‘Rock’ Will Always Be No. 1 on Our List of Greatest Coaches

Another college football season is upon us. Actually, it’s not just another season; it’s a special one that celebrates the 150thanniversary of that first clash between Rutgers and Princeton on Nov. 6, 1869.

Throughout the season there will be various recognitions of the rich history of the sport, starting with several “all-time college football” lists and rankings.

It started with ESPN’s list of the 50 greatest college football programs over the past century-and-a-half. Not surprisingly, Alabama’s recent run of national championships give the Crimson Tide a narrow edge over Notre Dame for No. 1.  At least the ranking properly acknowledged that from the 50th to 125th anniversary – 1919 to 1994 – “the Fighting Irish would be an easy No. 1,” adding that “the genius of Knute Rockne made the Irish a national team in a regional sport.”

Sports Illustrated published a list of the 10 “Greatest Coaches in College Football History” and ranks Rockne third, behind Alabama’s Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, at least giving mention to the fact that Rockne “transformed college football.”

And that would be my whole point in arguing for Rockne to be No. 1.

For all their victories and championships, Bryant and now Saban have had one mission – winning football games for the University of Alabama.

The visionary Rockne, meanwhile, changed everything about the sport.

As a player and especially as coach, he literally changed the game, from a slow slog of brute strength featuring 22 behemoths to something more resembling artistry on grass, a wide-open affair in which the “perfect play” could produce a touchdown from anywhere on the field. Rockne’s game allowed fellows his size – 5-8, 185 pounds – to excel, as the features of a great team were speed, precision, deception and teamwork.

Rockne saw the game as a theatrical production, and improved the fans’ experience of it. The easier-to-follow action, of course, but also advancements in things like contrasting jerseys, uniform numbers, programs, scoreboards and announcers.

He understood and utilized the mass media of the time – newspapers and later radio – to broaden the audience of the sport, helping to bring football and discussions around it into every living room in the nation.

And, as we chronicle in detail in the pages of Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, he played a singular role in helping to professionalize the job of coach and athletic director at schools and colleges across the country. His summer coaching schools, attended by thousands of coaches over the years, provided depth and detail in how to teach every aspect of the game. Meanwhile, his constant mentoring of young coaches was solidifying the roles of coach and AD in building up young athletes in every corner of the nation.

And did we mention, Rockne has the highest winning percentage in the history of major college football, at .881.

So let Alabama and its coaches have the national titles – legitimate and otherwise.

There was and will be only one Rockne.