Nov. 12, 2000
By Dr. Bernie Kish
Executive Director of the College Football Hall of Fame
Most college football experts consider Knute Rockne the most successful and charismatic coach in the history of the game. His .881 winning percentage, the all-time best among Division I-A coaches, is a standard unlikely ever to be equaled.
He is a man whose tragic death in an airplane crash in a Kansas cornfield brought over 100,000 mourners to South Bend for his funeral.
A Renaissance man.
An entrepreneur of the first order.
A public speaker without peer.
During the 1920s, there were three voices instantly recognizable in America – Will Rogers, Rudolph Valentino and Rockne. Rockne is a man whom many believe is responsible for the current stature of the University of Notre Dame as one of America’s elite institutions.
Yet, there is one area in which the Norwegian immigrant excelled that is relatively unknown. That is his unmatched ability and knack for mentoring and producing football coaches. This is the story of Knute Rockne, the coach-maker.
At the time of his death in March, 1931, more than 200 men who played for Rockne while he was an assistant (1914-1917) and head coach (1918-1930) at Notre Dame were in the coaching profession. Ninety of these men were coaching at the college level, with 38 of them head coaches.
Colleges paid tribute to his genius by seeking out his players for their football programs. Notre Dame players went about their work seriously, knowing a coaching job could be waiting upon graduation. And, Rockne always had more requests for coaches than he could supply.
The seniors on his 1921 team and the 1924 national champions – the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules – went en masse into the coaching profession. The 1919 team produced 12 head coaches and the 1922 team had 11 men in charge of football programs. Seven of his players, Clipper Smith, Eddie Anderson, Jim Dooley, Elmer Layden, Rip Miller, Harry Stuhldreher and Adam Walsh, became college head coaches immediately upon graduation from Notre Dame.
In 1931, the college head coaches were spread over the width and breadth of America – most of them at major football playing institutions. In the East, Layden at Duquesne, Dutch Bergman, Catholic University, Miller, Navy and Stuhldreher, Villanova. In the Midwest, Jimmy Crowley, Michigan State, Noble Kizer, Purdue, and Chilly Walsh, St. Louis University all were Notre Dame players. Out West, Jimmy Phelan, Washington, Slip Madigan, St. Mary’s, and Smith, Santa Clara, kept the Notre Dame torch burning brightly. Rockne’s men owned what is today’s Southeastern Conference with Harry Mehre at Georgia, Chet Wynne at Auburn, Frank Thomas at Alabama and Charley Bachman at Florida.
Each year during Rockne’s tenure, Notre Dame played more and more teams coached by his former players – men intimately familiar with his system. In 1927, the Irish met Detroit, Minnesota, Navy and Georgia Tech. Rockne teammate and one-time assistant Gus Dorais was the head man at Detroit. Bergman, Rip Miller and Don Miller were assistants at Minnesota, Navy and Georgia Tech, respectively. Rockne, who considered his system an open book. was not intimidated. He was confident if he taught his teams to execute their plays well, even an enlightened, savvy opponent could not stop them.
Rockne’s disciples excelled. While he was coaching at Notre Dame, he saw Phelan’s Purdue team beat Eastern powerhouse Harvard, Madigan’s St Mary’s 11 defeat mighty California and USC, Smith’s Santa Clara Broncos also defeat Cal, and a Georgia team with Mehre and Crowley on the staff upset a strong Yale squad.
Once Rockne obtained a coaching position for one of his players, he maintained close contact with him. This contact included his pupils scouting Notre Dame opponents, appearing as a speaker at their team banquets, helping them obtain new coaching jobs, rendering advice about the coaching profession itself and personal correspondence on family matters.
Rockne often called on his prot?g?s to provide information on Notre Dame opponents. While Bachman was at Kansas State in the early 1920s, he supplied Rock with dope on the Irish nemesis, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Prior to the 1922 game, a Husker win, part of Bach’s report to Rockne stated:
“The line does not charge on either offense or defense and they win their games purely by individual brilliancy on the part of the players, plus beef and unlimited reserve material.”
A major factor in Notre Dame’s Rose Bowl victory in 1925 was the help Rock received from Madigan, then coaching at St. Mary’s. At Rockne’s request, Madigan met the team in Tucson, Ariz. He provided a detailed scouting report on Stanford that included a screen pass play by the Indians’ star, Ernie Nevers. Layden’s 80-yard interception return for a touchdown of a Nevers pass proved to be instrumental in Notre Dame’s 27-10 victory.
In 1928, he asked Layden, then at Duquesne, to find a man in the Pittsburgh area to scout Carnegie Tech, noting, “We need a man to provide us with the dope on Carnegie Tech. Will be willing to pay him 10 or 15 dollars plus expenses (Tech had beaten Notre Dame in 1926 and 1928, and the 1928 loss at Notre Dame’s Cartier Field was Notre Dame’s first home loss in 23 years).”
Rockne was in great demand as a speaker during the off season. Often, his former players invited him to their football banquets. He went to places like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and East Lansing on behalf of Stuhldreher, Layden and Crowley. When Frank Thomas, who lettered at quarterback for three years in the early 1920s, invited him to speak at the University of Chattanooga in 1927, he told Rock, “This is quite a Notre Dame town. You are very popular here because of your wins over Georgia Tech. The Atlanta papers are singing the praises of you and my old school.”
