George Gipp, the best and most mythical of all Knute Rockne's heroes, was not recruited to play football at Notre Dame. Gipp came from the tough Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan at the age of 21 on a baseball scholarship. As with so much of Rockne's life, there are conflicting accounts as to how Rockne and Gipp linked up. According to one, recently perpetuated by Clarence Manion, dean of the Notre Dame Law School (1941-52), in his foreword to We Remember Rockne, when Gipp was practicing baseball one day, a football sailed over a nearby fence and hit him on the head. The annoyed Gipp booted it back over the fence into a group of players working out under Rockne. "Who kicked that?" Rockne allegedly cried, and when he got the answer, one of the great partnerships between coach and player was born.
Although Rockne's autobiography, originally published as a serial in Collier's in 1930, deserves at best a C minus for accuracy, at least its account of the discovery of Gipp has the merit of being logical. Rockne wrote that on an autumn day in 1916 he came upon Gipp in street clothes drop-kicking a football with another lad. Impressed by both the distance and accuracy of Gipp's kicks, Rockne asked him to come out for the frosh team.
Gipp was an extraordinarily gifted athlete who was also adept at poker, pool, billiards and burning the candle at both ends. He had little interest in press reviews or money. It was winning and the brash gambles winning requires that he fancied. He was an excellent kicker, passer, runner and secondary defender. He even blocked well when asked to perform such drudgery. He was good at both ends of the basketball court. In baseball he was a sort of long-ball Ty Cobb.
For all his gifts, at Calumet High in Michigan Gipp had been a truant, athletically as well as academically, and at Notre Dame his behavior was hardly better. Although in the summers he played in municipal and industrial leagues, and went to Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship, he never won a letter in that sport or, so far as the records show, ever took part in more than three games in an intercollegiate season. He lettered in football four times. (The three-year eligibility rule then in force was waived in 1918 because of World War I.)
Commenting on Gipp's penchant for taking chances on the field, Rockne wrote in his autobiography, "He had proved to me that he was a gambler. I learned later, after his death, that this was so. I had often wondered why George Gipp, not a rich boy, had always sufficient funds. He was an expert card player, an expert billiards player—expert as he would have been in anything he took up. It was his pastime to rendezvous with visiting gentlemen of the trade and beat them at their own games."
It is hard to believe that, unless he was wearing a water bucket over his head, Rockne did not know that Gipp was gambling. The two South Bend papers at times reported Gipp's victories in pocket and three-cushion billiards at establishments like Jimmy and Goat's, and Hullie and Mike's. Moreover, Rockne often ate at Hullie and Mike's, a diner-pool hall near the campus.
In mid-October 1917, when Gipp, a sophomore aspirant for the varsity, turned up on campus, classes had been underway for five weeks and the football team had already played two games. Still, Gipp served nobly in a loss to Nebraska and in victories over South Dakota and Army. On his first carry in the sixth game of the season, he struck a post out of bounds and broke his right leg. After a brief return to school in late November, he disappeared until the following autumn. He spent most of the next academic year, 1918-19, on campus but, it seems, left without taking his final exams. It is often said that Rockne treated each player individually, bearing down on those who needed it, going easy on the sensitive. His technique for Gipp evidently was to pamper him.
Despite his gypsy ways, on Dec. 14, 1919, exactly one year before he would die, Left Halfback George Gipp was elected captain of the 1920 Notre Dame team. Three months later he lost his captaincy. In his autobiography Rockne says Gipp was expelled for cutting too many classes, but won reinstatement by taking an oral examination that proved he had covered the required academic ground. Patrick Chelland, a conscientious biographer of Gipp, maintains that Rockne's account is so much bunk. According to Chelland, the administration, already fed up with Gipp's ways, canned him after he was seen coming out of an off limits night spot. The dismissal caused a clamor—a petition was signed by townsfolk—and Gipp was readmitted. Apparently repentant, he played in three baseball games that spring, and the next fall actually showed up three days before the first football game on Oct. 2.
Gipp was a loner, known well by only a few of his teammates. One of those close to him was a backfield mate, Norm Barry. "Usually at practice we would not see George until Wednesday or Thursday," Barry, now a practicing lawyer and retired judge living in Chicago, recalls. "Johnny Mohardt and I would knock ourselves out, and when George finally showed up, Rockne would say in his staccato voice, 'George, George, where have you been? Where have you been, George? Get down there on the sixth team.' So George would get on the sixth team and work with a lot of boobs, and on Saturday he'd be in the game."
According to one tale supported by respectable testimony, once when Gipp arrived very late for a practice, Rockne told him there was no reason for him to have come at all. Gipp thereupon retired from the field and went back to the poker game he had left.
