The man never lived who was universally liked by all, and
that includes Jesus Christ and Knute Rockne.
W. Somerset Maugham once wrote: 'There is a line between love and hate that is as
thin as a razor's edge.'
A poet once wrote: Don't envy those you meet. It's all the same. It's in the game.
The bitter and the sweet.
Often during my nearly ten years as curator of the
International Sports and Games Research Collection, an entity of the Department of Rare
Books and Special Collections in the Hesburgh Memorial Library, I would be summoned to
Father Hesburgh's or Father Joyce's office to pick up something that had been mailed or
personally delivered to them and which they felt should be added to the Sports and Games
Collection. On one of these occasions, I was asked to pick up two pairs of guns which had
been donated to the university by Mr. Harvey Foster, a graduate of the law school who went
with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and later became head of the FBI's New York
office. Still later, after retiring from the FBI, Mr. Foster became a vice-president of
American Airlines, operating out of that firm's Chicago regional office. While with the
FBI in New York, Agent Foster was instrumental in the capture of seven would-be saboteurs
who had landed in a rubber raft on the east coast after having disembarked a German
submarine off the coast. All seven were captured within a nine day span. Obviously, Mr.
Foster took great pride in this accomplishment, just as he did his education and
graduation from Notre Dame. Both phases of his life were memorialized in 24 karat gold
inscriptions on the handles of one of the pairs of guns he donated, a pair of 357 magnums,
which he had custom made for himself while with the FBI. Each gun handle contained seven
inscriptions of some valued phase of his life, such as the American flag, the Golden Dome,
his FBI agent's number, his football jersey number from Notre Dame and others, including
the life raft landing saboteurs on the beach. The second pair of guns were pearl handled
six shooters, each with longhorns inscribed on both sides of the handle.
Not quite certain of the role these guns would play in a
Sports and Games Collection, I placed them in an unlocked file cabinet in my small office
at ground level. It was during the two year period that I was residing in the Stepan
Center, in company with a couple of dozen of white mice which had been let loose in the
building by some enterprising students who had been racing them for the pleasure of
small-time student gamblers as part of Mardi Gras week. I didn't get much sleep during
that two year period, what with basketball games being played until 2 a.m. every morning,
all night parties and dances, jazz festivals and the like. All of this notwithstanding, I
was awakened early one morning by loud knocking at the front entrance. "You better
come with me," advised a campus security officer, "Your department has been
broken into." Dressing quickly, I hurried the short distance to the Memorial Library,
only to find the burglars had chosen my office window to hurl a cinder block into,
creating an opening large enough for them to enter my office, walk through it into the
area which housed the collection of gold coins and bars, rare paper currency, gifts from
the Pope to Father Hesburgh and other valuables. Smashing glass cases, they proceeded to
gather loot totalling approximately sixty thousand dollars. Then, before campus security
arrived on the scene in answer to the security alarrn, they made their way back through my
office and out the broken window. In so doing, they passed up the file cabinet which
contained Mr. Foster's two pairs of guns, one of them valued at six thousand dollars, in
an unlocked drawer. The thieves were never apprehended. One wonders, could they have known
that the door leading from my office to the gold coin area was the only door in the
department that had no lock on it?
On another occasion, the call from Father Hesburgh's office
was to pick up two rather large laminated sheets, each representing an enlarged page of a
two-page letter written in 1892. Each letterhead contained an illustration of the
University of Notre Dame as it was at that time, and, under the date Sept. 20th, 1892, the
letter was addressed simply to Walter Camp. Dear Sir, it began, I want to ask a favor of
you. Will you kindly furnish me with some points on the best way to develop a good
football team. The letter was signed, Your sincere admirer, James H. Kivlan. At the time,
Mr. Kivlan was an instructor connected with the university and had been asked to coach the
football team. Two dozen football hopefuls had also affixed their last names to the
Neither Yale University, where Walter Camp was solidly
entrenched as the dean of American college football, nor the University of Notre Dame has
any record of a reply by Mr. Camp to Mr. Kivian. However, in his letter of transmittal to
Father Hesburgh, Yale University Secretary Henry Chauncey, Jr., states: "Alas, we do
not have Walter Camp's response, but whatever it was it seems to have done the
trick." Mr. Chauncey also states: "I had the good fortune to meet you when you
received an honorary degree at Yale some years ago. Since then, I have been
admiring-particularly this year-the football teams Notre Dame has produced, always
wondering how it could be possible. And now I know. The enclosed letter has turned up and
gives us an idea where it all started-at Yale. Yale will not, of course, seek any
reimbursement for this service; we won't even ask for any part of the television revenue.
