Skip to main content
Original Issue

'...And Win Just One For The Gipper'

Invoking the memory of dear departed players is only one device resourceful coaches have used to inspire their teams

On Nov. 10, 1928 Knute Rockne delivered the quintessential pep talk—yes, that one: "The day he died, George Gipp asked me to wait until one day when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, and tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. He said to me, 'Rock, I don't know where I'll be then, but I'll know and I'll be happy.' All right, boys! Let's go get them! This is that game." You might not recall the score of the game (Notre Dame 12, Army 6), but there's no forgetting the Gipper—or the guy who played him in the movie.

Extravagant emotionalism has always had a home in college football. Harvard coach Percy Haughton is said to have strangled a bulldog before the Yale game in 1910. A few years later, in the Eli locker room, T.A.D. Jones uttered the immortal words, "Gentlemen, you are now going out to play football against Harvard. Never in your whole life will you do anything so important."

In 1955, Bear Bryant stood each of his Texas A & M Aggies before a mirror on their way out to play LSU. "Every morning when you shave you'll ask yourself if you gave your best," he told them. The next year he told them they would whip Texas in Austin because "Our mamas and papas are better than their mamas and papas." And then in 1978 Grant Teaff of Baylor went to that bait shop...but more on that later. Most everyone in the game has his favorite story, but the Gipper speech immortalized the pep talk.

One likes to believe that Notre Dame beat Army that day because Rockne's oratory inspired a team of Davids who rose up and slew Goliath. But modern-day cynics pooh-pooh the power of pep talk persuasion. "Once the first play is over, they forget what you've said," says Al Kincaid of Wyoming. "Today's kids are too intelligent for that kind of stimulation," adds Texas A & M's Jackie Sherrill. "If you've done your job during the week, you don't need any artificial emotion on Saturday." Sherrill's point was proved, in a way, when he asked actor Gary Busey, in costume for his title role in the movie Bear, to give the Aggies a Bryant-like address the night before the 1983 Texas game. A & M went ahead 13-0 but lost 45-13.

"We don't need the rah-rah stuff," says Fred Akers of Texas. "The players know it just uses up energy they'll need during the game."

Discouraging words indeed, but the fact is, coaches—Akers included, as we will see—do talk, and players do listen. "Since the days of Caesar, leaders have inspired their people with words," says Grambling's Eddie Robinson, who is four victories away from becoming the winningest coach of all time. "Don't undersell kids today when it comes to emotion," says Jim Sweeney of Fresno State. "They want to be led into battle. They want to have a fierce, positive attitude, to set goals and achieve them."

No two coaches speak to their teams in the same way, but many of them agree on certain principles. So, after surveying coaches across the country, we offer the nine most frequently cited principles for firing up a team:

•No. 1: The Apocalypse Is Not Now

Skilled orator that he was, Rockne was well aware that words lose their weight when overused. He once described how Frank (Shorty) Longman, Notre Dame's coach in Rockne's freshman year, waxed eloquent before the opener against poor Olivet: "Men of Notre Dame, the eyes of the nation are upon you. Our alumni from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine are awaiting with taut nerves and bated breath the results of this contest.... The honor of the old school is at stake. Now or never, we must fight the battle of our lives.... You've all got to be heroes—heroes, or I never want to see any of you again. Go out and conquer. It is the crisis of your lives."

The young Rockne was impressed by that oration and by an identical one the following week until he overheard two veterans.

"Well, what did you think of the act today?" asked one.

"Not so good. I thought he was better last week," said the other.

"The players on the field were kind of laughing and joshing to themselves and [Michigan State] beat us 17-0," wrote Rockne. "No modern coach tries this kind of thing. To every mental action there is bound to be an equal and opposite reaction. Playing with boys' emotions is a dangerous thing, and the coach who does so must pay for it. Of course, there are times when the whole season may depend on winning a game, and in that case many oldtime coaches have resorted to psychological tricks."

