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Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Coaches #3 Knute Rockne

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Were It Not For His Tragic Death, What Else Could This Legendary Coach Have Accomplished?

Knute Rockne Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Notre Dame Football has one of the richest histories in the sport of college football. Despite not winning a national championship since 1988, the Irish are firmly entrenched as one of the elites in the sport. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the top ten greatest head coaches in the history of Irish Football. This will be a ten part series.

3. Knute Rockne

Tenure: 1918-1930

Record: 105-12-5

Knute Rockne was born in Voss, Norway on March 4th, 1888. Shortly after his birth, the Rockne family sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new life and settled in Chicago. As a child, Knute Rockne took a keen interest in the sport of football. Growing up, he could usually be found playing the game with a group of neighborhood kids. He found that he was quite good at football, playing through his years at North West Division High School. Following high school, he worked at a post office for 4 years as he worked to save money for college. At age 22, Rockne achieved his goal and headed to Notre Dame. In the classroom, Rockne set about pursuing another of his passions, chemistry. When he wasn’t in the laboratory, Rockne could be found on the football field. After he was cut from the Irish squad in 1910, Rockne worked relentlessly to ensure he would make the team the following season. His hard work paid off as he held down the left-end position from 1911-1914. He concluded his playing career at Notre Dame with several noteworthy achievements. . Rockne played in the 1913 contest against Army, a game which is credited with modernizing the game of college football. Playing end, Rockne was the recipient of a touchdown pass that day from quarterback Gus Dorais. He also earned 3rd team All-American honors in 1913 and left school with a 22-0-2 record as a player.

Knute Rockne In Football Uniform Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Following graduation, Notre Dame’s coach at the time, Jesse Harper, hired Rockne to be his assistant. In addition to working under Harper from 1914-1917, Rockne played with the Akron Indians in 1914 and the Massillon Tigers from 1915-1917. Technically, he made his head coaching debut for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 1916, filling in for Harper who came down with an illness. In his head coaching debut, Notre Dame defeated Wabash 60-0. In the winter of 1918, Rockne accepted an offer from Michigan Agricultural to become their head coach. However, due to a death in the family, Jesse Harper had to resign as head coach and convinced the university to promote Rockne as the next head coach. University officials listened to Harper and named Rockne the next head coach shortly after Harper’s resignation.Though many did not know it at the time, Rockne was about to transform a tiny school in Indiana into a college football powerhouse.

Rockne’s first season at the helm forced the young coach to deal with innumerable obstacles. Abroad, the United States had joined World War I and many young men were drafted into the service. At home, the country was embroiled in a fight against the deadly Spanish Flu. The flu and the war had deep impacts on the 1918 college football season as many teams grappled with depleted rosters and travel restrictions to help prevent the spread of the disease. Thanks to those travel restrictions, Notre Dame opened the season away from home for the first time in nearly 20 years, could not play in the month of October, and was forced to play all regional schools. The restriction on national travel was a big blow to Rockne’s program. Previously, Jesse Harper had begun to develop a national brand in football, a model that Rockne hoped to continue as coach. Furthermore, Rockne did not have any assistants on his staff. Overcoming all of these hurdles, the team sported a 3-1-2 record at the end of the season. Despite the shortened season, players such as George Gipp, Hunk Anderson, and Curly Lambeau began to make names for themselves on the football field.

Knute Rockne Going over Plays on Blackboard

After such a complicated start to his tenure in South Bend, the 1919 season saw a welcome return to normalcy. Rockne hired his former quarterback, Gus Dorais, to be his assistant coach. With travel restrictions eased, Rockne again scheduled the annual contest at Army, giving his team an opportunity for national exposure. Notre Dame did not lose a single game during the year, finishing 9-0. The team outscored its opponents 229-47 on the year and held everyone but Purdue to single digits. The closest contest of the year came against Army, which saw the Irish pull out a 12-9 victory. Prior to the invention of the AP Poll in 1936, there were a variety of outlets that crowned a national champion. At the end of the 1919 season, 5 teams had been selected by various outlets as National Champions. Notre Dame was selected as the 1919 National Champions retroactively by the National Championship Foundation and Parke Davis. Despite their on-field success and undefeated record, Notre Dame does not recognize this as a championship season as it was a co-national championship. In addition to Notre Dame, the following schools were awarded a championship during the 1919 season: Centre, Harvard, Illinois, and Texas A&M, all of whom recognize their title.

