On this day in 1888, Knute Rockne is born in Voss, Norway. He would go on to become one of the most successful coaches in the history of college football, coaching Notre Dame during their golden era in the 1920s. Rockne won three undisputed national championships with the Fighting Irish, and helped to transform Notre Dame from an unknown program into the most popular college football team in the United States.
Rockne’s family immigrated to the United States from Norway when Knute was five years old. They settled in Chicago, where Knute first played football on the sandlots of his Logan Square neighborhood. Knute was a star in both football and track and field while in high school, but upon graduation did not have enough money to enroll in college. He spent four years as a mail dispatcher with the Chicago Post Office, saving the funds necessary to continue his education. At the age of 22, Rockne enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. In his first year, he was a decided failure on the football field, so he decided to focus solely on track and field, and set a school record in the indoor pole vault. His success in track gave him the confidence to give football another try, and by 1913 Rockne, playing tight end, was the team’s captain. That year, the “Golden Domers,” as they were known (the nickname refers to the gilded statue of Mary atop the original Main Building on campus), defeated a powerhouse Army team, 35-13. Rockne was the star of the game, and that season made former Yale football coach and NCAA co-founder Walter Camp’s college All-American team as a third-stringer.
Rockne took over as Notre Dame’s coach after the 1917 season and immediately set about turning Notre Dame into a contender, scheduling games against established football programs each year, and developing rivalries against local schools. From 1922 to1924, Notre Dame ran roughshod over opponents with a Rockne-designed backfield comprised of quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, halfbacks Jim Crowley and Don Miller and fullback Elmer Layden, who were famously dubbed the “Four Horsemen” by New York Herald-Tribune sportswriter Grantland Rice. Rockne also coached the now-legendary George Gipp, who was versatile enough to run, pass, punt, kick and play in the defensive secondary. Gipp died of strep throat after the 1920 season at the age of 25. While on his death bed, Gipp asked “Rock” to fire up the boys with a pep talk, and to win him a game. Rockne waited eight years, until the team was in dire straits in a game against Army before imploring his boys to “win one for the Gipper.”
Knute Rockne died on March 31, 1931, when the airplane he was traveling in crashed into a field in Kansas. In his 13 years as coach of Notre Dame, he recorded 105 wins, 12 losses and 5 ties for a winning percentage of .881, the highest in the history of college or professional football.