The Gipper speech aside, Rockne came up with his most famous ploy in 1922. Before Notre Dame was to face Georgia Tech, he read a telegram to his players that was supposedly from his wife. It stated that their son Billy had been taken very ill and that the only thing troubling him was whether Daddy's team would win. The Irish were "keyed to a razor's edge" and won 13-3, but players kidded Rockne about that speech for years. Some years later, Slip Madigan of St. Mary's of California was doing the son-in-the-hospital routine when his son, in the bloom of health, slipped into the locker room to listen to Dad's speech.

•No. 2: Keep 'Em Loose

Despite notions to the contrary, players generally need to be relaxed rather than psyched up before big games. "I've found that a team that plays with extreme emotion early in the game is not a great fourth-quarter team," says Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry.

"One bad break, the bubble bursts and the team plunges to the depths," says Iowa coach Hayden Fry, who tells the Hawkeyes before every game, "This is not all there is to life. Win or lose, there will be more important things you will do in your college career."

Diane Gill, an Iowa professor of sports psychology, has studied self-confidence and anxiety in relation to competition. "There are genuine physiological consequences of being too excited at game time," says Gill. "Muscle tension, for one. Normal movement requires that one muscle relax when another contracts. If you have any residual tension, it interferes with smooth, coordinated movement, so you get that paralysis feeling that a lot of athletes can get."

The coaches of yore probably understood the problems of pregame over-stimulation more than we realize. Bob Zuppke of Illinois once strode into the dressing room moments before the kickoff of an expected loss to Minnesota, stood glowering until he had his players' attention and said, "I'm Louis XIV and you are my court. After us, the deluge." The players probably thought he was crazy, and the Illini upset the Gophers 14-9.

Speaking of crazy, how about when Teaff munched on a worm? The Sunday after his Baylor team had suffered a 24-10 loss to lowly Rice, Teaff set out to rebuild his players' confidence for the final game, against Texas. He threw out the playbook, put a running back behind center and installed a handful of plays he thought the Bears could run.

During a team meeting in the middle of the week, Teaff also told a story about two Eskimos fishing through the ice. One was getting results and the other wasn't. When fisherman No. 2 asked his partner what his secret was, No. 1 took a slimy something from his mouth and replied, "You've got to keep the worms warm." The tale gave Teaff an idea.

On Saturday morning he bought a box of worms, took one out, "and believe me, I washed him from one end to the other. Before the game I could see the players were keyed up and tight, so I said to 'em, 'The game is yours, but there's one thing I'll do for you; I'll keep the worms warm.' Then I took him out of my pocket, dropped him into my mouth, gave him three bites and dropped him into the trash can. It was so foreign to anything I'd ever done, it gave them a shock. It was a big, fun thing that relaxed them. They went out giggling." Needless to say, Baylor upset Texas 38-14.

Former Rice coach Al Conover was an even bigger showman than Teaff. In 1974 he sparked the Owls to a surprising 10-10 tie with LSU by throwing a pack of lighted firecrackers into the locker room before the game. Conover also rode a pony to practice before his team was to play the SMU Mustangs. Once after a loss he drove a hearse onto the practice field, pulled out a coffin and "buried all the mistakes." But Conover's greatest moment of motivation came when he threw a chair through a dressing-room window before the 1972 Arkansas game in Little Rock. The Owls beat the Hogs on the road for the first time since 1958, but War Memorial Stadium billed Conover for the damages.

•No. 3: Call the Audibles

Before facing Michigan in 1960, Ohio State coach Woody Hayes asked one of his co-captains to prepare some pregame remarks, which he did. The speech was cliché-ridden, along the lines of, "When I was growing up in my hometown of Newark, Ohio, I lived for the day that I would wear this scarlet jersey...."

"Don't give me that——!" blurted Woody. "Get out there and get 'em!" The Buckeyes did, 7-0.

Three years ago, Penn coach Jerry Berndt asked two players to speak before the Quakers' opener against Dartmouth. The second player never got his chance, because Mike Christiani, a linebacker, stood up and said, "Cut the——. Cut the pep talks. There's been too much talking at this university and not enough playing." Penn won 21-0 and went on to have its best season in 23 years.

