Nov. 11, 2005
Written by Dr. Bernie Kish, former Executive Director of the College Football Hall of Fame
In May of 1928, Knute K. Rockne, the head football coach of the University of Notre Dame, became an employee of South Bend’s famed Studebaker Corporation. This is the story of a giant of a man and his relationship with a legendary American corporation.
In early 1928, South Bend was viewed as one of the most remarkable success stories in America. With a population of 126,000 people, South Bend was in many ways a miniature version of the nation’s larger melting pots, including Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland.
The City by the Bend of the St. Joseph River was home to over 450 industrial establishments manufacturing over 600 kinds of products. Companies like Oliver Plow Works, Bendix Brake, Singer Sewing Machine, Dodge Manufacturing and South Bend Tool and Dye called South Bend home. However, the crown jewel of the bustling, diverse and dynamic industrial community was clearly the Studebaker Corporation.
Studebaker – Circa 1928
Studebaker’s roots in South Bend went all the way back to 1852 when Henry and Clem Studebaker opened a small blacksmith shop on Washington Street. Before long, the Studebaker’s were manufacturing more carriages and wagons than anyone in America. In 1904, the company began producing automobiles. When Rockne joined the Studebaker Team, the company was the tenth largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world with 30 branches; 4,000 service stations and over 5,000 dealers not only in the United States but also around the world.
Rockne – The Coach and the Entrepreneur
And who was this man Rockne, who was now in 1928 a Studebaker Man? Born in Voss, Norway in 1888, he arrived at the University of Notre Dame in 1910 as a 22-year old freshman from Chicago’s Scandinavian North Side. At Notre Dame, he excelled in sports as a middle distance runner and pole vaulter on the track team and captained the football team his senior year, helping lead the Irish to a 35-13 victory over Army at West Point and putting the small Catholic school on the college gridiron map. Rock, as his friends called him, also earned pin money as an amateur boxer in South Bend.
Rockne and Albert Erskine
The story of Knute Rockne and Studebaker has at its roots Rockne’s relationship with Albert Erskine, the president of the Studebaker Corporation. Erskine, a Southerner by birth, came to South Bend in 1911 as treasurer for Studebaker, two years later was named vice president and ascended to the presidency in 1915. A big, hulking and gregarious man, if he and Rockne were not soul mates, they at the least genuinely liked and respected each other.
When Rock took over as head football coach at Notre Dame in 1918, one of his goals was to increase the seating capacity of Cartier Field, which accommodated less than 5,000 spectators. Notre Dame was playing some of the best teams in the country – such as Nebraska, Penn State, Rice and Texas – all away from South Bend.
He sent a letter to prominent businessmen in South Bend, indicating that the Notre Dame football team was a great advertisement for the City and appealed to them to purchase season tickets thus increasing attendance and gate receipts. The Studebaker Corporation purchased 20 season tickets for the 1919 season at $5 each. Erskine’s note to Rockne with the payment stated that “We at Studebaker will support every movement for the welfare and advancement of the University and in its various activities.”
Rockne Joins the Studebaker Team
In January of 1928, Paul Castner, an All-American fullback on Rockne’s 1922 team, was the sales manager for the commercial division at Studebaker. He lobbied Studebaker vice president, Paul Hoffman, to sign Rockne as a motivational speaker at Studebaker’s automobile conventions and dealer banquets. Rockne accepted an offer of $5,000 a year from Hoffman to be the special representative for Studebaker beginning in the winter of 1929.
The timing was ideal both for Studebaker and Rockne. For Studebaker, it fit perfectly in their annual national sales campaign. For Rockne, it was the time between the end of the football season and the beginning of spring practice. Notre Dame president Father Charles O’Donnell certainly had no objection to Rockne accepting the Studebaker offer.
In the late 1920s, Albert Erskine was the Chairman of the University of Notre Dame’s Lay Board of Trustees. His generosity toward Notre Dame was remarkable. In 1927, Notre Dame officials announced that the University was in need of a $10 million Endowment Fund. Mr. Erskine gave $50,000 personally, the Studebaker Corporation contributed another $100,000, and largely through Erskine’s efforts, $350,000 was raised in and around South Bend.
Rockne’s first talk came in January of 1929 at the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce at the Commodore Hotel in New York City. In the audience was literally a Who’s Who of the automobile industry including Henry Ford, Sr. and Alfred Sloane, Jr. of General Motors. According to Paul Castner, “When Rock signed off with his traditional `Go, Go, Go’ he had the entire audience, including Ford and Sloane, on their feet cheering like a bunch of college sophomores at a Yale-Harvard game.”