One would think that coming off of an undefeated season, the following season would be inevitable disappointment. However, Rockne’s men had other plans. The 1920 season closely resembled the 1919 outfit in several ways. Winning all 9 of their games, the 1920 version was arguably more dominant on the field. In 1920, Notre Dame outscored its opponents 250-44. Unable to match the previous year’s team, Notre Dame permitted 2 teams to reach double digits on the scoreboard. In the October 30th clash against Army, George Gipp totaled 480 yards rushing, passing, returning kickoffs, and returning punts as the Irish defeated the Cadets 27-17. The game would be his last dazzling performances on the field.

Though some teammates were quoted in later years saying they felt Gipp looked sick all season, he developed a sore throat following a game against Indiana on November 13th. The game against the Hoosiers was actually the toughest contest all year for the Irish. Facing a 10-0 4th quarter deficit, the team rallied to score 2 touchdowns and pulled out a 13-10 win. Despite his illness, Gipp traveled to Evanston the following weekend to take on Northwestern on November 20th. On a cold, blustery day, Rockne planned to Gipp on the sideline. With the Irish up big in the 4th, the stadium began to call for the star to be inserted into the game. Relenting, Rockne allowed him onto the field. In the final quarter he would ever play, George Gipp tossed 2 touchdown passes, and Notre Dame defeated Northwestern 33-7. The following week Gipp would be admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital with a bad streptococcal infection. He was unable to overcome the infection and passed away on December 14th. One of the more legendary stories of the Rockne-era centered around Gipp’s death. Supposedly while he was on his deathbed, with Rockne in the room, Gipp made a final request. In a speech popularized in the movie Knute Rockne: All American, George Gipp (played by Ronald Reagan) said, “Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are 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.” Though Rockne swore the encounter occurred, many of Gipp’s friends felt that the request would have been abnormal for him to make, even as a dying wish. Gipp’s death cast a somber tone over the 1920 season and lessened the jubilation a 2nd consecutive co-national champion selection. Parke Davis selected the Irish and Princeton as the 1920 National Champion. In addition, California also was selected by several outlets as the national champion. Unfortunately, Notre Dame does not recognize the 1920 National Championship as it was a co-national championship.

Riding an 18 game winning streak, Rockne entered the 1921 seeking national respect. Though the Irish had been unbeaten for two seasons, they played a fairly weak schedule and did not have the respect of the masses. After winning the season’s first 2 games of the season 56-0 and 57-10, respectively, the Irish traveled to Iowa City to take on Iowa for the first time in program history. Despite outgaining the Hawkeyes 398-245 in total yards and completing 15 passes to Iowa’s 1, the Hawkeyes snuck away with a 10-7 win, giving the Irish their first loss since 1918. Following the setback, Rockne would lead the team to 8 straight victories, including 5 shutouts. Continuing to establish a presence in the New York City area, the Irish had a 2 game road trip out east at Army and against Rutgers at the Polo Grounds. In addition, Rockne continued to drive the college game forward with his reliance on the forward pass. The esteemed writer, Grantland Rice, noted, “{Notre Dame in 1921} was the first team we know of to build its attack around a forward passing game, rather than using a forward passing game as a mere aid to the running game.” This strategy helped Notre Dame to bludgeon many opponents as they averaged 34.1 points per game in an era that was routinely defined by hard fought, defensive battles. Unfortunately, due to the loss to Iowa, Rockne was prevented from claiming a 3rd straight national title as the team closed with a 10-1 mark on the year.

