Reflections from the Dome

Rockne with his trademark gray fedora, and smile...

Rockne with his trademark gray fedora, and smile...

 

Recollections Of Rockne by Chet Grant. I believe this article was published in the South Bend Tribune in the 1980s.

As I write, Notre Dame's Knute Rockne looks at me from a large framed portrait which was painted in 1931, the year of his death, by Walter B. Loyd of Cleveland, Ohio, now residing in Florida with Mrs. Foyd.

The arresting likeness in oils of Rockne in slightly cocked gray fedora and gray topcoat, with hands in pockets, is a recent gift by the artist to the International Sports and Games Research Collection (Notre Dame Memorial Library), with which I have been identified the last five years as a special library assistant.

Crinkled eyes and quizzical crooked half-smile connote wryly amused empathy with my intention mainly of setting down here some hirtherto unrecorded first --and second hand nontechnical recollections of Rock as the assistant football coach at Notre Dame (1914-1916).

This emphisis on his role as assistant coach may surprise you if your image of the great Rockne has been projected by Harry Stuhldreher, Warren Brown, Frank Wallace, Scrapiron Young et alia, -- not to mention a screen writer's expediently artificial script for the "Knute Rockne, All-American" motion picture that misrepresents Rock as the founder rather than as the finder (albeit dynamic promoter) of the Notre Dame football tradition. This film has been shown for years to Notre Dame freshman as a feature of indoctrination.

In 1910 the University of Notre Dame campus was relatively remote from downtown South Bend, where I covered sports, amoung other things, for The Tribune. From the end of the nearest trolly line to the main entrance was a walk of half a mile or so. Student correspondents reported all aspects of Notre Dame news at space rates.

While reading a copy on a correspondent's account of a warmup game at Notre Dame I came upon the name of a freshmen candidate who would become the world's most famous football coach.

"Rockne played well at fullback," I read, "but showed a tendancy to fumble."

Rock and Coach Shorty Longman had a falling-out and Rockne quit the squad in his first academic year at Notre Dame. According to my friend John Gruber, he did coach a leading downtown Sunday football team know as the Huebners. I knew Johnny Gruber as a first rate-local athlete in the time of Rockne, and as a lifetime Notre Dame buff. He bore articulate witness which I considered competent.

The Huebner's training habits had been loose and easy. No drinking, no smoking became the order of the days when Rockne was around. The first offense rated a boot in the behind, so John Gruber testified as an early beneficiary of a well-placed reminder of the rule. A second offender was out.

It is congruous with Knute Rockne's nature and history to believe that at age 22 this Notre Dame freshmen would be able to enlist the respect, confidence and obedience of tough, prideful, fiery young Magyar footballer's prefiguring the pattern of his future all-out playing and coaching commitment to Notre Dame.

It's a matter of repetitive widely circulated record that at Notre Dame he hit the lab and books magna cum laude, took time out for amateur theatricals, participated in a "marble tournament (played with pool balls) for the championship of the world," and fluted in a campus stage production. Unqualified for varsity competition by a musclebound throwing arm he substituted interhall baseball. Again according to John Gruber, on a given Sunday with the Huebners he might coach, referee or, in a pinch, play: an extracurricular case for the versitility of his undergraduate interests which need not be true in order to be plausible.

It was an open secret that he boxed for prizes in places removed from convenient university surveilance. At another time, in another context, this last phase of his off-campus activities would make an interesting monograph, featuring his relationship with a sparring partner and corner handler, fellow student Joe Gargan who dressed like a dude (modeling for Spiro's Clothing store of South Bend) and packed a sharper punch that his principal.

I met Knute Rockne the first time in the early summer of 1915. Fredrick B. Barnes, municipal recreational director, introduced us downtown, at Michigan St. and Washington Ave. Rock was director at one or another of the city playgrounds. This was his second year at Notre Dame as assistant football coach, head track coach and instructor in organic chemistry.

I've never forgotten the searching directness of his blue-eyed gaze as, without my realizing it then, he photographed, weighed, measured, catalogued and indexed me in a computer brain: Name, Face, Physique, Personality and Character. He may have known that  Athletic Director and Head Football, Basketball and Baseball Coach Jesse Harper had an eye on me. But anyone seemed important enough to Rock to be remarkably remembered -- even the least of us.

About August 15 of that summer Jesse Harper climbed the dark narrow stairs to The Tribune's second story city room to give me a requested interview on the 1915 gridiron outlook. Afterwords he invited me to enroll at Notre Dame on what I recall as a never specifically stated BT ride: T for free tuition, B for one meal a day if I had the nerve and luck to breach a varsity training table while I was still an off-campus freshman.

During my freshman year I continued to get out my appreciably less than a page of sports for the Tribune. But I had to take on the Notre Dame campus sports correspondence to compensate on the Tribune payroll, having been relieved of the responsibility of also collecting and recording news from the undertakers, Central Fire Station, High School, Chamber of Commerce and Y.M.C.A. Classes at Notre Dame began for me with Journalism I at 11a.m. and ended with Law (Torts & Claims) at 4 p.m. I didn't go out for freshmen football (or for basketball that winter), but reported varsity athletics in The Tribune.