•No. 4: The Best-Laid Schemes....

Before Missouri's 1967 game against Nebraska, Dan Devine decided to make the Tigers sick to death of There Is No Place Like Nebraska, which they had heard often during a 35-0 loss to the Huskers the previous year. After playing the song in the locker room all week, Devine told the team on Friday evening that he never wanted to hear the song again. He then grabbed the record and threw it on the cement. It bounced. He tried again; again it survived. He tried to crush it with his hands. The record bent but didn't break. "I was humiliated," says Devine, who threw the disc out a window and retreated in shame. Despite his performance, the Tigers won 10-7.

In 1968 Bud Carson felt that his Georgia Tech squad was intimidated by Georgia, so he tried to inspire his players with bravado. They're not so tough, said Carson, who declared that he might just visit the Dawgs' dressing room and whip not only head coach Vince Dooley but also defensive coordinator Erk Russell. That was quite a boast considering the fearsome reputation of Russell, who used to butt his bald head against his players' helmets in warmups. After a pause, one of the Tech players yelled out, "You better just fight Vince, Coach." The Wreck went out flat and lost 47-8.

In 1927, the underdog Minnesota Gophers and their coach, Doc Spears, overheard Rockne's halftime oration to the Irish through the dressing-room walls. When Rock had finished, Spears shouted, "You heard him! Go out and do that to Notre Dame!" The game ended, appropriately enough, in a 7-7 tie.

•No. 5: Refreshments and Reassurance

Despite the popular image of fire-and-brimstone scorchings at halftime, most coaches agree that their time is best spent going over X's and O's and showing confidence in their charges. As Grambling's Robinson says, "At halftime you've got to do so much teaching."

"There's no point in raising hell with them then," Bryant used to say. "If it ain't there, it's too late." The Bear preferred to relieve the pressure at halftime by telling his players that he would take responsibility for their mistakes.

Former Alabama cornerback Don McNeal, now a Miami Dolphin, remembers a game in which the Tide was trailing Tennessee at the half and Bryant said, "You don't have to win. Just go out there and be aggressive and try to have some fun." Another time, with 'Bama down 15-0 to Georgia Tech, Bryant's players had left their helmets on at halftime, because, as Bobby Skelton, a quarterback on that team, puts it, "Coach Bryant had a reputation, but he fooled us."

Bryant began by saying, "Where are the Cokes?" He made sure everyone had one and then clapped his hands. "I'm so happy," he said. "We've got a chance to show the entire country just how good we are." They did, 16-15.

•No. 6: Brevity Is the Soul of Win

Delaware coach Tubby Raymond says the most inspiring speech he ever heard as a player was by Michigan's Fritz Crisler when Crisler strode in late before a Michigan State game and simply said, "Just remember, you're Michigan and they're Michigan State." Before facing Auburn in 1965, Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech ordered his assistants out of the room and said only, "Men, the odds-makers have Auburn as a six-point favorite over us here on our home field. I think they're right." Tech won 23-14.

While at Miami of Ohio, Ara Parseghian walked into the dressing room at halftime on at least two occasions and said only, "I'm sorry we scheduled this game for today. I didn't know you had something else to do." When Wake Forest trailed No. 14 Auburn 38-20 at intermission in 1979, Deacon coach John Mackovic, who is now coaching the Kansas City Chiefs, invoked a speech that Churchill had given during World War II: "I told them eight words—never, never, never, never, never, never give up." Wake came back to win 42-38.

•No. 7: Pep Comes in Daily Doses

"I try to do it on a daily basis," says Washington's Don James. "If you wait till the last minute, it's going to wear off before they get out of the tunnel."

Mental preparation, like physical preparation, is a year-round proposition. "In the final moments before a game," says Georgia Tech's Curry, "you try to bring everything into focus that you've talked about all season and direct all the energy in the right direction." Curry boils down his theory of mental preparation to "repetition, faith and expectancy." That is, doing something correctly again and again, growing to believe the result will be victory and then, after a few wins, expecting you'll be victorious.