Heading into the 1922 season, one thing had become clear; Knute Rockne was a damn good football coach. In his first 4 seasons, he had won 31 games, lost 2 games, and tied 2 others. The 1922 season would be a continuation of his dominance. Rockne’s famed 7-2-2 defense held its first 4 opponents to a grand total of 7 points. Though his teams set the standards throughout the 1920s, it is a wonder why more teams did not employ Rockne’s defensive scheme In an era in where many teams simply ran the ball every play, a line with 7 defenders made it tough sledding for an opposing offense. The initial test of the season came when Rockne took his team south to face Georgia Tech. At the time, the Yellow Jackets were undefeated at home against teams from the north. Undaunted, Notre Dame marched out with a 13-3 victory. After defeating Indiana, the Irish traveled east and battled Army to a 0-0 final. Defeating Butler 31-3 in Indianapolis and Carniege Tech 19-0 in Pittsburgh set up a season finale at Nebraska. A win and the team would be in position for another national championship. Unfortunately, the previous month of barnstorming caught up to the team. Not only was the team travel weary, they had also been victimized by a number of injuries throughout the season. Standout tackle, Tommy Lieb had suffered a broken leg in the third game of the season on a blindside hit, while outstanding fullback, Paul Castner suffered a broken pelvis on a dirty hit in the game against Butler. Though the Irish fought valiantly, their injuries and fatigue finally caught up to them as Nebraska defeated them 14-6. Though the season was subpar by Rockne’s standards with an 8-1-1 mark, several younger players debuted for the Irish, including Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden. Though they had suffered a loss and a tie in their first season on the varsity squad, these minor setbacks would help set Notre Dame up for success in the coming seasons.

Knute Kenneth Rockne (1888-1931), American Football Coach Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

With the star studded backfield a year older in 1923, the expectation was a national championship. Notre Dame plowed through their first two games of the year by an aggregate score of 88-0. The usual late season showdown against Army was moved to the middle of October in 1923. The game was moved due to the teams playing at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the first neutral site contest in the series. The location was moved in an attempt to accommodate the fan interest in the game, though Ebbets Field would only host the game for 1 season as both teams searched for a larger stadium. Georgia Tech traveled north to face the Irish the following week, a game which the Irish won 35-7. After defeating Purdue, Rockne’s squad turned its attention to the west. Seeking to avenge their only loss the previous season, the Irish traveled to face Nebraska. In the first half of the game, Notre Dame twice had the ball inside the 25 yard line and could not score. Nebraska added a touchdown in the 3rd and 4th quarter to hold a 14-0 lead before allowing Notre Dame a late touchdown as the Irish lost 14-7. The Irish won their remaining 3 games, finishing the year with a 9-1 record.

Prior to the 1924 season, Notre Dame announced a 10 year contract with Rockne that would pay him $10,000 per year. Before the extension was announced, there were rumors that Rockne was unhappy with Notre Dame’s administration. His major point of contention was that he was restricted from designing the schedule the way he wanted year in and year out. If he had his way, the team would have been traveling cross-country to play the sport’s premier teams. Whether in an effort to get more money or gain some sort of leverage, he leaked to the press that USC and Iowa had called to inquire about his services. The Notre Dame administration yielded on the scheduling restrictions and quickly offered him an increase in pay to keep him in South Bend.

On the field, the question mark surrounding the 1924 team was whether or not they could withstand 60 minutes of football. At the time, players had to play both ways. If a player was subbed out at any point, he could not reenter until the following half. The Irish were an unusually small team, even by 1920s’ standards. The famed “Four Horsemen”, as they would come to be known later in the season, averaged only 161 lbs per player. Additionally, the players along the line, known as the “Seven Mules”, all weighed less than 190 lbs. In an effort to protect his team, Rockne devised a plan to send in the “shock troops” in the 1st quarter of every game. The shock troops were his second unit and were much more physically imposing. Their main goal was to hit the other team as often as they could and fatigue them for the 2nd quarter when the regular starters would come in.

Entering the season, the “Four Horsemen” were truly the backbone of the team. Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher had developed into a deadly accurate passer. Jim Crowley was the leading receiver on the team. Elmer Layden was the short yardage back, punter, and also excelled at defensive back. Don Miller was the featured running back. After playing 3 seasons together already, the 4 players operated in lockstep in both the offensive and defensive backfield. Stuhldreher, Crowley, and Layden would all earn consensus All-American honors during the 1924 season, while Miller missed out on the title by being beaten out at his position by unanimous All-American, Red Grange. All 4 players are currently in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Possessing greater authority with the schedule, Rockne set about fashioning a challenging schedule for the 1924 season. Contests against Army, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, and Princeton ensured that the Irish would receive national respect if they were to go undefeated this season. The first two weeks of the season were more of a tune-up than anything else as the Irish recorded 40-0 and 34-0 victories against Lombard and Wabash, respectively. Next up, the Irish traveled to take on Army at the Polo Grounds. To begin the game, Rockne elected to start the “shock troops”, which resulted in Army moving the ball up and down the field. However, the Irish defense stiffened repeatedly in the 1st quarter and prevented Army from scoring. At the start of the 2nd quarter, the regular starters were sent into the game and immediately drove 80 yards for a touchdown, capped by a Layden scoring run. At halftime, Notre Dame led 7-0. In the 3rd quarter, Layden intercepted a pass at the Army 48 yard line. The Irish promptly moved down the field and scored on a Crowley run. With the score standing at 13-7 in favor of Notre Dame, neither team would score the rest of the way. Following the win, Grantland Rice wrote one of the more memorable paragraphs in sports history with the following:

