Reflections from the Dome

A dapper Rockne

A dapper Rockne


This month's edition of Reflections From The Dome features excerpts from a personal letter written by Chet Grant to Father Cavanaugh in 1931 on the subject of Rockne. Father Cavanaugh must have written Chet (a former quarterback under Rock) and asked him for some factual information on Rockne, not long after the coach was killed. The notes contained in he letter where written in a conversational form and in Chet’s usual “unusual” style of composition. (Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives)

South Bend Indiana

July 7, 1931


Dear Father Cavanaugh: Have been out of town again; hence, the delay n getting to you these voluminous notes on the subject of Rockne.


Such verbosity as this is appalling, if not criminal, but perhaps you’ll forgive a tremendous lot of chaff for the sake of an occasional grain of light.


I realize you are more interested in facts than in judgements, and I have indulged too far in the latter; but I hope that even my poor opinions, laid alongside the many others which you no doubt have assembled, will contribute something to the picture of Rock.


Sincerely yours,

Chet Grant


Amusing or dramatic episodes:


1916: Before the Wabash Game

Scene: The locker room. Thigh pads all taped on. Shirts pulled over ill-fitting shoulder gear. Shoe laces notted. Knee pads receive a final hitch. Talk. Laughter…The door opens. Harper and Rockne step in. Rockne: “All right. Sit down.” Silence. Grim, pallid. We seat ourselves on the wooden benches, some astraddle. Click of cleats on the concrete locker room floor: a nervous sophomore hurrying from his fifth or sixth excursion to the toilet within a half hour, feverously working at the laces of his khaki pants. Wabash should not be difficult, we think. Rockne however either regards us as overconfident or has a special reason to desire a decisive victory over the Little Giants.

Harper announces the lineup. Then: Rockne: [who has been asked by Coach Harper to give the pre-game talk] “Don’t think this game is going to be a walkover…I told you before, Wabash should have won from Purdue…and Purdue is good…Bacon is a triple threat…Bacon runs, passes, kicks…Watch Bacon…You know Sheeks…Sheeks is the coach of Wabash….Sheeks called you dirty catholics…Sheeks is out to get the dirty Catholics…” (Rockne is gradually working himself into a frenzy.) A growl rewards his reference Sheeks’ alleged observation upon the condition of the Catholics---a growl contributed by Catholic and Protestant and non-denominational alike. He quotes Sheeks again…credits Sheeks with a fluency that I later learned was somewhat exaggerated. More growls. Their center is big and rough…He rehashes some of the stuff passed on in skull practice earlier in the week, always calculated to enrage…It’s mass keying-up. We are a better team than Wabash, but Rockne wants to ram Sheeks’ alleged vilifications down his throat. So he’s keying us up for Wabash. Remember…Sheeks said this and Sheeks said that. His voice expands: “Now – let’s go out there…let’s go out there and get ‘em. Knock ‘em down. Knock ‘em down so they stay down. Hit ‘em! Hit ‘em! Kill ‘em! CRUCIFY ‘EM!...LET’S GO!”

We rise with a roar. I’m 23 but the soles of my feet literally tingle. We trot out to Cartier Field. “Where’s Bacon?” “We want Bacon!” “We want Bacon’s bacon!” “They’ll stay down!” “Let’s go gang!” On the first play I called Cofall off tackle. “Here I come, Bacon,” yelled Charlie Bachman, whose duties on that play included dropping on the fullback’s heels if possible. Bacon went down and Cofall ran 60 yards for a touchdown before the game was barely begun…The final was 60 to 0. NOTE: The last words of Rockne I remember distinctly through all the years ---particularly, his use of the words “Crucify ‘em!” In view of the destructive character of these instructions, it might be pertinent to note that Rock always demanded clean, hard football from his players. The only deviation from the rules he ever countenanced far as I know was a trick where by an offensive end temporarily keeps a big opposing tackle out of the play by placing a hand on the tackle’s foot, covering this infraction with his body. With this exception—and I don’t recall his mentioning it more than once at a general meeting of the squad—he insisted on our meeting the most vicious tactics with harder running, harder blocking, harder tackling all within the rules—not to be sportsmen, but to be winners. This advice usually was followed to advantage; where it failed, most Notre Dame player’s were usually smart enough to work out there own salvation. The point is that so far as Rock was concerned any situation that required in involved infraction of the rule was an individual problem; as a general principle lawful tactics, if exercised vigorously enough, would bring success.