Rock was normally present, silently observant, when I interviewed Head Coach Harper daily in an office he maintained in the Big Gym. I managed to compete with the freshmen winter and spring in track, besides squeezing in spring football practice. The summer of 1916 I was back on a full-time schedule for The Tribune, including coverage of Central League baseball at Springbrook Park and operation of the Trib's Graflex camera - but Rock and I saw lots of each other.

 

Rockne in 1915. Photographed by Chet Grant for the South Bend Tribune.

Rockne in 1915. Photographed by Chet Grant for the South Bend Tribune.

That summer he was playground director at Leeper Park, a few blocks from where I lived with my parents and sister.

When the Central Leaguers were on the road I worked out every afternoon. Rock tried to groom me for the city playground track meet. Sometimes there would be another runner at Leeper to race with. With no lanes marked off I contracted the irritating habit of looking for my opponent out of the corner of my eye. Again and again it seemed that I was running away from him -- and I was at a very wide and embarassing angle! When Rock and I played catch with a football my shortage of forward passing promise must have tried his forbearance even more acutely. His reaction to my combined perversity and ineptitude was a wondrous compound of patience and exasperation in which the virtue miraculously prevailed.

What with having finished high school, going to work, playing semi-pro baseball, basketball and football, I thought I'd outgrown a weakness for hero worship. That is, until a certain afternoon in the park. A youth of 16 or 17 who had been annoying the younger playground children and their female director resented Rockne's intervention and turned on him with a sizable stone.

By the time I arrived at Leeper, Rock had the youth spreadeagled for I don't know how long. "Take this thing out of his hand," he directed me. It was only common sence to commandeer my assistance. But I was vaguely disturbed by an implication of this exhibition of lese majeste. It was as if a stripling had exposed the vulnerability of one I had endowed subconciously with superhumanity. In actuality it had been a comendable feat on Rock's part to immobilize the wiry young rebel without hurting him.

More to my taste was an earlier playground confrontation  remembered by another friend, Irving Minkow, in later years a South Bend clothier. Action ensued when a full-grown challenger on Oliver Field asked who was going to stop him from smoking around the younger kids. Director Rockne introduced himself with a kayo right, no comment necessary.

Irv Minkow described other Oliver Field vignettes starring Rock in less physical terms.

Once Rockne took a baseball team to Buchannan for a game that climaxed in a free-for-all.. Evasive strategy was indicated: peaceful withdrawal garnished with honor and honorarium. Unobtrusively Rock mustered his players individually with a sharp but quiet order: "Get on the bus." For those reluctant to part with the prospect of a fine fray he had the words of magic. "Come on," he urged, "We've got our guarantee. Don't you want to eat.?

It was a compassionate Rock who responded to another type of playground crisis. Irv Minkow and his group had booked an exhibition baspball gamp with Benton Harbor's long-haired, bearded House of David celebrities. At a late hour the local uniforms ordered for this auspicious occasion hadn't arrived.

"We were redfaced," Irv Minkow recalled. "I went to Rock. He owed us no more than a place to play on Oliver Field. But on his own responsibility and time he took me out to the Notre Dame Gym and we found enough unlettered uniforms to save our faces. He told me he only did this because he knew I was one who he could trust. I never knew a prouder moment in my life."

The Oliver Field boys had been victimized from time to time by Rock's prankish streak. They conspired to test his sense of humor when the prank was reversed. The opportunity developed when he was driving a group to some point of competition requiring the ascent of one of the hills on South Bend's east side. He often had boasted of the climbing ability of his Overland automobile. This time it stalled cold on the first fairly steep slope, When a party to the conspiracy speculated that he was carrying too much ballast he exploded. In his undisguised opinion the only ballast he'd been carrying consisted of the rockheads now standing around scratching their misplaced brains!!

"Why don't you look in back, Rock?" someone suggested mildly.

He sputtered but he looked.

It was a delightful moment for all, Irving Minow recalled, when a familiar beaming smile began to form in appreciation of the kindred spirit that had inspired his "rockheads" to weight down the Overland's rear end with rocks.

"We thought Rock was a great guy," Minkow concluded, "but we didn't know he was going to be famuos."

Rockne's mounting renown as an after dinner-dinner speaker reminded many local citizens that they had contributed to the development of his native talent. I suspect that practice for perfection as in any other kind of competition, had most to do with his improved techniques. In any case, I doubt that he ever made a more eloquent speech, measuring its quality by its effect anyhow, than the first one I audited. This was in the dressing room before the Wabash game of 1916 on Cartier Field.