“Outlined against a blue-gray October Sky, the Four Horseman rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller, and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”

The Four Horsemen - Notre Dame - File Photos

The following week Crowley scored 2 touchdowns to lead the offense in a 12-0 win over Princeton. Notre Dame then dispatched Georgia Tech 34-3 for the program’s 200th victory. After defeating Wisconsin, Notre Dame welcomed Nebraska to town. Over the previous two and a half seasons, the Cornhuskers remained the lone program to defeat Notre Dame. After falling behind 6-0 in the 1st quarter, the Irish throttled Nebraska, rattling off 34 unanswered points for a 34-6 win. After such an emotionally-charged victory, Notre Dame nearly laid an egg against Northwestern. Northwestern jumped out to a 6-0 lead against Notre Dame’s second unit. Entering the game in the 2nd quarter, the “Four Horsemen” dragged the team to victory. Stuhldreher was the catalysts for their first touchdown drive, throwing a deep pass to Crowley and capping the drive with a touchdown run to give the team a 7-6 lead at halftime. In the 3rd quarter, Layden intercepted a pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown to give the team a 13-6 lead. The lead would stand the rest of the way as Notre Dame finally ended their losing streak to the Cornhuskers. In the regular season finale, Notre Dame and Carnegie Tech battled to a 13-13 tie in the 1st half. The 2nd half was all Notre Dame as they pulled away for a 40-19 victory. Standing at 9-0, Notre Dame received the prestigious honor of being invited to play in the Rose Bowl against Pop Warner and his undefeated Stanford Cardinal.

In Notre Dame’s first ever West Coast trip, Rockne decided to take his team throughout the country to put on several public practices. Leaving a week prior to the game, Notre Dame traveled to New Orleans, Houston, and Tucson and practiced for the locals. On the day of the game, 53,000 fans gathered to watch the two undefeated teams square off. Notre Dame took advantage of Stanford’s careless play on the day. The Cardinal committed 8 turnovers, 3 of which were returned for touchdowns by Notre Dame. The turnovers helped Notre Dame record its lone Rose Bowl victory by the score of 27-13. As an interesting side note, Elmer Layden returned 2 interceptions for touchdowns, totaling 148 yards on the returns. Stanford completed 12 passes on the day for only 138 yards. Elmer Layden was named the game’s MVP thanks to his interception returns, a rushing touchdown on offense, and averaging 48.5 yards per punt on the day. The win left the team with a 10-0 record against one of the toughest schedules in the country. The media outlets took notice and awarded Knute Rockne’s team the 1924 National Championship, the first recognized national championship in school history.

Following the game, Rockne met with USC officials about the potential of becoming the Trojan head coach and athletic director. The negotiations leaked, causing Rockne to receive a reprimand from university officials. On the way back to South Bend, the team again stopped in several cities for public practices. All in all, the team was away from campus for nearly an entire month. Rockne’s liberal use of funds on the trip did not sit well with the university board members. Furthermore, several members on the board were disturbed at how the team was used as a marketing tool following the Rose Bowl win in an effort to make money for the football program and at how much class the football players missed on the trip. As a result, the school instituted a bowl ban on the program that would not be lifted until 1969.