1920 Season

In 1920 I returned to Notre Dame after three years’ absence (including a year of football at Camp Shelby under a system which chanced to suit my particular style better than the Notre Dame system), and found Rockne the big shot, a condition which pleased me because when he was an assistant coach he had been more approachable, more understanding than Harper.

The signals were the same; some changes had been made in the style of attack, especially the passing phase. The shift, except for the quarterbacks part in it, was the same. In 1916 we ran either way to pass – right or left, and let the ball go to the man who was free. We practiced in addition to overhand and sidearm throwing—more or less natural deliveries—underhand passing. In 1920 the passing attack was simplified. Right-hand passes ran back or to the right, never to the left. The pass receiver was designated by the signal—all other receivers either blocked or faked. Underhand passing—designed to meet the emergency of an opponent leaping in the air to block an overhand toss—was disregarded. Fundamentally, however, no changes had been effected…A few years later, four to be exact, one of Notre Dame’s most effective passes was executed after a run to the left by right hand passer (Stuhldreher to Crowley on a fake split buck into the line) –a reversion back to 1916.

It was in 1920 that general attention was first centered on Rock’s between –halves talks. (he may have improved as a public speaker in the past decade, but I have never heard him beat that talk before the Wabash game for force and inspiration. Several times in 1920 and 1921 he equaled the 1916 effort, but in my estimation never exceeded it, as I have said.) The reasons for the focusing of public interest on the between-halves talks were several.

First, as the result of a heavy schedule and the dramatization of George Gipp, our squad was accorded far more than ordinary public attention. Second, we had two distinct teams with which to wage our campaign, and for the first time in Notre Dame football history (probably in collegiate football history) two elevens operated almost entirely as separate units.

The result of this arrangement was that the scoring team, the varsity, usually played only the second quarter of the first half. Also, the keying up talk, if any, at the beginning of the game was directed at the second team. The varsity, therefore, was not in a position for priming until between halves. True, the varsity started most of the major games. But keying up was deferred, by circumstances, until between the halves. Both Rockne and the team were conscious of a fundamental superiority to all our opponents. It was natural that neither he nor the varsity should key to full pitch at the outset of the game which both believed were destined for our bag. Also, Rock purposely in many cases refrained from keying up before a game in the hope that we would be able to win without getting on the edge, and thus decrease the chances of too deep into that one-game slump which every heavy schedule imposes on a football team.

Inconsequence of this touch of arrogance and policy, we were never egged into a full display of our power before the close of the first half. Between the main periods, then, Rock would get out the hammer and tongs. His slant was that the second half was the show-up. We were supposed to be good; we were supposed to win. So far we’d dubbed; we were either loafers or bushers, or both and blankety-blank ones in the bargain…He would paint the picture of the crowd waiting for us to do our stuff…He sent us back not to die for dear old Notre Dame but to win that blankety-blank ball game. (These are not the words, or course, but this is the spirit of the key-up of 1920 and 1921. I do not know why I did not note more clearly his exact phraseology; I had nothing else to do after the first quarter in 1920.)


Nebraska 1920

A certain play, authorized by me, had gone wrong. It would have gone over in a walk had not a signal been missed by one of the backfield. The opposition would have been caught flat footed by the unexpectedness of it. Nevertheless, the only excuse for calling the play was the fact that the members of the backfield were all calling for the ball, and I had in mind teaching them a lesson by signaling a play which left all three of them out of it. Rock rather sharply wanted to know what I had in mind – put the question to me on the train after the game. Having decided not to reveal the heckling of my teammates, I replied in kind – the play would have succeeded if I hadn’t run into the man who missed the signal. “I see,” Rock softened immediately. “The element of surprise, eh?” He liked this technically phrased explanation so well, he ask me no more questions.