Rockne – Manager for Sales Promotions
On March 19 of 1931, following his second straight national championship Rockne signed a new contract with Studebaker for $10,000 a year to become their manager for sales promotions.
Rock attacked his new job with his customary vigor and enthusiasm. On March 24th, he addressed his first letter to the company’s dealers and salesmen entitled “Carrying the Fight to the Enemy.” In it, he compared aggressiveness on the football field with his desire to develop offensive-minded dealers and sales managers who would play the game in enemy territory. Six days later on the afternoon of March 30, while in Chicago to celebrate his mother’s birthday, he made a recording entitled “Studebaker Champions” with the theme of turning suspects (potential car buyers) into prospects (actual car buyers). It was his last recording. The next day, Tuesday, March 31, Rockne lost his life in a tragic airplane crash in a cattle pasture near Bazaar, Kan.
Rockne – The Car
What about the Rockne Automobile, the six-cylinder vehicle named after him? There are several myths surrounding this car. The most prevalent and erroneous one is that Studebaker produced the car while Rockne was still coaching. The first Rockne actually went into production in December of 1931, nine months after his death.
Beginning as early as 1928, Albert Erskine felt that Studebaker needed to reenter the low-priced car market. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 did little to dampen his enthusiasm for expansion. Following declining sales and profits in 1930, he was presented with an opportunity to do so. Willys-Overland had hired two Detroit engineers, Ralph Vail and Roy Cole, to design a low-priced, six-cylinder car to replace its aging Whippet. Willys liked the Vail-Cole car but lacked the capital to put it into production. The two engineers were paid for their work and were allowed to keep the two prototypes and the rights to the engineering of the car.
In the summer of 1930, Vail showed his prototype to Erskine at the Studebaker headquarters. Erskine took it for a spin, and before the sun had set, Studebaker owned the rights to the car and hired Cole and Vail. Erskine made a full commitment to the car. He established a separate division of Studebaker complete with its own dealer organization, engineering and production facilities in Detroit.
Following Rockne’s death and with the permission of Bonnie Rockne, Erskine named the car after his beloved friend. He promised to pay Bonnie and her family 25 cents for every Rockne sold. He was confident that the magic of the Rockne name, combined with a fine economical vehicle, would result in a best seller.
Two models, both with four body styles, went on the market in Feb., of 1932. The Model 65 sold for $585 for a Regular Coupe to $740 for a Deluxe Convertible. The prices for the Model 75, ranged from $685 for a coupe to $780 for a Deluxe Sedan.
According to author Thomas Bonsell, the Rockne did far better than its brief life span and reputation would suggest. In 1932, Studebaker built about 45,000 cars and over 23,000 were Rockne’s. With the Rockne leading the way, Studebaker maintained 92 percent of its 1931 sales volume. This was at the height of The Depression, when the entire automobile industry was down by 43 percent compared to its 1931 production. And the company moved up to fifth place in the automobile sales standings for 1932.
Another 15,000 were produced in 1933, bringing the total Rockne’s built to just over 38,000. But that year turned out to be the darkest in Studebaker history. With its capital depleted, heavily in debt with serious cash flow problems and unable to meet payments on its bank loans, the Company was forced into receivership in March. Three months later on July 1st, burdened with these problems, forced out as president of Studebaker, suffering from both a heart condition and diabetes and in deep depression, Erskine took his own life. The Studebaker Corporation then made the decision to cease production of the Rockne automobile.
Despite the tragic deaths of Rockne and Erskine and those dark days for Studebaker in 1933, this story does have a happy ending. Under the leadership of Paul Hoffman, Studebaker rallied in the 1930s and by the outbreak of World War II reemerged as one of the top auto makers in America. In a ten-page article in October of 1946, Life Magazine called Studebaker “the epitome of U.S. Industrial Accomplishment.”
If Rock were with us today, he would be most proud the triumvirate of South Bend, Notre Dame and the Studebaker Corporation is still flourishing. In March of 2005, a beautiful sculpture created by the world-renowned sculptor and Notre Dame graduate, Jerry McKenna, was dedicated at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown South Bend. On the final weekend of October 2005, the sparkling new Studebaker National Museum, located just a few blocks from the College Football Hall of Fame, had its grand opening featuring Rockne memorabilia. Knute Kenneth Rockne’s legacy is now preserved forever in the heart of his hometown – South Bend, Ind.