But, perhaps just one or two fast backs?"
A copy of the letter to Father Hesburgh was sent to Yale
President-designate Bart Giamatti, who years later resigned his post at Yale to become
commissioner of major league baseball. Copies of the two-page letter from Mr. Kivian to
Walter Camp were sent to myself and to Roger Valdiserri, Sports Information Director at
the time, by Father Joyce, for our respective archives. About this time, I was further
informed by Yale's associate librarian that they had begun work on a microfilm publication
of the entire Walter Camp collection.
Although this gesture on the part of Yale personnel in 1978
was in fun and good feeling, it was not always that way. Back in 1932, a year after
Rockne's untimely death, there were some associated with Yale who harbored bitter feelings
toward the coach for having dethroned that school from the pinnacle of college football.
One George Frederick Gundelfinger, Editor of INTERQUADRANGULAR, an independent Yale
newspaper, in its March 1932 issue, vented his bitterness in a very derogatory manner. The
article was entitled KAISER KNUTE and here are some excerpts from that attack:
"We cannot let go by the opportunity to sanction
Rockne's attitude toward smoking and drinking on the part of his players. We regret,
however, that his rules were not lived up to when his men were out of training also.
Abstinence from drugs and artificial stimulants merely for the object of perfecting a
football team is to us a farce rather than a force; and Rockne's own ever-present cigar
and his slogan-Do not as I do but as I say-accentuate the comedy of the situation.
"We agree with him that culture without character is
valueless; but we fail to comprehend how football can develop any character other than the
physical courage common to beasts, which, although essential at times in human welfare, is
far removed from the moral courage of educators which has advanced mankind against the
barriers of mental darkness. The only moral courage that comes from football is developed
not by those who play it, but by those who are trying to curb the barbarous spirit which
it engenders on the part of spectators also. Rockne said that a football is not only
something to kick, but something to think with. It is unfortunate that he did not train
his "thinkers" to kick with it mentally rather than physically. Of course it has
been said that only a mule kicks, futilely expecting something to come of it, and that is
why a mule is so called. That may be why the other Rockne men on the team which featured
the Four Horsemen were called the Seven Mules.
"Rockne was undeniably an autocrat. Although attempt
after attempt has been made to reveal him as entirely human, he was, on the football field
at least, in most cases, a commander-in-chief deeply depressed by defeat in any form and
tensely thirsty for triumph at any price. "What I want is heroes to go out and die
for dear old Notre Dame." Like the victories of most autocrats, Rockne's were not
always fairly won; indeed his greater victories were founded on deception, which, like his
cigar, was entirely inconsistent with his advice to his players."
"The fact that Rockne entered the Catholic Church
while coaching the Notre Dame team," wrote Father Cavanaugh, "might easily set
certain critics gabbing about his probable motive." We accept this invitation to gab,
thereby establishing the priest's reputation as a prophet. Rockne was baptized in 1888 at
Voss, Norway, by a Lutheran pastor. It was not his religion, however, but his national
traits (marred though they were by personal blemishes) that attained for him the success
which made him an American idol. (Delos) Lovelace (in his ROCKNE OF NOTRE DAME (Putnam)
refers to these traits in almost every chapter: "the dogged earnestness which was a
part of his heritage"--"the stubborn patience of his nativity"--"his
indomitable courage." With such characteristics constantly to the fore, he was
gradually lifted to that marvelous prominence that reached its zenith not in the fall of
1930, but in the autumn of 1924 when the Four Horsemen galloped off Cartier Field on to
Life's Course. In that year Notre Dame won all its games for the third time in Rockne's
career as Head Coach. The other two completely successful seasons were those of 1919 and
1920 with George Gipp, Rockne's greatest individual "find", in the stellar role.