We had scouted the Little Giants against Purdue at Lafayette. Always pesky if not always formidable, in 1916 the Wabash players were physically bigger and presumably better than average. Apparently fearful that Notre Dame would be overconfident, he reported that the new coach of the Little Giants, an old playing rival of Notre Dame, had charged his charges with the consecrated mission of "getting the dirty Catholics."

With non-Catholic Head Coach Harper's blessing, still non-Catholic Rockne delivered the pre-game lockerroom peporation to a starting eleven that included four non-Catholics and one unconfirmed Catholic. Exhorting us to go out and "crucify" the infidels, he made Crusaders of all of us and literally levitated the churchless one. I was only a sophomore in academic years, but - let me remind you - in calendar years I was 24 and my diverse athletic competition was inclusive of two seasons in the professional baseball bush. I'd already been in two varsity football warm ups. But if my cleats touched cinders on the path from the Big Gym to the Cartier Field gate there was no feeling. Exaltation or excitement has been metaphorized as walking on air. I was running on air. Most of my teammates were far more sophisticated than I. But Rock must have stoked their adrenal glands similarly. The potential upsetters were upset 60 to 0.

Our only defeat in 1916 was by Army. A reader of that series of articles under Rockne's byline in Collier's Weekly, posthumously reprinted and published in hard cover as an autobiography, well might demand, "Where was Rockne's magic that day?"

Answer: Assumably right where Rockne was that day.

The catch is that he seems to have written about our 30-10 clobbering as if he we're present at West Point.

Chalk up this geographical dislocation against ghoswriter, collaborator, editor, whoever didn't know that on that Saturday afternoon in 1916 Assistant Coach Rockne was a thousand miles away, in Lincoln, Neb. He was scouting the Cornhuskers.

Jess Harper had special occasion to capitalize again on his assistant's forte as a peporator when it came to his attention that Jumbo Stiehm, Cornhusker coach, had been reported attempting to sow seeds of discord among some key Notre Dame squad members the morning of our finale at Lincoln.

Harper called a special pre-game meeting at the hotel and turned it over to the man with the magic. The degree of Rock's sense of outrage by Stiehm's alleged psychological sabotage can be gauged by a story, which I'm inclined to credit, at least apocraphally, to the effect that he had laid money on the outcome of a Notre Dame football game for probably the first and the last time.

It was a long longshot. Although we won 18 to 0, such a wager had been in critical jeopardy to the end. He would have lost money he could ill afford to risk had Nebraska scored only seven points at any stage of the game. Our three touchdowns had been distributed evenly and ominously among three of the four periods. He had gambled that we would score more points in one quarter than the Cornhuskers would tally all told!

I played varsity basketball that winter of 1916-17, had my picture taken with the track squad and thought I might beat out the varsity centerfielder who also was a light sticker! But I quit school at Eastertide and by the time I returned to South Bend in late October, 1919, after 29 months in military service, Knute Rockne was in his second head-coaching year .

At the close of this, his first undefeated season, I for the first time heard him talk to an outside group when he appeared at a Press Club dinner in the Oliver Hotel.

The crowd was mixed. Seemingly he couldn't yet believe that women would be interested in any thing a football coach had to say. Clearing his throat nervously, he spoke haltingly at first; in broken rushes as he got under way. He didn't approximate his pre-game form as I'd known it. Nevertheless, the impact was there. Personality, sincerity, power and wit transcended any defeats of delivery. In short, he scored dynamically on male and female alike.

The next time I heard him speak publicly was before another mixed group, a much larger one in Minneapolis in the winter of 1924-25. I was around because I then was teaching and coaching at the Christian Brothers' Cretin (military) High School in St. Paul. That was a brief and hectic connection that Rock, with a virtual snap of his fingers, had made for me despite or on account of an undeclared private fued between us which both tacitly recognized and which, I regret to recall, neither ever made an express move to resolve.

The hundreds of guests were mesmerized by his presence and presentation. He knew it and enjoyed it to the brim. In order to render his special brand of  eloquence on this occasion its due I once resorted to the following exercise in hyperbole at a Rockne Memorial Breakfast:  "Had he ordered us at the close of this talk in Minneapolis to follow the leader I vow that all hands well might have swarmed after him happily in any direction anywhere, down to the last man and woman who heard him. As a student of American Indian history he aptly might have piped these enchanted adults miles down the Mississippi valley to Red Wing, site of a Lover's Leap Rock from which the Indian maiden Red Wing and her sweetheart had leaped in a legendary suicide tryst. At that point, had he enjoined us likewise to leap there would have been no alternative to our exertion of every effort to plunge enmasse into the arms of the Father of Waters. Finally, let us suppose that he then charged us in his best staccato crescendo to 'Swim, Swim, SWIM!' Obviously, inevitably, not a death by drowning would have ensued."

At this point, sensitive to that twisted grin in W.B. Loyd's painting of Knute Rockne, I indulge the whimsical speculation that my invented fantasy was not in fact beyond the compass of his spellbindery.

 

Back to Irish Reveries