Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


November 13, 2013

Win One for the Biographer

Author Jim Lefebvre relates the legacy of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne—and it's a lot more than just a speech.

Elliot Magruder

Knute Kenneth Rockne, or "St. Knute" as he was known to some, would have turned 125 years old this year. Today, he is most closely associated with his famous "Win one for the Gipper" pep talk, his name almost synonymous with a certain brand of inspirational locker room speeches. But Rockne was a lot more than that—he may have been the greatest college football coach of all time.

Jim Lefebvre
"His game became artistry on grass, where speed, elusiveness, deception, and precision were paramount."

Jim Lefebvre

Rockne led the Fighting Irish to an .881 winning percentage during his 13 seasons at the helm in South Bend, a record that still stands today as the all-time greatest. In the new book Coach for a Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, author and expert on all things under Touchdown Jesus Jim Lefebvre offers an extensive chronicle of how Rockne achieved such unparalleled success while coaching the likes of George Gipp and "The Four Horseman" to four national championships.

Lefebvre delves into every facet of Rockne's life, from his immigration to the United States from Norway as a boy to his sojourn from his hometown of Chicago to South Bend as a 21-year-old freshman to his meteoric rise into the pantheon of football innovators and champions. Lefebvre spends ample time illustrating just how ahead of his time Rockne was in understanding that football needed to be a spectacle to grow its fan base.

In the interview below, edited for clarity and length, Lefebvre expounds on some of the most fascinating aspects of Rockne's brief life. He discusses Rockne's relationship with the similarly doomed George Gipp, the genesis of his love for Notre Dame football and what present-day lessons can be learned from a football coach who passed away in the early years of the Great Depression.

Gelf Magazine: In a recent post on your website, you say your reason for writing a book about Knute Rockne in 2013 is because the lessons that can be learned from him remain timeless. What is the foremost lesson one can learn from the life of Knute Rockne?

Jim Lefebvre: He lived each day, each moment to its fullest, and he did so by genuinely connecting with countless people—his athletes, of course, but also fellow coaches, newspapermen, and those in all walks of life, from business to politics to entertainment. He had time for mill workers as well as millionaires, and all those who met him felt a special friendship. He had an incredible gift for remembering names, faces and details of people's lives. His impulse was to reach out, get to know people, broaden his horizons. As a result, the outpouring of emotion and tribute upon his death was unprecedented in U.S. history for its breadth and depth.

Gelf Magazine: Where does Knute Rockne rank on the pantheon of great college football coaches?

Jim Lefebvre: I put him at the top. He still ranks there, after all these decades, by virtue of the best winning percentage among major-college coaches in history. But more than that, he had an enormous impact on how the game was played, and how it was packaged and promoted to the viewing public. He advocated an "open game" that contrasted with the body-smashing "mass play" of the earlier years of the game. His game became artistry on grass, where speed, elusiveness, deception, and precision were paramount. And he came along at just the right time, when the post-Great War generation had increased leisure time and began flocking to football. Rockne understood what the public wanted, and he helped craft a game of tremendous public appeal, far beyond college campuses. There were other great coaches in his time—Stagg, Warner, Yost—and since then—Wilkinson, Bryant, and yes, Saban—but, because Rockne was there as the modern game took shape, and he played such a substantial role in promoting and advancing it, his contributions can never really be matched. For example, total-season attendance for Notre Dame games increased under Rockne from 56,000 in 1919 to 556,000 in 1929—an unprecedented growth that could never be duplicated. He took his teams from coast to coast—the 1924 Irish were the first team to play games in New York City, Chicago and southern California in the same season. Notre Dame became known as Rockne's "Wonder Team" and developed a national following unlike any other team in any other sport.

Gelf Magazine: Can you describe the relationship between Knute Rockne and George Gipp? Was it typical of his relationship with his players?

Jim Lefebvre: Gipp's style was trying for the coach, there's no doubt. Rockne's instincts of hard work and fairness were tested mightily by Gipp's, um, casual attitudes toward things like practice and schoolwork. After Gipp completed his eligibility and died in 1920, Rockne confided to a friend that, yes, Gipp was the greatest talent he would ever coach, but that he much preferred to develop an entire team that worked together. And the group that arrived on campus in 1921 brought that to fruition by 1924—11 senior starters, the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules, and another 15 or so key senior reserves. Rockne developed them individually and as a team that worked together magnificently, to great results.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think was Rockne's most innovate strategy as a coach?

