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OFD Book Club: “Shake Down the Thunder” #5

George Gipp’s talent was worth the hassle

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Graphic by Brendan McAlinden / @verypiratey

Welcome back to the One Foot Down Book Club, where we are reading Murray Sperber’s “Shake Down the Thunder” (Amazon, B&N, IU Press, eBay). This is the fifth meeting of the club, and we’ll cover Chapters 15-17 today.

Long before Brian Bosworth or Johnny Manziel, there was George Gipp.

The Upper Peninsula native was “unusual greatness,” which means Coach Knute Rockne “increasingly ignored his star’s life-style, rationalized his transgressions, and fought to keep him in school and eligible for football.” (p. 106)

“Gipp showed very little interest in academics,” Sperber writes, a disposition that proceeded his tenure in South Bend. The extraordinary athlete did not graduate Calumet High School, but was admitted as a “conditioned freshman” with expectations that he’d make up classes during his first year or summer school.

Gipp must have realized at some point he had the leverage — or perhaps he simply did not care — because he received no grades for two of his four full school years. Gipp arrived more than a month late during his sophomore year and then dropped out following his leg fracture in the November 1917 contest against Morningside.

Gipp didn’t even bother attending classes in his fourth year, but Notre Dame waited until the March following following the 1919 season to expel him.

The vultures immediately smelled the scent of a rotting relationship, and soon Michigan’s Fielding Yost, Pittsburgh’s Pop Warner and a schools such as West Point and the University of Detroit were bidding for his services.

Rockne wasn’t going to let Yost or Warner poach his best player, so he whipped up 80 prominent South Bend citizens to petition President James Burns to reinstate Gipp. Fr. Burns was committed to a more rigorous academic culture, but he acquiesced to the public outcry within 52 days of the original ban.

“When President Burns acted in April 1920, no doubt he hoped and even assumed that the incident would soon be forgotten,” Sperber wrote. “He had no way of knowing that within nine months George Gipp would become Notre Dame’s first consensus All-American, would die, and then, twenty years later, would be sanctified in a Hollywood film.” (p. 108)

Rockne had his star player back, but Gipp still held the trump cards with Michigan and West Point still aggressively recruiting him. The star athlete resumed living at the Oliver Hotel, continued to play semipro football and became “South Bend’s undisputed king of pocket and three-cushion billiards.” This left little time for Notre Dame football practice, so Gipp rarely attended.

The Indianapolis Star, Nov. 14, 1920

Gipp was driven by the thrill of gambling, which extended to his own games. He bet someone in Indianapolis that he would personally outscore Indiana (which did not happen). Two weeks prior, a frustrated Rockne turned to Gipp — smoking a cigarette at halftime — and yelled, “What about you, Gipp? I don’t suppose you have any interest in this game?”

“Look, Rock,” Gipp replied. “I got four hundred dollars [of my own money] bet on this game, and I’m not about to blow it.” (p. 110, as adapted from Patrick Chelland’s “One for The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne and Notre Dame.”)

Gipp’s death has three mysteries, Sperber contends: the exact cause of his eventual death (pneumonia, infected tonsils, strep or maybe all three); his deathbed conversion to Catholicism (Gipp’s family didn’t object, but the athlete didn’t ask for it); and Gipp’s words to Rockne.

The historian amasses the circumstantial evidence that Gipp’s “win one for the Gipper” speech never happened:

  • No one, including Gipp, called the star athlete by “Gipper”
  • Rockne was not present at his deathbed, and he was rarely alone with him in the weeks preceding his death.
  • The “win one for the Gipper” story was told for the first time eight years after Gipp’s death and should be viewed in “the context of Rockne’s highly dramatic and sometimes fabricated locker room talks as well as to his desire to salvage his worst season by beating Army.” (p. 112)

If Notre Dame fans didn’t have enough reason to hate Fielding Yost, Sperber notes the Michigan coach gossiped that Notre Dame had refused to pay Gipp’s funeral expenses and that the family was stuck with the bill. When it reached New York Tribune’s Grantland Rice, the university refuted with facts. They and Gipp’s classmates had paid for train expenses and most of the funeral bill, as well as more than $4,500 worth of specialists to attend to Gipp before his death. (p. 113)


Rockne attended the Big Ten coaches’ meeting to lock in some opponents for his 1921 football schedule. The Irish were now accustomed to playing Purdue (with contests in 1918-1920) and Indiana (1919-1920), but also added Iowa for the very first time. Notre Dame had traveled to Nebraska for each of the first six years of that relationship, but the Cornhuskers finally agreed in 1921 to make the trip east to Cartier Field. Rockne also got a game with the Rutgers Queensmen, then an independent, for an Election Day 1921 matchup at the Polo Grounds. The 11-game schedule also featured games against Michigan Agricultural College (aka Michigan State), Marquette, Kalamazoo, DePauw and Haskell.

The Irish were 4-1 entering their contest against Indiana. “In a lengthy pregame speech, [Rockne] reminded his players how IU ‘had laid for Gipp the year before, had bruised him unnecessarily’ with vicious gang-tackling ‘perhaps — had hastened his death.’” Gipp’s deathbed request, if there truly was one, remained unspoken. (p. 117) The Irish prevailed, 28-7.

Rockne had lobbied the Rose Bowl committee to include his Irish in their 1921 bowl game, but was told the host team — the University of California at Berkley — refused to play the Irish because of “the professionalism of some of your players” (indeed, eight Irish had played in an Illinois pro game on Thanksgiving and an additional four had suited up for the Green Bay Packers or Racine Legion the following week).


Rockne’s 1922 scheduling of Georgia Tech was a gamble.

“The Ku Klux Klan, its membership already over four million, was growing rapidly. Atlanta was its national headquarters, and Catholics were one of its primary objects of hate,” wrote Sperber. “Some ND faculty and even alumni criticized him (Rockne) for taking too large a risk — they worried that a lopsided defeat would humiliate the school and, by extension, many American Catholics.”

Rockne’s pre-game speeches often included telegrams from well-wishers, but it was the crumpled up correspondence that he produced from his pocket that his team vividly remembered. It was from Billy, the coach’s hospitalized six-year-old boy. The telegram from the ill child simply read, “Please win this game for my daddy. It’s very important to him.”

The Fighting Irish prevailed, 13-3, and, upon their return to the train station the following day, spotted Billy Rockne. “You never saw a healthier kid in your life,” halfback Jim Crowley said. “He hadn’t been in a hospital since the week he was born.” (p. 134-135)

Other tidbits:

  • Rockne gets offered to coach at Iowa State, the University of Cincinnati, University of Minnesota. Northwestern is rumored to be interested in him as well.
  • The Faculty Board of Control of Athletics forces Rockne to take a home-and-home series with Saint Louis University for the 1922-1923 seasons.
  • Rockne did not conceive of his “Notre Dame shift” by watching a vaudeville chorus line, as Hollywood might have you believe. Jesse Harper, his predecessor, taught him an early version of it.
  • The 1922 win over Carnegie Tech began a long, mostly continuous series of visits to Pittsburgh and the amassing of many nonalumni Catholic fans, dubbed the “Coal Field Alums” (p. 137)