Army – 1920 at West Point

As usual (versus the Army) we were trailing at the half. (if not trailing, we had only the narrowest of margins.) Gipp had been playing brilliantly, but fullback French of the Army had twice had reversed the field – on punts – around Eddie Anderson’s side for 80 yards and touchdowns. Rockne was jerking out criticisms to one man and another. (I don’t recall his saying anything to Gipp, who was seated on the ground both times French ran down the sidelines for the goal.) To the guards he might have snapped, “Cut down the secondary. Cut down the secondary. Don’t be nursing your thumbs on the weak side. George should have been away three or four times. Cut ‘em down, I tell you.”… “You So and So; you didn’t get your end on that last play off tackle…What! I say you didn’t. THAT SETTLES IT.” Joe Brandy is muttering, “Those blankety-blanks.  They slug me again this half, I’m letting ‘em have it back.” … Again and again Joe threatens to let ‘em have it back…Finally, Rock: “Joe, you go back in there and play football. All of you go back in there and play football. Let them do the prize fighting while we win the football game…Eddie, where the hell were you on French’s runs?” …Eddie begins to explain. “It wasn’t my fault, Rock.” …BANG. Rock blows up. I had never seen him in such a rage. I thought he was going to sock Eddie. “Shup up, Anderson,” he shouted. “Don’t talk back to me. You go back in there and play football.” …If Eddie had not subsided, Rock undoubtedly would have socked, or burst. Then, after naming the return line up, giving specific and dynamic injunction to each man, he explodes in crashing crescendo, each succeeding sentence a bigger cracker than the one before: “Let’s go back in there! Go after them! Go after them! Knock ‘em down! Tear ‘em apart. Knock ‘em down so they stay down!  FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” The game was won 27 to 17.


Rockne conducting one of his famous coaches clinics in Los Angeles.

Rockne conducting one of his famous coaches clinics in Los Angeles.


In my days, Rock hadn’t resorted to the devices of the post-Four Horsemen Period. (Jim Crowley told me the other day the keynote of Rock’s talks to them before a game or between halves was FIGHT! I would say the keynote of  1920 and 1921 was WIN! WIN! WIN! even when Rock yelled, FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!) In my time, then, Rock depended on straightaway invective, halleluhjah, and exhortation, preceded by a keen analysis of weakness and strength as revealed by the first half. The nearest he came to planned psychology of note was in 1921, for the Indiana game. (see below) As time went on, I think increasing years, illness, the expenditure of energy in many directions, consciousness of himself as a psychologist, all cost him much natural fire, for which he had to substitute showmanship willy-nilly. In my day he was just a football coach—acknowledgably one of he best, but after all just that, a football coach, not a national character with a national fame to bear. (After thought: Probably the greatest factor in Rockne’s rise to the point of the game’s greatest showman was his summer courses in football.  I think he first worked out some psychological effects for the aspiring coaches from the tall corn regions and later applied them to his own problems in coaching.)

Note: on the subject of keying-up:  Rock’s 1919 team was composed largely of returned army and navy veterans. He used to day about this team: “When I tried to key them up during the week for the week-end game, they just laughed. I couldn’t fool ‘em.” The team had the poise most younger teams lack. Its attitude would have been fatal to the average college eleven. The difference would been as confidence is to over-confidence. George Gipp, 24 years old, fitted into this veteran combination perfectly.


