Campus Life this month features stories from the last people on campus to see Rock before his fateful flight. From the book We Remember Rockne by Paul Castner and John McCallum. The players are Moon Mullins, fullback (1927,'28,'29,'30) and Bill Jones, Guard (1926, '27)
As close as I could figure, I was the last Notre Dame student to talk to Knute Rockne on the campus. The facts behind that are these. On our way back to South Bend from playing USC in Los Angeles the previous December, our train stopped at Topeka, Kansas, where Phog Allen, the University of Kansas' great basketball coach and Athletic Director, and Bill Hargiss, the Jay hawk's football coach, came aboard to ride as far as Kansas City with us so they could talk to Rock. It seems they were looking for a backfield coach to help out in Spring practice. Rock was riding up in the club car and sent word back to me that he wanted me to join him and Allen and Hargiss. He told me he was recommending me, a senior, for the job. I had plenty of credits to graduate that June so it was not an illogical request when Coach Hargiss asked me to help tutor the Kansas backfield in March.
Well, I returned to Notre Dame from Lawrence the very morning Rockne was leaving for Kansas City to catch the plane for Los Angeles. I got back on campus about 12 noon. I was debating whether I should try to make the regular meal or do what was cus- tomary when we were late: go down the line and buy your own meal. I decided to pay. I had just filled my tray when I heard this familiar voice behind me say: "Hi, Larry, how was everything out in Kansas?" It was Rock, of course. He said, "When you finish filling your tray, come over and join me at my table. I want to hear all about your week in Kansas."
During the meal, Rock said, "I'm leaving this afternoon for your old state -the land of sunshine and roses -California. I'm taking a plane from Kansas City.
For the next half-hour we talked football. It was the most pleasant visit I ever had had with Rock, because as a player I always made it a practice to keep my distance. This wasn't Rock's fault. In fact, he welcomed us to be as close to him as we desired, but we all had such a respect for him as undergraduates that we kept our distance in a typical player-coach relationship. Well, as our visit drew to a close, Rock rose to say goodbye. We shook hands and I said, "You know, Coach, I've been going to return something to Mrs. Rockne since the Southern Cal game in December, but I just haven't gotten over to your house yet to give it back to her ."
"What's that, Larry?" he asked, pausing.
I then told him this story. I had wrecked my knee in the Army game and couldn't play much against Southern Cal. But on the way out to the Coast we stopped off at Tucson for a Wednesday workout and to limber up and get used to the heat. Mrs. Rockne was there and she said to me, "Larry, with that bum knee you're going to need some extra help in Los Angeles and maybe this medal of the Little Flower, St. Therese, will help turn the trick." She handed me the medal and I appreciated her gesture a lot, even though my injured knee kept me out of all but one play of the USC game.
Los Angeles was my home town and, knowing all my relatives and friends had come to see me play, Rock put me in for that one play for their benefit. It was a wonderful gesture and so typical of him. What nobody knew was that I had that Little Flower medal taped to my bad knee. After our great upset of favored USC, 27-0, my teammates awarded me the game ball -the only football used during the entire contest. To me, that ball symbolized Knute Rockne, sportsmanship, the great game of football -and the true spirit of Notre Dame.
"And so, Coach," I said as Rock was getting ready to leave on his fatal journey, "I want you to have this little medal to protect you on your flight to the Coast. I wish I were going with you."
Then he was gone. That's the last time I saw him alive. Mrs. Rockne told me later that when they found his body he had the St. Therese medal on him. It served as part of his identification.
In his senior year in Law School, Bill Jones, later Judge William Blakeley Jones of the U.S. District Court, in Washington, D.C., was Rockne's freshman coach. Shortly before he was graduated, in 1931, Bill was recommended by Rock for the head football coaching job at a small college out in Helena, Montana, called St. Charles College (now Carroll College).
On the night of March 28th, Bill met with Bishop Finnegan, of Helena, in president Charles O'Donnell's office at Notre Dame to talk about the job. The Bishop was a former vice-president of Notre Dame.
"Rockne says that you're the man for our football job," Bishop Finnegan said.
My real interest is law and not football," Bill told him, I have to have a means to an end."
'Well," the Bishop said, "come out and get started."
'I'll take the coaching job only if I can get into a law firm," Bill said.
Unhesitatingly, Bishop Finnegan replied, "Well, I can get you in the firm of Walsh and Nagel. They're a leading company in Montana and do all our legal work for us."
On those terms, Bill became the head football coach of St. Charles College.
The next day was Palm Sunday and Rock scheduled a football scrimmage out on the old sophomore field. It was to be his last direct connection with the game of football.
JUDGE WILLIAM JONES:
Actually, I didn't accept Bishop Finnegan's offer immediately. In all honesty I told him I wanted to talk to Rockne first. So on Palm Sunday -only two days before Rock was killed -I walked over to the practice field and stood along the sidelines and called to him. He came off the field and said, "What is it, Jonesy?"
I said, "I talked to Bishop Finnegan last night and he made me a proposition."
"What's that?" Rock wanted to know.
"The job includes a salary I can live with, plus room and board in the college dormitory ," I said.
"It sounds good to me, Jonesy," he said. "You'd better take it...take it."
He then wheeled around and returned to the scrimmage.
Well, I told myself, that's that. I turned to leave. I'd taken only four or five steps when Rock came back to me. "Wait a minute, Jonesy ," he said. " Are you planning to get married soon?"
"That's a funny question for you to ask," I said. "You've always told us that football was our life here at Notre Dame -and studies are our life -and for us not to get involved romantically until we were ready to settle down. Why do you ask?"
"Well," he grinned, "I figure it would be a heck of a note to expect a wife to live in a dormitory."
At Monday noon I went into the Notre Dame cafeteria and spotted Rock having lunch with Moon Mullins. Since they were deep in conversation I merely nodded and said hello as I passed their table.
"Hey, Jonesy, come back here," Rock said. "Join us," and he moved his chair around to make room. "I was just telling Moon some things you ought to hear, too. He is going back out to Kansas next fall as backfield coach and I've been telling him to do a good job for them but to save our Notre Dame stuff for the day when he gets a head coaching job of his own. Now, Jonesy, you've got a head job - so use everything we've taught you here at Notre Dame. But bear in mind one thing, Jonesy. Remember that you're a trained lawyer, and football is only a means to an end. So get yourself acquainted with people in law out in Montana and begin your practice as early as you can. That's what you really want -that's what you should be -and you'll find happiness there. But even more important, both you and Moon are going to soon learn that football coaching is going to become an ever-hazardous career. Twenty years from now there won't be a coaching job worth its pay, what with all the interference and aggravation from administration and alumni you'll be expected to tolerate."
As the conference was breaking up, I said, "Rock, what's the rumor about you flying out to L.A.?"
"It's true," Rock said. "I'm taking the train to Chicago, then on to Kansas City, from where I will fly on to Los Angeles tomorrow."
I said, "But why can't you go by train. They're a lot safer ."
"No, they're not," Rock said. "You don't read your statistics. Anyway, I want to save time. Bonnie and the kids are still down in Florida and I want to be back home in time to greet them when they return for Easter Sunday. Flying to and from California is the only solution to the time problem."
Little did Moon and I know that when we said goodbye to Rock we were saying goodbye to him forever.