Rockne was instrumental in helping his pupils acquire better jobs and move up the coaching ladder. Because of him, Crowley moved from an assistant at Georgia to the top position at Michigan State. After Layden had been at Loras College for two years, Rockne got him the Duquesne job and commented, “They will give you full leeway – make sure you hire a couple of Notre Dame men to help you.” That was one recommendation Rockne always made, “Hire a couple of Notre Dame men.” Not only did he make that recommendation to his former players but also to the presidents of universities, telling them not only to hire a Notre Dame man as a head coach but also a couple of Notre Dame assistants.
Rockne frequently offered counsel regarding the coaching profession to his former troops. In 1926, Stuhldreher was torn between playing professional football and coaching. In those days, young coaches often played for pay on Sundays while they were coaching. Rock offered the former Four Horseman this advice, “If you plan to make a career of coaching, don’t play. If you are going to go into business, play and make the money as long as you can and it’s honest.”
Rockne and his wife Bonnie maintained a warm personal relationship with the Notre Dame men in the coaching ranks and their wives. They attended their weddings when possible and always sent nice wedding gifts. In 1927, Rock, chided one of his favorites, Crowley, for not being invited to his wedding:
“Congratulations on getting married, Jimmie. Am sorry that you gave us old-timers the cold shoulder as we would have liked very much to have bought your wife a fur coat or diamond bracelet or something.”
In 1929, when Knute and Bonnie’s son, Jackie, was seriously ill, Madigan wrote:
“We were pleased the little boy succeeded in his noble fight. I think you had the sympathy of the entire Pacific Coast. I hope he is doing well now.”
Not only did Rockne produce coaches at Notre Dame, but he also imparted his coaching philosophy and the Notre Dame system to college mentors and high school coaches at the Rockne Coaching Schools.
Beginning in 1922, when his fame and drawing power increased, Rockne turned his coaching schools into a profitable business. The first school took place at Culver Military Academy.
Over the next nine years, he set up summer sessions at 17 different locations around the country some of which included William and Mary, Bucknell, Brigham Young, Southern California, Oregon State, Southern Methodist, Washington and Lee, Wittenberg, Hawaii and Hastings in Nebraska (Tom Osborne’s alma mater). Rock always said his favorite location was his school at Notre Dame. He brought in his own players as instructors and was usually helped by a Notre Dame assistant such as Hunk Anderson.
George Keogan, the basketball coach, ran the basketball portion of the Notre Dame school. Coaches attending the schools paid a $25 fee plus $25 for room and board for the two-week session and earned two college credits in physical education. The sessions were a mix of classroom lectures and practical hands-on work on the football field.
Although Rockne occasionally teamed with coaches like Pop Warner, his major partner in the coaching school operation was W. E. “Doc” Meanwell, the head basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin. Rockne and Meanwell became close personally, as well as professionally. Once Rock told Meanwell after the latter had lost a close game to Purdue:
“Sorry about your loss to Purdue. That is one reason I refused to coach basketball. There is too much grief on long shots and bum officiating.”
The coaching school operation was very lucrative financially for Rockne. By 1927, he was clearing $27,000 annually from the Rockne-Meanwell Schools, plus another $10,000-$15,000 for his Notre Dame School and getting a flat $2,000 to speak at other coaching schools. This was at a time when a four-bedroom mansion in South Bend was selling for $10,000.
Rockne’s legacy as a coach-maker is unparalleled in the annals of college football. Despite his relatively short 17-year tenure as a head coach and an assistant for Jesse Harper, 50 of his prot?g?s became college head coaches. Three times that number were assistant coaches at colleges and high schools. Thousands more adopted the Notre Dame system as a result of his coaching schools.
Nine of his prot?g?s are enshrined as coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame: Anderson, Bachman, Harry Baujan, Dorais, Frank Leahy, Madigan, Phelan, Buck Shaw and Thomas. Four men he mentored coached National Football League Champions: Curly Lambeau (Green Bay in 1929-31, ’36, ’39 and ’44), Walsh (Cleveland Rams, 1945), Anderson (Co-Head Coach, Chicago Bears, 1943) and Shaw (Philadelphia Eagles, 1960).
The Rockne Coaching Tree includes two of the true giants of the game, Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi. Bryant, who was coached at Alabama by Thomas, said he always felt a special kinship with Rockne and Notre Dame because of Thomas. Lombardi, one of Fordham’s Seven Blocks of Granite, received his tutoring at the Rose Hill School from Leahy and Crowley. It is somewhat ironic that Lombardi’s fame came in Green Bay, Wis., the hometown of Crowley and Lambeau.
Perhaps it was fitting that some of Rockne’s last days on earth were spent with one of the men he helped mold into an outstanding coach, Bachman. Rock invited Bach to join him in Coral Gables, Fla., in early March of that fateful year, 1931, to discuss a new defense Bachman was developing. Bachman later recalled:
“I spent three days with him on the beach. Bonnie shooed Rock and myself out of their room at the Gulfstream Hotel. She said she wanted to get a good rest and forget about football. We ended up on the beach, diagramming plays with seashells.”