Indiana – 1921

In 1920 Indiana gave Notre Dame a bad scare, and George Gipp a pretty sound beating. Rockne was anxious that we trim the Crimson decisively in 1921, and determined accordingly to key us. (Another indication of his contempt for the Army, whom we were to meet a week later at West Point.) We were as strong as we were in 1920, if anything stronger; Indiana weaker. Rock knew he couldn’t kid us on that point. So he conjured up the spirit of George Gipp. I don’t remember the terminology used, but I recall distinctly the message of his talk, and the effect of it. I think he chose his theme coldly enough –probably as mechanically as Poe constructed the framework of The Raven, he rehearsed the outlines of his appeal. The point was, Indiana had laid for Gipp the year before, had bruised him –unnecessarily, perhaps, and had hastened his death. We were told to play today for Gipp. As I’ve said, I don’t remember his words, but I know that no matter how deliberately he had planned, his subject grew on him as The Raven did on Poe, and that real emotion brought tears to the eyes and lumps to the throats of all, and sent them out afire. At the time I was 21 years old, had just had a showdown with Rock which left us both bitter, and had never had any particular affection for George Gipp – nevertheless, I too had to choke back that something which sticks in the throat, and for the second and last time Knute Rockne had filled me with the will to do his will and he confidence that I could do it.


Iowa at Iowa City – 1921

This game, I believe, was the oddest in the annals of Notre Dame. The Notre Dame offense was the most unorthodox on record, as the result of some original and perhaps bizarre notions about advancing the ball put into effect by your correspondent. It was the game up to that time at least Rock wanted hardest to win; its loss I think was his greatest single disappointment on the field. It is the only major game to my knowledge where no determined effort was made to key up the team before the game or between the halves. In spite of the fact that Iowa had one of the stronger teams in the country, and proved more it more than once later, all of us including Rock expected a comparatively easy victory and until the last second of play we were confident of winning because of our superior offensive demonstration. To the very last we regarded it as merely a problem of time, and perhaps it was; we simply didn’t have the time to find out…Rock had taunted the Big Ten for years in order to grab this date with Iowa, and the set-back was a bitter dose, particularly in view of our over-confidence. He went into a rage, which was only settled by a walk around the field in the company of a friend. (Cut-back: Between halves of that game Rock offered no criticism of my conduct, either destructive or constructive. He merely inquired how I felt—feeling some concern on this score because of an operation I had had in mid-summer.) This, I think, indicates very clearly his extreme confidence in our ability to win…I’ve gone into this detail because the Iowa game was an anomaly in so many ways; to this day, so Fod Cotton, who has coached at Davenport St. Ambrose College --  for many years, tells me, football fans of the state of Iowa remember the Iowa – Notre Dame game as the most thrilling, most extraordinary they ever witnessed.

Rockne favored, in the further development of football, anything which added to the premium on physical speed and mental alertness. By the same token he disliked any legislation which tended to return the advantage to brawn. (This is just a passing opinion; contemporary football coaches will have more definite and undoubtedly more specific ideas on this point.)

Rockne as a showman would make a beautiful monograph, which I should like to write, for my own entertainment, when someone else digs up illustrations of his showmanship. Rock became a showman for a number of reasons. First of all, he was naturally an actor, he was always conscious of having or needing an audience, coaching football he was always the actor, he could not teach without demonstrating; he could not prepare a team for the game without envisioning and audience; even before fame plucked him out of comparative obscurity, he perhaps subconsciously thought of a football game as a spectacle of manhood in the boys who played it (although he often publicly stressed the physical, mental, and moral benefits to be derived by the participants); finally, I believe, although he often emphasized in his conversations with me the personally material side of the public reaction to his spectacles, that he was less interested in the effect on his rate of renumeration for coaching than in the attention he gained: this attitude of mind, combined with the unusual success  of the Notre Dame teams, prepared him for the grander stage he was virtually catapulted upon by the Four Horsemen. Second, at the same time he was developing into an actor, he was also evolving as a showman, in that the circus of which he was a part, the football team, he also managed and exploited,; elastic, adaptable, talented – nay, veined, richly veined with genius --, he expanded to meet every new situation: to solve new problems, to surmount new obstacles, to embrace new opportunity. (Words, just words; I’m sorry – I should never have started on the subject, knowing as I did it would be impossible for me to present the premises to my conclusions.)


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