With the thrill of the 1st national championship behind him, Rockne set about rebuilding his program following the departure of the “Four Horsemen.” The season certainly got off on the right foot with a 41-0 victory over the reigning two-time Southwestern Champion, Baylor. Victories over Lombard and Beloit ran their record to 3-0. Next, the team traveled to Yankee Stadium to face off against Army. 70,000 fans witnessed the Irish fall to the mighty Cadets, 27-0. Leaving New York, the team would travel to Minneapolis, Atlanta, and State College, Pennsylvania over the next 3 weeks. Despite the grueling schedule, the team emerged with wins over Minnesota and Georgia Tech, while tying Penn State 0-0. After defeating Carnegie Tech, Notre Dame faced another tough contest against Northwestern, settling for a 13-10 victory. In the season finale, Nebraska welcome Notre Dame to town. The Cornhuskers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. Smothering the Irish offense all day, Nebraska defeated Notre Dame for the third time in four years with a 17-0 victory. The 1925 Irish finished the season 7-2-1, hardly the follow-up act Rockne was hoping for after winning his first national championship.

The start of the 1926 season quickly erased any lingering disappointment from the 1925 season. The team began the year 8-0, pitching 7 shutouts and allowing 7 points to Minnesota.. During the winning streak, Notre Dame had to overcome a pesky Northwestern squad and fought tooth and nail against Army. Against the Wildcats, Notre Dame was twice stopped on Northwestern’s goal line over the course of the game. Luckily, Northwestern kept the Irish in the game by throwing an interception on the Irish goal line and missing 2 field goals. Midway through the 4th quarter, Notre Dame quarterback, Art Parisien, directed the lone scoring drive of the day as Notre Dame snuck out with a 6-0 win. Against Army, both defenses were impenetrable. The only points of the day came on a 63 yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter by Irish halfback, Christie Flanagan, as Notre Dame won 7-0. Standing at 8-0, Notre Dame was set to face an average Carnegie Tech team. Rockne felt so strongly about an Irish win that he did not even coach the game and was instead in Chicago to watch the Army-Navy game. The first reason he went to watch the game was to perform advance scouting on the Midshipmen as the Irish were set to face Navy the following year for the first time. The second reason was that the Army-Navy game was being billed as the game of the year. Entering the game, Notre Dame was in prime position to capture another title. Instead, in one of the sport’s most shocking upsets, Carnegie Tech defeated Notre Dame 19-0. Nothing went right for the Irish as two turnovers led to field goals and a blocked punt set up an easy touchdown for Tech. Charles Crawley, a writer for the New York Post, said the following about the game, “This setback of a team regarded as invincible will go down in football history as one of the most inexplicable and costliest defeats in fifty years’ history of the game.” With hopes of a title gone, Notre Dame headed west for their inaugural contest with USC. Dealing with the hangover of the previous week’s loss, the Irish looked lethargic throughout the game. USC led Notre Dame deep into the 4th quarter at 12-7. With about 6 minutes left in the game, USC fumbled the ball on the Notre Dame 42 yard line. The Irish capitalized on the miscue and drove down for the winning touchdown, scrapping by with a 13-12 victory. Although the team finished with a record of 9-1, many could not help wondering what might have been had they played their best against Carnegie Tech. Though tough to quantify, one can only imagine how Rockne’s presence at the game would have impacted the outcome. Two titles in three seasons would have only further served to elevate Rockne’s status in the game.

The 1927 squad seemed hell-bent on atoning for the disappointing finish in 1926. The Irish tore through the first 5 weeks of the season against a relatively easy schedule. Along the way, the team defeated Coe College, Gus Dorais’ Detroit Titans, Navy, Indiana, and Georgia Tech. In the program’s first ever meeting, the Midshipmen put quite the scare into Rockne, taking a 6-0 after a half. However, Notre Dame scored 19 straight points in the 2nd half to claim a 19-6 win. In week 6, Notre Dame led Minnesota 7-0 with 15 seconds remaining in the game. The Irish stood on their own 22 yard line as they lined up for a punt. Seemingly assured of victory, a miscommunication inexplicably resulted between the sidelines and players, which resulted in the center snapping the ball only halfway to the punter. Minnesota pounced on the loose ball on Notre Dame’s 15 yard line. After 3 running plays that went nowhere, Minnesota lofted a 22 yard touchdown pass as time expired. The result, an unbelievable 7-7 tie. The following week Notre Dame traveled to face Army at Yankee Stadium. In front of 75,000 fans, the Cadets held Notre Dame scoreless and grabbed an 18-0 victory. To close out the year, Notre Dame whipped Drake University 32-0 and defeated USC 7-6 in Chicago. Though the team had set out to prove themselves champions after losing out on a title in 1926, they failed to achieve their goal. A 7-1-1 record was not good enough in the eyes of many voting entities. Illinois and Georgia were the two majority selections by the voting organizations for the title in 1927. However, Houlgate System retroactively anointed Notre Dame as the 1927 champion. Unlike the 1919 and 1920 teams, this selection was a bit of a head-scratcher as the team did not finish undefeated, nor did they play an extremely taxing schedule. Currently, Notre Dame does not recognize this national championship.

Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne with Hartley Anderson Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

After 10 years of sustained excellence of the field, hardly anyone around the program ever contemplated the fact that Rockne could suffer a down season. His worst teams had only lost a maximum of 2 games in a season. These facts make the 1928 season hard to digest. In the season opener, Notre Dame barely escaped Loyola (LA). Deep into the 4th quarter the game remained tied at 6. In the closing minutes of the game, Notre Dame faced 3rd and goal on the Loyola 2 yard line. Luckily, the Irish were able to punch it in to grab a 12-6 win. The Irish would lose to Wisconsin, defeat Navy, and lose to Georgia Tech over the next 3 weeks. Wins over Drake and Penn State ran their record to 4-2. Next up, the team traveled to face Army in their annual clash. Army was 6-0 and very few gave Notre Dame a chance to win against the mighty Cadets. At halftime, the score was 0-0. In one of the more famous moments in Notre Dame history, Rockne called on George Gipp to rally the team. During his halftime speech, Rockne recounted the story about Gipp, including his dying wish. Rockne implored his team to go back out in the 2nd half and “win one for the Gipper.” Seemingly uninspired, Notre Dame allowed Army to score first in the 3rd quarter touchdown. However, Notre Dame answered back the following drive with a touchdown of their own. In the 4th quarter, driving for the go-ahead score, Notre Dame faced a 4th and 25. Irish quarterback, Johnny Niemiec, hurled a desperation pass down the field, which was caught by Johnny O’ Brien in the end zone. The dramatic touchdown proved the difference maker as Notre Dame handed Army their first loss of the season by the score of 12-6. Though the season was not turning out as planned, the boys had rallied to notch their biggest victory of the season in memory of George Gipp. The following week, Notre Dame took on Carnegie Tech in the last game at Cartier Field. Following the 1928 season, construction would begin on the new Notre Dame Stadium. In the stadium’s final game, the Irish lost 27-7, hardly a send off befitting such a historical stadium. In the season finale, Notre Dame lost 27-14 against USC. The loss put an end to Rockne’s worst season as head coach. His 5-4 record stands out as a sore thumb alongside each of his other seasons. The 5-4 record meant that Rockne accumulated one-third of his career losses in one season.

Prior to the 1929 season, Rockne was diagnosed with phlebitis. Doctors ordered him to refrain from coaching during the year. While Rockne would come around practices in a wheelchair, attending games was more difficult because Notre Dame did not play any home games in 1929 while Notre Dame Stadium was being built. Assistant coach Tom Lieb was given head coaching duties on game days during the season. Notre Dame opened the season with a 14-0 win over Indiana. In week 2, the team traveled to Baltimore to play Navy. With Rockne laid up in bed, a phone line was installed in the locker room which allowed him to give a pregame speech. In 1929, Lieb typically adhered to Rockne’s policy of starting the Irish 2nd unit. In the 1st quarter against Navy, the Midshipmen jumped out to a 7-0 lead against the Irish reserves. Once the starters were inserted in the 2nd quarter, the Irish quickly scored to tie the game at 7. Late in the 3rd quarter Notre Dame added the decisive touchdown on a touchdown run, and Notre Dame walked out with a 14-7 win. After defeating Wisconsin, Notre Dame scored the only touchdown of the day against Carnegie Tech to pull out a 7-0 win. Wins over Georgia Tech and Drake set up a showdown with USC in Chicago. With the score 6-6 at halftime, Rockne, who had supposedly been left behind in South Bend, made a guest appearance in the locker room to deliver the halftime speech. Choosing to stick around, he coached the 2nd half on a cot behind the bench. After Notre Dame scored a touchdown in the 3rd quarter, USC responded with a 95 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. However, the Trojans missed the extra point. The missed kick proved costly as the game ended 13-12 in favor of Notre Dame. The following week, Notre Dame defeated Northwestern. In the season finale, Notre Dame faced off against an Army team that was experiencing a down season having already lost 2 games and tied 1 prior to the contest. The game proved to be a defensive struggle with Army holding a 142-102 total yard advantage at the end of the day. In the 2nd quarter, Notre Dame would gain a grand total of 1 yard. In the 2nd quarter, the Cadets began a drive on the Irish 47 yard line. They slowly worked their way toward the end zone when Irish defender Jack Elder made a game-changing play. Stepping in front of an Army pass on the Irish 4 yard line, Elder returned the interception 96 yards for a touchdown. Neither offense would threaten the rest of the game. With the 7-0 win, Notre Dame clinched a 7-0 victory and an undefeated season. At the conclusion of the season, Notre Dame was named the 1929 National Champion. Despite being in and out all season due to his illness, Rockne had developed a culture and standard of play that could sustain itself with or without him around on a daily basis. That alone, is a testament to his coaching ability and a reflection of where his program stood 11 years into his tenure.

