh’s bluff worked to scuttle the deal. Rockne feared legal action, and told Southern Cal he regretted the whole incident, since it might have put him in a negative light with some important Notre Dame alumni. A final shot came from one Southern Cal official, who noted that it was “almost criminal” for Notre Dame to hold Rockne to his contract, if it was clear Mrs. Rockne much preferred to live in Los Angeles.
Nobody is comparing Brian Kelly to Knute Rockne, but it’s hard not to see the parallels between Rockne’s flirtation with USC and Kelly’s interview with the Philadelphia Eagles. The few days after Notre Dame’s appearance in the National Championship game had Irish fans and the sporting world hanging in a lurch. They’d have only been magnified if a coach of Rockne’s stature looked to move from one high profile program to another.
(No pressure Nick Saban…)
For more on Rockne’s fascinating life, purchase Jim’s book, “Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne.”