In his Wednesday team meetings, Bryant talked to his players about life, dedication, sacrifice—and quitters. The world is full of quitters, and the Bear didn't want any around him. "You might quit just a little bit," he would say, "tomorrow in practice or maybe in a game. Then you'll quit in college and soon you'll be quittin' on your job and quittin' on your family."

•No. 8: Power of Positive Thinking

Every optimist from Norman Vincent Peale to the Little Engine That Could knows that a positive thought—I think I can, I think I can—often helps in times of stress. "You've just got to make them believe they're good all the time," says Clemson's Danny Ford. "That's what our talks during the week are for."

Says Sweeney of Fresno State, "This whole business of, 'You gotta get up, you gotta play better than you are,' is wrong. The idea that you have to rise to great heights to beat somebody implies that you really aren't that good. You have to build the feeling with positive thoughts that you are as good as anybody."

One of the chief means of planting positive thoughts is through visualization: The athlete envisions future success as a means of helping achieve it. "People have built-in ideas of what they can and can't do," says motivational guru Lou Tice, a former high school coach whose disciples include Sweeney and Akers of Texas. "When you exceed your expectations, in your subconscious you say, 'I'm not this good,' and your mind compensates by bringing your performance to the level it's more accustomed to."

West Virginia coach Don Nehlen has gone so far as to produce a radio broadcast of a game and then have his players listen to—and thereby experience—approaching victory. Likewise, the summer before Southern Illinois won the I-AA title in 1983, coach Rey Dempsey ran through the whole season with his team, describing each win and the playoffs and how the players would all contribute to the effort. "You have to see the victory before it happens," says Dempsey. "What you visualize and talk about is what you get. The players know that something good is going to happen. They are not going to quit."

Akers is known for his Saturday morning lectures, though he wouldn't want you to call them "pep talks." In a darkened room he'll tell the Longhorns to relax every muscle. Then he might say, "I will be like a scorpion when the ball is snapped. I will be absolutely electric. I do not know what the word 'quit' means."

•No. 9: A Community of Interest

Robinson often uses bits of wisdom from history and literature in his talks. "They like to know that we've been in the books, too," he says. Hayes, a student of history, frequently drew on major historical figures. The idea was to combat the boredom of doing the same things week after week, to put a little humor in the proceedings and, says Woody, "to create a community of interest, so that when you told a player something, he knew what you were talking about."

When playing at Illinois, Hayes's Buckeyes would sometimes eat in the old Urbana Lincoln Hotel beneath an enormous portrait of Honest Abe. Before the game Hayes often spoke about Lincoln. Woody would describe his human side, how he was a lonely man, just as football players are at times, and how he never let a defeat keep him down. "The eventual winner, we called him," says Hayes. "We talked about what kind of a football player he'd have made. We even talked about what position he'd have played. We decided on defensive tackle. He could have used those strong, rail-splitter's arms to shed blockers."

Another Hayes favorite was Emerson, especially his essay Compensation: "Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good.... For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly." Says Hayes, "I had players coming back years later saying to me, 'Coach, Emerson was right!' He was a great communicator. He could talk to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard one day, then go out on a skiff on the Mississippi and talk to farmers the next. He'd have made a hell of a coach."



Rockne's Gipper speech helped catapult underdog Notre Dame to victory and a B actor to fame.



Before facing LSU, the Bear improved his team's image.



When Madigan tried Rockne's son-in-the-hospital routine, it backfired.



After watching Teaff munch on a worm, a giggling Baylor team knocked off mighty Texas.



Conover tried firecrackers, chairs, ponies and caskets.



Though Devine failed to break the offensive record, his team won anyway.



James says if a coach waits until the last minute to fire up a player, the effect will wear off too soon.



Akers has tried to hook his Horns on visualization, telling them to imagine they're scorpions.