By Pete LaFleur
Note: This is the fourth in a series of six stories, highlighting Notre Dame football. It is reprinted from the Notre Dame – Florida State football game program.
A common definition of the term legend is: “A story coming down from the past, especially one popularly accepted as historical though not verifiable.” The term also can refer to a renowned person or everlasting moment, a mythical group of individuals or a lingering, mystical force.
The 116-year history of Notre Dame football has featured plenty of legendary dimensions. These endearing elements were born primarily out of the first half of the century, with the romanticized 1920s and ’40s making such legends all the more legendary.
Any discussion of Notre Dame legends must begin – and seemingly end – with Knute Rockne, the winningest coach in the history of college or professional football (.881; 105-12-5). In a truly golden age of sports, Rockne shown as brightly – if not brighter – as other greats along the lines of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange and Bobby Jones.
Rockne’s legendary stature can be traced to several elements that gripped the nation: humble beginnings as the son of a Norwegian carriage maker, learning the game in the Chicago sandlots; an innovative spirit and quest for perfection that revolutionalized college football; a distinctive oratory style that sparked unquenchable motivation; cultivation of a valuable relationship with the media and his tragic death in a 1931 airplane crash, the loss of a sports treasure at the age of 43.
Without the advantage of modern-day mass media, Rockne’s teams were at a decided disadvantage in trying to crack the national consciousness, also lacking the reputation of established programs while situated in seeming isolation.
That all changed in stunning fashion during Rockne’s 12-year career (1919-30), as the balding and crooked-nose coach became one of the nation’s most recognizable figures. Team success laid the foundation but it was Rockne’s media-relations savvy that took things to another level.
When it came to dealing with the media, Rockne got “it” before anybody knew what “it” was. And the growing exposure, combined with a national schedule, quickly transformed Notre Dame into “America’s Team” – with Rockne emerging as “America’s coach.”
Sportswriter Francis Wallace once described Rockne as having a “blowtorch spirit” and that impact carried on after his death. The documentary Wake Up the Echoes conveys this fact, as a teary-eyed and aged Adam Walsh (the center on the 1924 team) tells of how, when facing a tough time, he would look to the skies and ask, “What should I do Rock … and I still do that, to this very day.”
The documentary includes another telling scene, as operators answer the phones by repeating six definitive words: “Yes, it’s true, Rockne is dead.” One day after the tragedy, Will Rogers paid tribute to Rockne, saying, “Notre Dame was your address but every gridiron in America was your home.” A 1943 historian later claimed that “no death within the confines of the United States caused more grief and depression in those years.”
Legends live on through the wonders of merchandising, monuments and other tributes and Rockne was no exception. The toll plaza near the Bazaar, Kan., crash site where Rockne lost his life is marked with a distinctive metal plaque and a larger monument stands in a nearby field, with Easter Heathman (a surviving witness from the crash) still serving as unofficial tour guide.
Rockne’s gravesite in South Bend’s Highland Cemetery, though hard to find, remains a regular stop for devoted fans and the local Notre Dame club still holds the Rockne Mass and Communion Breakfast every spring. The athletic department’s student-athlete awards and a new scholarship fund for all Irish sports both bear Rockne’s name.
Notre Dame’s Rockne Memorial, a center for intramural and recreational sports, includes a distinctive gold bust of Rockne (Ara Parseghian once put his arm around the bust and told his predecessor, “You started all this”) while areas around campus include Rockne Drive and the toll road’s Rockne Rest Stop – even the town of Scott, La., has a Knute Rockne Road (one of town’s founders was a devoted follower of the team).
Most recently, Rockne became the first football coach ever honored on a U.S. postage stamp while ESPN Classic devoted an hour-long special to one event: the 70th anniversary of Rockne’s death. The Sporting News placed him among the 100 most powerful people in sports during the 20th while his machine gun-like chatter and inspirational speeches are recited to this day.
Rockne’s enduring charm can be seen in countless books, including a recent collection – “Quotable Rockne” – that chronicles the coach’s many famous sayings and e bonus comments from others about Rockne. One former player put it quite eloquently, stating that “Few of us realized that he was transplanting his spirit., his very soul into each of us.”
And thus the legend of Rockne lived on in those who followed.
The football culture nurtured by Rockne produced two other legends that remain vibrant to this day: George Gipp and the “Four Horsemen” backfield.
Many images of the record-setting Gipp include flickering reels of black-and-white film, with the All-American darting through the opposition as if his part of the movie somehow was playing at a different speed. But it was an off-the-field moment that gave the Gipp legend its biggest boost.
Rockne and Gipp forever will be intertwined due to the coach’s famous halftime speech, delivered in 1928 to a “twice-beaten and demoralized Notre Dame 11.” Some eight years removed from Gipp’s own tragic death (due to strep throat), Rockne kept the deathbed promise he made to Gipp, who told his coach, “Some time … when the breaks are beating the boys – tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for The Gipper.”
The halftime inspiration yielded a 12-6 win over the nation’s top-ranked team, prompting headlines such as “Gipp’s Ghost Beats Army.” The Sporting News labeled the legend of Gipp/Rockne’s speech as the No. 3 moment in college football history and the motion picture Knute Rockne All-American later featured aspiring politician Ronald Reagan in the role of Gipp.
The definition of a legend being “historical though not verifiable” certainly applies to the Gipper speech. Historians have challenged several aspects, including whether Gipp even uttered the words (he never before had been referred to as The Gipper) and whether the widely-accepted transcript of the speech was altered for literary effect … all of which adds to the moment’s mystery and appeal.
The phrase “Win One for The Gipper” remains part of the nation’s vernacular (Reagan used it as part of his campaigns) and Gipp’s story continues to provide inspiration for anyone facing insurmountable odds.
Four year’s after Gipp’s death, The Four Horsemen – Harry Stuhldreher, Elmer Layden, Jim Crowley and Don Miller, the stars behind the more anonymous “Seven Mules” line – gained similar fame, thanks to Rockne’s mystique and his two “accomplices:” New York Herald-Tribune poetic sportswriter Grantland Rice and student publicity aide George Strickler. Rice watched the backfield dominate Army in 1924 and penned the most famous passage in sports journalism:
“Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice … .”
Strickler gave the legend a visual component when he arranged for the players to be seated on horses after returning to South Bend. The resulting photograph was picked up by the wire services and remains one of the most recognizable images in American sports history, inspiring a 1998 U.S. postage stamp.
Throughout the rest of their lives, The Four Horsemen (each a College Football Hall of Famer) were photographed many times as a group, often on horseback. And if the true measure of a legend is the test of time, they rank near the top. As Crowley once stated, “I could have been mayor of New York City and they still would have introduced me as one of The Four Horsemen.”
Another group of individuals attained legendary status near mid-century, with Frank Leahy – one of the former players who received Rockne’s “transplanted spirit” – guiding the Irish to four national titles, including three in a dominating 1946-49 stretch.
Sports Illustrated rated the’46-’49 teams as the nation’s second-best sports dynasty of the 20th century, behind the 1957-69 Boston Celtics. The Irish never lost (36-0-2) while producing 17 All-Americans in that stretch, led by Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart and Outland Trophy recipient George Connor – with Sports Illustrated proclaiming, “Only one team could match up with Notre Dame in the years after World War II: the Irish second string.”
More than 50 years later, those teams remain a legendary group – part of “Leahy’s Lads,” a collection of the coach’s former players who carry on the spirit of that glorious era.
Notre Dame football has included plenty of other individuals and moments that qualify for legendary status, enough to have filled many books over the years.
But possibly the most important thing about legends is the impact they have on the here and now – that is the greatest legacy of all.