"Rockne gained nothing through his conversion to the
Catholic Faith after his highly successful season of 1924. "Five years went by,"
points out Warren Brown in his ROCKNE (Reilly and Lee), "before he again assembled a
team that went through a season undefeated"--and that team and its successor, it
should be added, were far indeed from the coach's sole making. History will in time make
the correction that Rockne's great work for Notre Dame ended with the days of the Four
Horsemen, just before the Catholic institution forced its faith upon him."
In an earlier article written in March of 1931, the month
of Rockne's sensational catastrophe among the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, but not
published until 1932, Mr. Gundelfinger and the editors of Yale's INTERQUADRANGULAR wrote:
"The gridiron season of 1930 brought forth a
sensational contrast in the cases of Notre Dame and Loyola Universities. The latter
completely abolished intercollegiate football even, it seemed, before the concrete had
fully set in her new stadium, while Notre Dame unequivocally ascended to the pinnacle
which once upon a time (in the Dark Ages, to be explicit) was Yale's lonely honor.
"There are certain bonds which have lost their former
high rating in the East, but which are still salable to the gullible backwoodsmen of the
West. Football and football spirit come under this head in the college world. Every
genuinely loyal Son of Eli who thinks of his Alma Mater primarily as an educational
institution should be and is happy because Yale has passed such "securities" on
to Notre Dame before they depreciated beyond redemption. Both the Yale News and the Yale
Alumni Weekly have now editorially sanctioned Yale's retirement from the glare of pigskin
calcium and her re-entrance into scholastic splendor.
"Yet there are and always will be a few misfits in her
academic ranks who would make a robot of Handsome Dan by removing the stuff of the
taxidermist and installing an electric battery under his artificially preserved hide. With
"Tad" Jones completely removed from the scene, they would have Yale pay any
price whatever to buy back a false honor and spirit. Crossed in their desire to bring
Rockne himself to New Haven, they have found partial gratification through the addition of
a few of that mentor's disciples to the Yale coaching staff."
By a strange coincidence, on the afternoon of March 31,
1931, the editor ordered the above article to be omitted from the April, 1931, issue of
the INTERQUADRANGULAR. When he left the printing office, after doing so, the death of
Knute Rockne was being flashed over the World by radio.
Although I have seen no evidence of Rockne's having been
lured by Yale, it is fairly common knowledge that several Eastern schools had designs on
the coach. One of these schools was Columbia University and Rock's
"negotiations" with that Ivy League power came close to causing him the biggest
embarrassment of his coaching career. In the book "ROCKNE, The Coach, The Man, The
Legend," (Random House, 1976), which I helped Jerry Brondfield put together, there is
a detailed account of this embarrassment. It happened just three weeks after Rockne's
conversion to Catholicism. The coach had gone east on business and no one was quite sure
why or where he had gone. Then all the wire services broke the story. Rockne had signed a
three-year contract with Columbia University for $25,000 a year, an unheard of amount at
that time for a football coach. For hours Notre Dame administrators, South Bend officials
and sports editors throughout the land tried frantically to locate the. coach for
confirmation. Finally, Rockne got in touch with Father Matthew Walsh, Notre Dame's
president, who issued a statement to the press the next morning. "Mr. Rockne phoned
me from Philadelphia after midnight last night, and asked me if I'd heard a report that he
had accepted the job as football coach at Columbia. When I told him I had indeed, he said
I should pay no attention to the reports. He had signed no contract and had no intention
of doing so. Mr. Rockne told me that he would be at Notre Dame next season, and not
Columbia. 'That ends the matter."
Well, it did not end the matter for Columbia, where
authorities insisted Rockne had signed. When pressed to produce a contract, however,
nobody was around to do so. In the next couple of days, the big game became trying to
track down Rockne in the East. Where was he? Actually, he was in New York ironing things
over with Columbia people in secret.
It seems likely there WAS a contract between the two
parties and that Rockne had signed it. Later, he confided to friends that he had attached
a rider, verbally, saying that "it all depended on getting a friendly release from
Notre Dame." Columbia, furious, but not wanting to expose Rockne as a contract
jumper, allowed Father Walsh's statement to become the official last word.