Jim Lefebvre: Certainly, the Notre Dame shift, which Rockne helped install in 1914 as Jesse Harper's assistant, was the key tactical element—four backs moving to different spots, in unison, and each able to take the snap, and run, pass, or kick—it created a dizzying array of possibilities that flummoxed opposing defenses. But possibly even greater was his envisioning of two-platoon football. While most coaches ran their 11 best—usually biggest—for the whole game, Rockne developed an entire second unit capable of starting games and absorbing the best energy from the opposition. They were called Shock Troops, which came out of military strategy. It was also a great psychological ploy: the opposition would be worn down by the energy of the Shock Troops, knowing that Notre Dame's well-rested first unit was still on the sideline, ready to enter the game at any time.

Gelf Magazine: Columbia, Ohio State, USC—what compelled Rockne to always be seeking other coaching jobs even as Notre Dame was one of the dominant programs in the country?

Jim Lefebvre: It wasn't so much Rockne seeking other positions as schools seeking him out and trying to entice him to leave Notre Dame. Keep in mind that, for several years, Rockne worked tirelessly to convince the priests at Notre Dame that they needed to construct a modern stadium to replace rickety Cartier Field. When shown the LA Coliseum as he was being courted by USC, of course he would show interest (and wife Bonnie fell in love with southern California's warm breezes and comfortable style). And in New York, where Rockne had many friends in newspapers and entertainment, the buzz of the big city was a lure, as was the chance to take over Columbia and challenge the Big Three—Yale, Princeton and Harvard.

Gelf Magazine: There have been reports that question the conventional wisdom about what Rockne said, or didn't say, about George Gipp during the 1928 Notre Dame game against Army. What did your research uncover about the speech?

Jim Lefebvre: There is no question that Rockne invoked Gipp during his talk to the team at the 1928 Army game. Many eyewitnesses have attested to that. And our research shows that, by all accounts, Rockne and Gipp did have a private conversation during Gipp's final days (or hours). What can't be known definitively is exactly what was said in that conversation, and whether Rockne's locker-room speech accurately hued to Gipp's words. It is certainly plausible that Gipp urged Rockne to implore the boys to "win one for the Gipper." It is also very plausible that Rockne "reworked" Gipp's words to meet the situation. Rockne certainly had a flair for the dramatic, which he would bring to bear at the right time. Unfortunately, for many sports fans today who even recognize the name, Rockne has been largely reduced to shorthand for "rah-rah locker room speech." When, in fact, he resorted to this tactic on only a few occasions. Thus the need for a comprehensive biography to tell who this man really was—a rich, complicated character whose influence on football, athletics, and American life in the early 20th century was substantial and multi-faceted.

Gelf Magazine: You went to UW Madison for undergrad. Yet, you have written two exhaustively researched books on Notre Dame football, run a website devoted to its history and edit a newsletter called Irish Echoes. What about Notre Dame football do you find so appealing?

Jim Lefebvre: I come by an interest in football history by way of my upbringing—born and raised in a place known a little for football, Green Bay, Wisconsin. My dad literally grew up around the corner from Earl "Curly" Lambeau, so I grew up hearing the stories of Green Bay's early football heroes. Lambeau played alongside George Gipp in the Notre Dame backfield in 1918, Rockne's first season as head coach. He returned to Green Bay, and in addition to founding the Packers, coached at his alma mater, East High School. There, he directed his star player, Jim Crowley, to Notre Dame, where he became one of the famed Four Horsemen. The same high school produced another Notre Dame captain in 1926, Red Hearnden, as well as a fellow named Walter Smith, who after graduating from Notre Dame began a sportswriting career—we know him as the great Red Smith. So there is this deep nexus connecting Green Bay, Notre Dame and football history. I attended the same Catholic elementary school that Jim Crowley had 50 years earlier. And Crowley, of course, goes on to become head coach at Fordham, where one of his Seven Blocks of Granite was…Vince Lombardi. I was always fascinated by Crowley and the Rockne era of football, and when my two daughters earned their way into Notre Dame (both graduated with honors: Kerry in 2007, Liz in 2009) I dove back into research that had started years before, resulting in my books and websites. I should also mention my wife's contribution. As Joanne Boyer, she was the first woman sportswriter at four newspapers in the 1970s (including the one we both worked for when we met) and had family ties to South Bend; two aunts and an uncle (John Boyer, 1920 ND grad) are buried at Cedar Grove at ND.

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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