Rock Revered


October is the time to remember and celebrate the legacy of
Coach Knute Rockne, who is finally honored inside
Notre Dame Stadium, and whose greatest team — the Four Horsemen
and Seven Mules — is recalled on the 85th anniversity of its
1924 national championsip season.

At Notre Dame, honoring its storied past is an ongoing pursuit.  By remembering those who have gone before us, we celebrate what makes this place special – and what today’s ND community strives to match.

When it comes to football, of course, one man stands taller than the rest – Coach Knute Rockne.

This October offers a special time to remember and celebrate Rock’s legacy.

Sculptor Jerry McKenna with his newest creation, honoring Coach Knute Rockne at Notre Dame Stadium.

As of Friday, October 2, decades overdue, Notre Dame Stadium – the house that Rock built — finally has a fitting tribute to the man who put Fighting Irish football, and some would say all of college football, on a national stage. A full-size sculpture of the great man now sits outside the East side of the Stadium, complementing the Frank Leahy sculpture.

This fall also marks the 85th anniversary of what Rockne called his favorite team – the 1924 Irish included The Four Horsemen and Seven Mules, who earned ND’s first consensus national championship.  The USC weekend is the anniversary of the historic Oct. 18, 1924 victory over Army at the Polo Grounds in New York, which produced the Four Horsemen moniker.

The Rockne sculpture is another outstanding creation of Jerry McKenna, the ND grad and retired Air Force officer whose work graces military installations, churches, schools and civic centers across the U.S. and overseas.

When Irish fans stop and admire (often posing for a picture) the sculptures of Coach Holtz and Coach Parseghian inside the Stadium, Coach Leahy just outside the east stands, or the Moose Krause bench, they are looking upon works crafted by McKenna.

Last fall, his sculpture of The Four Horsemen was unveiled at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, home of the ND football program.

This is not McKenna’s first Rockne project – far from it.  He sculpted the lifesize sculpture of Rockne that stands outside the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown South Bend (its fate uncertain given the planned move of the Hall to Atlanta in 2012).

An exact replica of that work also sits in the civic center of Voss, Norway, where Rockne was born on March 4, 1888.  Another likeness is located in the town of Rockne, Texas.

The Rockne sculpture that stands over the Hall of Fame and Voss is the businessman Rockne, or traveling Rockne, with three-piece suit and hat.

At the Stadium, it is strictly Coach Rockne, wearing his typical coaching togs of sweatshirt and football pants, and sporting a coaches whistle.

At the October 2 unveiling, athletic director Jack Swarbrick spoke of Coach Rockne as “the ultimate teacher,” noting his ground-breaking work in conducting coaching clinics from coast to coast. Rockne’s position as a role model for immigrants longing for higher education and a better life was also an important aspect of his legacy, Swarbrick said.

Grandson Knute Rockne III also spoke, and said Coach Rockne might be proudest of the fact that the Rockne Heritage Fund provides scholarships for student-athletes in non-revenue sports.

rockne family
Rockne family members celebrate the unveiling of the Coach Rockne sculpture outside of Notre Dame Stadium on October 2.

“The family is just delighted and thrilled that Coach is now memorialized at the Stadium,” said Nils Rockne, another grandson of the coach. Nils and Knute III are two of the four children of John V. “Jack” Rockne, Rock’s last surviving child, who died last year at the age of 82.

“Jerry McKenna did an absolutely wonderful job with this sculpture,” Nils said. “The coaching look is just the perfect pose for him.”

One may wonder why it took so long to honor the great coach at the Stadium he lobbied for and helped design. Shortly after his death in 1931, the Rockne Memorial Building on campus was planned as an appropriate memorial. And for decades since then, generations of Notre Dame students, fans and visitors have rubbed the nose of Rock’s bust there for good luck – so much so that it shines brightly on an otherwise dark sculpture.

The Rockne sculpture was made possible by the generosity of Joe and Barbara Mendelson of Santa Barbara, California. In 2006, they established the Joseph T. Mendelson Endowment for Athletics Excellence at the university.

“That this is finally happening, that a generous family commissioned this piece, is very gratifying,” Nils added.  “We are very thankful, and of course proud of Coach’s legacy.”

That legacy includes so much to be proud of, starting with but not limited to :

  • An overall record of 105-12-5 for an .881 winning percentage, still the best in college football history.
  • Five unbeaten and untied teams, including undisputed national champions in 1924, 1929 and 1930.
  • The first team (1924) to play games in New York City, Chicago and southern California in the same season, as the Irish literally took the game of college football coast to coast, winning legions of fans in the process.
  • Numerous All-Americans and Hall of Famers.
  • The design and construction of Notre Dame Stadium.

But there is so much more than can’t be quantified – a special spirit and sense of honor in guiding young men to play a game, and use the lessons learned there to go forth and lead productive, honorable lives.

Here’s how Harry Stuhldreher, the “little general” quarterback of Four Horsemen fame, described his beloved coach:

“Rockne was a great stickler for sportsmanship. He insisted when we were playing away from home we were guests of the other team and that when other teams came to our field, we were their hosts. We expected as visitors to be treated with courtesy and the same responsibility was upon us when we were doing the entertaining.

“He believed one man practicing sportsmanship was far better than a hundred teaching it. A boy, playing on a college team, must be a credit to those he represents. He must never use foul tactics, even if it seems to get him someplace.  Rockne drilled this principle into his team. He stressed the point that it must never happen. On the very rare occasions when it did happen, the offender was taken out of the game immediately; sometimes, put off the squad altogether.

“Rockne taught his boys that when they were out on the playing field, they were representing the college for the faculty members and its students. If any one of the team did something off color, a black mark would go up against the boy and the college.

“Rockne didn’t expect his team to be a hundred percent perfect and he appreciated the fact that when they were under fire, they might lose their heads momentarily. To take care of this, he taught them self-control under the most trying conditions. ‘The use of dirty tactics is an open admission that you were weaker than your opponent, that you weren’t able to battle him on even terms. If there’s any fighting to be done,’ he reminded theam, ‘fight with your heart and mind rather than your fists and mouth.’”

(Excerpted from Knute Rockne: Man Builder, by Harry A. Stuhldreher, 1931, Macrea Smith Co.)

In a season already marked by intimidation, taunting and punches (see A View From the Sidelines), Rock’s ethic of sportsmanship was never more timely and needed.