Knute Rockne Coaching from Wheel Chair

As a new decade began, Notre Dame Football was thriving. Set to open up the newly built Notre Dame Stadium and riding a 9 game winning streak, the Irish welcomed Southern Methodist University to town. Though the game was fiercely contested, Notre Dame began the year with a 20-14 win. Over the next 7 weeks, nary a team would test the powerful Irish. Along the way, Notre Dame defeated Navy, Carnegie Tech, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Penn, Drake, and Northwestern. Standing at 8-0, Notre Dame prepared to take on 8-0-1 Army on the last weekend in November at Soldier Field. On the day of the game, the teams found rain and sleet whipping off of Lake Michigan, guaranteeing a defensive struggle. With the score deadlocked at 0 in the 4th quarter, Irish standout, Marchy Schwarz, romped 54 yards for a touchdown. After the Irish held the Cadets on the ensuing drive, they retook possession hoping to run out the clock. However, they were unable to move the ball and had to punt. On the punt attempt, Army broke through the line and blocked the punt, recovering it in the end zone for a touchdown. With their national title hopes hanging in the balance, the Irish rose to the occasion and blocked the extra point, securing an all important 7-6 victory. The last remaining hurdle on the way to a 2nd consecutive national championship was a trip out West to face USC. Entering the game, USC stood at 8-1, with their lone loss coming by one point earlier in the season. The USC defense had been particularly stout that season, holding 6 teams scoreless. Coming into the game, Notre Dame was battling several injuries at the fullback position and was down to their last healthy player at the position. In an attempt to fool the Trojans, Rockne had his fullback, Dan Hanley, switch jerseys with the extremely quick halfback, Bucky O’ Connor. He hoped that he could catch their defense napping and steal several big plays on offense. The trick worked as O’Connor scored 2 touchdowns on the day, including an 80 yard run. Notre Dame’s defense played magnificently, shutting USC out as the Irish claimed a 27-0 win. Not only did Notre Dame finish unbeaten for the 2nd year in a row, they were also awarded the 1930 National Championship.

During the offseason, Rockne was in high demand as one of the preeminent coaches in the country. In fact, he had agreed to act in the film The Spirit of Notre Dame. In March of 1931, he boarded a plane to head to Hollywood to commence filming. On the way to California, he made a stop in Kansas City to pay a visit to his two sons who were attending boarding school there. On March 31st, he boarded a plane in Kansas City to continue with his journey. Unfortunately, the plane only made it a few miles west of Kansas City before suffering a wing malfunction. The plane crashed, killing all 8 people onboard. Rockne’s death sent shock waves throughout the entire country. Even President Herbert Hoover commented on the “national loss” of Rockne. Many people were left questioning how safe flying in an aircraft was. Coming as a direct result of the public outcry, the manufacturing process of planes was completely overhauled. Additionally, the inspection process of an aircraft prior to a flight was greatly enhanced. These changes can be credited with helping flying to become one of the safer methods of transportation today. Following his funeral mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the great coach was laid to rest in Highland Cemetery in South Bend. With their legendary coach gone in the blink of an eye, Notre Dame was left in a state of disarray. Within 10 days of Rockne’s death, assistant coach Hunk Anderson was chosen to fill the vacant head coaching position. The Irish spend the next decade trying to return to the heights of the Rockne era.