Rockne wrote that Gipp "cared little for female company." Chelland says Gipp had a steady girl named Iris, who told him on the morning of the 1920 Indiana game that she had married someone else. If there was an Iris and the incident occurred as Chelland describes it, she picked a heck of a time to brush off Gipp. On the eve of the Indiana game, Gipp already had a lot on his mind. Notre Dame had gone 17 games without a loss and was headed for its second perfect season. Consequently, Gipp was having a hard time getting down the $700 he had won on the Army game two weeks earlier. On Friday night, according to Chelland, he went to places where his face was not known, and was so desperate that he was willing to lay even money that "Gipp alone" would outscore Indiana. Saturday morning he was offering Indiana plus 15. Still, he was unable to find many takers, and fortunately so, because he played his worst game. Notre Dame's undefeated string and Gipp's All-America chances were both preserved that day by halfbacks Barry and Mohardt, who disliked each other.
The Notre Dame Scholastic reported, "The first half of the game had been a battle royal with the advantage to the Indiana men. They had stopped the widely heralded George Gipp, they had smothered the Rockne aerial attack, they had time and time broken through the line.... At this desperate stage came the change. Barry was substituted for Mohardt and Mohardt for Gipp. There was a brief consultation and perhaps a prayer, and then the 'juggernaut' got underway." In his biography of Rockne, Harry Stuhldreher, quarterback of the Four Horsemen, maintained that it was in this "brief consultation" between Barry and Mohardt that the phrase "Win one for the Gipper" was born. Stuhldreher wrote, "Mohardt and Barry shook hands and said, 'Let's forget our troubles. We've got to win this game for the Gipper who has been saving our faces for a long time.' "
Stuhldreher's account is controversial, and not only because of the image most people have of actor Pat O'Brien, playing the title role in the movie Knute Rockne: All-American, growling out the Gipper line in a halftime speech. Barry remembers his "brief consultation" with Mohardt to have been quite different from Stuhldreher's description. "Mohardt and I usually did not speak to each other," Barry says, "but when I went in, I said to him, 'Listen, you Polack, if you don't knock that big so-and-so end out of the ball park, I'll knock you on your ass.' " On this inspirational note, Notre Dame moved the ball inside the Indiana one-yard line as the third quarter ended. Rockne then put Gipp back in the game to go over for the touchdown. The score certainly helped Gipp's All-America chances, but it did not sit well with Barry, whom he replaced.
"When Rockne took me out," Barry says, "I took off my helmet and threw it at him. He was kneeling on the sidelines and ducked. I walked right out of the park in my outfit and hailed a cab. I had no money, so I told the cabman to see Rockne, the coach, and get it from him."
Gipp had dislocated his left shoulder in the Indiana game, which Notre Dame rallied to win 13-10. On a blustery day the following week, while helping Grover Malone, a former teammate, coach high schoolers, he caught cold. Despite the ailments, which kept him in bed for several days, Gipp traveled with the team to Evanston to meet Northwestern. Even with Gipp sidelined, Notre Dame was leading comfortably by the end of the third quarter, thanks, in the main, to two long touchdown runs by Barry. The Alumni Association had billed the game as "George Gipp Day," so in a strange way Barry once again helped Gipp live up to his reputation. With the crowd—Irish alumni and Northwestern home-comers alike—clamoring for Gipp, Rockne relented in the fourth quarter and put in his ailing hero.
It was Gipp's last scene, and a great one. On Notre Dame's first possession after he entered the game, he passed 35 yards to Right End Eddie Anderson for a touchdown. On the next possession he set an intercollegiate passing record for distance, throwing 55 yards to Barry for another score.
By the following Saturday, when Notre Dame finished another perfect season, beating Michigan State 25-0, Gipp was hospitalized with a streptococcus infection that was later complicated by pneumonia. He beat the pneumonia and rallied for a while, but the infection lingered. In the predawn of Dec. 14, 1920, the lights of South Bend's Oliver Hotel, where Gipp had many friends, momentarily flicked off, signaling his death.
He was a tough stag brought down by the small hounds of circumstance. Barry and five other teammates accompanied his casket north to his home in the Keweenaw, making the last six miles by sled. While hospitalized, Gipp learned he had been picked by Walter Camp as a first-string All-America, the first Notre Dame man so honored. Baseball contracts offered by the White Sox and Cubs were buried with him.
