Knute (pronounced "kah-noot") ("noot" is the anglicized nickname) Kenneth Rockne (March 4, 1888 – March 31, 1931) was an American football player and is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in college football history. His biography at the College Football Hall of Fame (South Bend, IN) calls him "American football's most-renowned coach." He was a native Norwegian, and was trained as a chemist at Notre Dame. He is credited with popularizing the use of the forward pass.
After Rockne finished high school, he took a job as a mail dispatcher with the Chicago Post Office for four years. When he was 22, he had saved enough money to continue his education. Knute Rockne headed to South Bend, Indiana, to finish his schooling. He was the laboratory assistant to noted polymer chemist Julius Arthur Nieuwland at Notre Dame, but rejected further work in chemistry after receiving an offer to coach football.
As head coach of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana from 1918 to 1930, he set the greatest all-time winning percentage of 88.1%, since eclipsed but still the best percentage in Division I-A. During 13 years as head coach, he oversaw 105 victories, 12 losses, 5 ties, and 6 national championships, including 5 undefeated seasons without a tie. His players included George 'Gipper' Gipp and the "Four Horsemen" (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden), and Frank Leahy.
Rockne introduced the "shift", with the backfield lining up in a T formation and then quickly shifting into a box formation to the left or right just as the ball was snapped. It remained a staple in the Notre Dame playbook until it was discarded by Frank Leahy in 1942 in favor of the T. Rockne is also credited with popularizing the forward pass, a seldom used play at the time, although Rocke acknowledged that the play had actually been pioneered by St. Louis University coach Eddie Cochems, whose principal passer, Bradbury Robinson, threw the first legal pass in 1906.
Rockne was also shrewd enough to recognize that intercollegiate sports had a show business aspect to it and so he worked hard promoting Notre Dame football so as to make it financially successful. He used his considerable charm to actively court favor from the media, which then consisted of newspapers, wire services and radio stations and networks, so as to obtain free advertising for his Notre Dame football product. He was very successful as an advertising pitchman, for South Bend based Studebaker and other products.
For all his success, Rockne made what an Associated Press writer called "one of the greatest coaching blunders in history." Instead of coaching his 1926 team against Carnegie Tech, Rockne traveled to Chicago for the Army-Navy Game in order to "write newspaper articles about it, as well as select an All-America football team." Carnegie Tech used the coach's absence as motivation for a 19–0 win; the upset likely cost the Irish a shot at the national title.
Raised as a Protestant, Rockne converted to Catholicism later in his life.
Rockne was only 43 when he died in a plane crash in Kansas on March 31, 1931, while en route to participate in the production of the film The Spirit of Notre Dame. Shortly after taking off from Kansas City, where he had stopped to visit his two sons, Bill and Knute Jr., who were in boarding school there at the Pembroke-Country Day School, one of the Fokker Trimotor aircraft's wings separated in flight. The plane crashed into a wheat field near Bazaar, Kansas, killing eight people, including Rockne. President Herbert Hoover called Rockne's death "a national loss."
Authorities and aviation journalists at first speculated that the plane came apart after penetrating a thunderstorm and experiencing strong turbulence and icing, which, it was suspected, blocked the venturi tube that provided suction to drive the flight instruments. That was thought to have resulted in a graveyard spiral under instrument flight conditions and structural failure from excessive load. But this hypothesis was not backed up by meteorological records and observations; there was no isolated thunderstorm cell or other notable buildup in the area. Also, the failure involved the sturdy wing, not the tail surfaces. A long, thorough and well-publicized investigation concluded that the Fokker, operated by a company of the newly-formed TWA, broke up in clear weather due to fatigue cracks in its famous cantilever stressed plywood wing, around where one of the engine mounting struts joined.
The Fokker Super Universal fleet was inspected and grounded after similar cracks were found in many examples, ruining the manufacturer's American reputation (the Dutch designer Anthony Fokker was then in business in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey). This resulted in a complete overhaul of standards for new transport aircraft and led to the use of all-metal construction in commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-2. The Rockne crash dominated the news for a while and was thus a tragic catalyst in the progress of civil aviation.
On the spot where the plane crashed, a memorial dedicated to the victims stands surrounded by a wire fence with wooden posts. The memorial was maintained for many years by James Easter Heathman, who, at age thirteen in 1931, was one of the first people to arrive at the site of the tragedy. In 2006, he was given an honorary monogram by the University of Notre Dame for his dedication to remembering the life of Rockne. Mr. Heathman passed away on January 29, 2008, at age 90 following a bout with pneumonia.
Rockne was buried in Highland Cemetery in South Bend, and a student gymnasium building on campus is named in his honor, as well as a street in South Bend, and a travel plaza on the Indiana Toll Road. In addition to these tributes, the town of Rockne, Texas was named to honor him. The Matfield Green travel plaza on the Kansas Turnpike, near Bazaar, contains a memorial to him.
Rockne was not the first coach to use the forward pass, but he helped popularize it, especially on the East Coast. Most football historians agree that a few schools, notably Saint Louis University, Michigan, and Minnesota, had passing attacks in place well before Rockne arrived at Notre Dame. Few of the major Eastern teams used the pass, however. In the summer of 1913, while he was a life guard on the beach at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, Rockne and his college teammate and roommate Gus Dorais worked on passing techniques. That fall, Notre Dame upset heavily favored Army, 35-13, at West Point thanks to a barrage of Dorais-to-Rockne passes. The game played an important role in displaying the potency of the forward pass and "open offense" and convinced many coaches to consider adding a few pass plays to their play books. The game is dramatized in the movie, "The Long Gray Line."
In 1988, the United States Postal Service honored Rockne with a 22 cent postage stamp in his honor. President Ronald Reagan, who played George Gipp in the movie "Knute Rockne, All American," gave an address at the Athletic & Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame on March 9, 1988, and officially unveiled the Rockne stamp.
A biographical musical of Rockne's life is to premiere at the Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN, on April 3, 2008. The musical is based on a play and mini-series by Buddy Farmer.
Taylorville, Illinois, dedicated the street next to the football field as "Knute Rockne Road".