Knute Rockne with his Sons

While Knute Rockne’s placement on my list may be controversial, I will lay out my case in the next two installments as to why the remaining two coaches land ahead of him. There is no doubt that Knute Rockne was the reason Notre Dame rose to new heights in college football. If another coach had taken over for Jesse Harper in 1918, there is no telling what the history of Notre Dame Football may look like right now. Hell, Notre Dame Stadium is known as “The House That Rockne Built.” In addition to having the longest tenure (13 years) of any head coach at Notre Dame, Rockne also holds the all-time wins record with 105. He holds a .881 winning percentage, which ranks #1 among Division 1 college football coaches all-time. Rockne has 3 recognized national titles to his name (1924, 1929, 1930), while also being awarded the title in 3 others times (1919, 1920, 1927). However, Notre Dame does not recognize these 3 titles. Furthermore, were it not for the bizarre loss to Carnegie Tech at the end of 1926, his team surely would have claimed a title that would be recognized currently by the university. Only Frank Leahy has more recognized titles at Notre Dame with 4. From a strategy standpoint, he was ahead of his time in many ways. He helped to popularize the forward pass in the college game, emphasizing it as a crucial part of his offensive attack. His defense was one of the few to implement a 7-2-2 scheme during a time in which many teams heavily leaned on the run. He out-coached many of his colleagues by making calculated use of the platoon systems, often using his 2nd unit to soften up the starting unit from the other team. This allowed his 1st unit the luxury of facing a worn down opponent when they entered in the 2nd quarter. Off the field, Rockne took Jesse Harper’s vision of becoming a national brand and truly operationalized it by playing teams throughout the country. He helped to orchestrate a game against USC in 1926 that has since turned into the longest running intersectional rivalry in college football. He was also a part of making the Army-Notre Dame game one of the premiere contests each season. Lastly, Rockne’s sphere of influence spread throughout the game as many of his players were hired as head coaches around the country.

The only real knocks against Rockne center on his flirtation with other schools and the relatively easy schedules he faced during the first portion of his career. Both coaches ahead of Rockne on my list never entertained thoughts of leaving. What would Rockne’s legacy have been at Notre Dame had he left for USC following the 1924 season? Additionally, Rockne did not exactly face a murderer’s row his first several years at Notre Dame. Through no fault of his own, administration restricted his ability to schedule teams throughout the country until the mid 1920s. If people want to count his 1919 and 1920 titles, they must also acknowledge the lack of elite opponents the teams faced during those seasons.

The real tragedy regarding Knute Rockne is that he was only 43 years old when he died. Though there is no real way of telling how the rest of his career would have unfolded, it is probably a safe bet that he would have continued coaching at an elite level for an extended period of time. Might his illustrious career have kept Frank Leahy at Boston College or would the program have been able to transition directly from Rockne to Leahy and experienced 35 years of sustained excellence? One thing is for certain, without Rockne, Notre Dame Football would not exist as we know it today. For that, fans should feel an eternal debt to the esteemed coach.

Knute Rockne Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #2 on my list of “Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches.” Below are links to the other profiles in the series.

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/5/9/21253015/top-ten-greatest-notre-dame-football-coaches-4-lou-holtz-1988-national-championship-miami-orange-nd

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/4/26/21236758/top-ten-greatest-notre-dame-football-coaches-5-dan-devine-joe-montana-1977-green-jersey-game-cotton#comments

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/4/18/21226537/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-6-brian-kelly-matt-balis-college-football-playoff

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/4/5/21208689/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-7-jesse-harper-knute-rockne-army-fielding-yost#comments

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/3/29/21198730/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-8-elmer-layden-nfl-commissioner-four-horseman

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/3/21/21189636/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-terry-brennan-hesburgh-oklahoma-iowa-michigan-state

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/3/16/21182139/top-ten-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-10-tyrone-willingham-brady-quinn-jeff-samardzija