Did the dying Gipp ever ask Rockne to tell the Irish someday, when the going was rough, to win one for the Gipper? Because both men are now dead, the question is forever moot. For sure, at halftime of the 1928 Army game Rockne fired up his sagging, underdog team with such a request from Gipp. And for certain, when Halfback Jack Chevigny plunged over for the tying score in that game, Chevigny did cry out, "There's one for the Gipper!" Indeed, as Quarterback Frank Carideo recalls, at least half a dozen times after a gain, when they lined up in T formation for the next play, he could hear Chevigny behind him saying, "One for the Gipper." Final score: Gipp 12, Army 6.
Rockne players went forth to coach across the land at institutions great and small—at Washington in the Far West and Holy Cross in the East, at Mount St. Charles (now Carroll College) in Montana and at Santa Clara in California and Sing Sing prison in New York. The names that came from this wellspring are familiar to all football historians, and many of them are well known even to casual followers of the game: Noble Kizer of Purdue, Marchmont Schwartz of Stanford, Jim Crowley of Michigan State and Fordham, Edgar (Rip) Miller of Navy. Harry Stuhldreher of Villanova and Wisconsin, Frank Thomas of Alabama, Frank Leahy of Boston College and Notre Dame, Eddie Anderson of Holy Cross and Iowa, Hunk Anderson of St. Louis and Notre Dame, Elmer Layden of Duquesne and Notre Dame—they and a dozen more were all Rockne men. "We coached everywhere," Schwartz says, "but there never was another Rockne."
By January of 1931 Rockne seemed to have recovered fairly well from the phlebitis that troubled him for most of two years. He was busy half a dozen ways. In addition to his work at Notre Dame and as a marketing executive for Studebaker, he was writing a syndicated football column, collaborating on movie shorts, running football clinics and keeping an eye on his investment in a brokerage firm. At the time of his death in a plane crash on March 31, 1931, he was bound for California on Studebaker business and to start a full-length movie on Notre Dame football.
If he had not died, where would Rockne have gone in the years ahead?
Westbound from New England on a train in 1943, Tackle Joe Kurth ran into Rockne's widow, Bonnie. In a club-car chat she told him Knute had planned to coach for a few more years, and then serve Notre Dame only as athletic director. Schwartz remembers on the train back from the Rock's last victory over USC in 1930, he asked Rockne, "How much longer are you going to coach?"
Rockne replied, "When autumn comes and the leaves fall off the trees, I'll be on the football field."
There is little doubt that, no matter how long he might have continued coaching, he would have been a winner. He had a magnificent capacity for adapting and an eye always on tomorrow. However football might change, he would have picked up the latest strategies and used them well. Schwartz recalls that in his freshman year, 1928-29, "there were rumblings that Rock was too old, that the game was ahead of him. He had stayed with the box formation too long, and Notre Dame had better look for a new coach with more zing. Honest to God, that was the thinking in the only season that Rock lost more than two games."
When Schwartz, then a freshman halfback, returned to his home in Mississippi for Christmas, Rockne telephoned him from the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. He was there for a coaches' meeting, but he wanted "to discuss something." Carnegie Tech had beaten Notre Dame that fall with spinner plays, and what Rockne wanted Schwartz to do was spin in his hotel room. "He had some chalk," Schwartz says, "and he drew a yard circle on the rug of his room, and he said, 'I'm worried about the halfback getting the ball and spinning. You practice. I'll be the center.' After an hour of centering the ball to me, Rock was delighted. 'That's it. That's it for next year,' he said. And by God," Schwartz concludes, "we won two national championships, and our best attack to the weak side was with those spinners."
In the '20s, before half of America had a radio or knew the meaning of the word television, Rockne wrote, "There is no question but that within a year or so a man will be able to sit down at home at his radio and not only hear an account of the game but see it by means of television. There is no doubt, too, but that the rapid transit strides made possible by aviation will increase intersectional games, bringing more color into the various college schedules. I don't believe that television will affect the crowds any more than radio does today. There will be some of a certain temperament who will be content to sit at home and get the account by radio television. But the real, dyed-in-the-wool fan will want to be out there in the throng."
If there had never been a Knute Rockne or a game called football, today there still would be a great University of Notre Dame. If Rockne had never gone to Notre Dame or played the game, he would have been a winner somewhere in some way. However, the school, the game and the man happened together. They were what Rockne, educated as a chemist, might have called an ideal stoichiometric mix. By any name they were a trinity well met.
Gipp went to Notre Dame to play baseball, but he gained lasting glory as a halfback for Rockne.
In the posthumously released film "The Spirit of Notre Dame," J. Farrell MacDonald played the coach (top); Pat O'Brien was in the title role for "Knute Rockne: All-American," with Ronald Reagan taking the part of the Gipper.