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The Birth Of The Football Chalk Talk?© October/November 2013
Legendary Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne was a skilled orator and teacher, in and out of the locker room
by Jim Lefebvre
In the early 1920s, the University of Notre Dame was a rising college football power. Under Coach Knute Rockne, the Fighting Irish had completed undefeated seasons in 1919 and 1920, and had established series with powers Army and Nebraska. Games against Big 10 schools Purdue, Indiana and Iowa also marked the schedule.
But as the school’s national profile was rising, so too was a desire for another intersectional series. Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Mathew Walsh, looked east, to the powers that defined the sport at the time. Father Walsh urged a home-and-home series with Dartmouth, noting, “There is so much similarity between the spirit of Dartmouth and Notre Dame I believe they would be ideal rivals.” Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s rivalry with Army was in jeopardy, until officials at West Point finally agreed to give up hosting the game, allowing it to move to New York City starting in 1923.
But Army aside, Father Walsh still wanted Notre Dame to take on the eastern football aristocracy, something that hadn’t been attempted since a 1914 loss at Yale. He finally succeeded, accepting a $5,000 guarantee, but no split of the gate, for the Irish to play at Princeton the week after the 1923 Army game. Several selectors had acclaimed the undefeated Tigers as national champions in 1922. Meeting Princeton, one of football’s original Big Three and a bedrock of the Ivy League and Protestant establishment, would be a major boon to Notre Dame’s prestige, Walsh figured.
For his part, Coach Rockne met any schedule upgrade with resounding enthusiasm. The opportunity to take on Princeton was a perfect match for his ambition and fearlessness. He would be able to match wits with one of the greats in coaching, Bill Roper. A star end for the Tigers from 1898 to 1902, Roper took over as their head coach just four years later, in 1906, at age 26. After three seasons (1906-08), he left for one year to coach Missouri in 1909, but returned and coached Princeton in 1910-11, and in 1919, began his third stint at Princeton. Roper’s 1922 Tiger team was the school’s fourth to receive recognition as national champions.
Rockne respected his other major 1923 opponents—Army, Georgia Tech, and Nebraska. But, from spring practice on, he made it clear Princeton was the game to win. Rockne was certainly one of the first coaches to understand that football could not be taught entirely on the practice field; classroom work was necessary for a player to understand its nuances and challenges. The coach developed a unique approach: every day during football season and spring practice, he conducted a half-hour lecture in a classroom in the Main Building. The players would give up part of their lunchtime, and their attendance was expected. Rockne approached the lecture as he would one in chemistry—serious about its structure and intent. Though, as in most any situation, he would use humor when he thought it was needed, directing his one-liners to “characters” such as his star “Sleepy Jim” Crowley.
Repetition was a key in Rockne’s lectures. The first time he covered the material, his expectations weren’t high. He would repeat it and look for improved comprehension. Then he would repeat it again, and anybody who still did not understand would have cause for concern. Using chalk on a blackboard, he would present diagrammed plays in great detail, down to the precise work that would be done on the practice field later the same afternoon. At 4 p.m., when practice officially began after the 20-minute warm-up period, players were expected to know exactly what would be done in the next 90-minutes, as they had seen it described at lunchtime.
During his noon-time sessions in the spring of 1923, whenever Rockne made a point about a tactical issue, the opponent was Princeton. One week, he decided to guide his players through a play-by-play game with the Tigers, describing the conditions: who had the ball and where, the down, yards to go, the wind conditions, time left to play, what type of defense was shown. He would ask someone in the class to call the play. The coach would then decide the result of the play, based on whether or not he agreed with the call. In this way, he kept every team member sharp with an outlook on all the aspects that played into the game. Rockne knew enough of Princeton’s system, players, and tendencies that he was using the exercise to prepare the Irish for what they were likely to face in late October at Palmer Stadium.
That week in spring at the classroom under the Golden Dome, each day’s lecture covered one quarter of the “game” against Princeton. The first day, the usual crowd of players was present. The next day, all the reserves were also on hand. By the “third quarter,” word of the “game” had spread around campus, and athletes from other sports inched their way into the lecture room. When the “fourth quarter” began, students crowded the hallway outside the classroom, straining to hear each play.
Rockne, in true dramatic fashion, left the game tied until the final minute. Then, the coordinated effort of all eleven Irish players pulled out the glorious victory, to the cheers of all those assembled. One observer, student publicity aide Frank Wallace, noted that Rockne “said it would have been bad psychology for us to have lost. He wanted to have the boys go away with the idea that they could beat Princeton—but only after a terrific struggle, with tremendous concentration on every detail.”
It was that focus on “every detail” that set Rockne apart. His mind conceived of every possibility, and he built it into his preparation and his presentation. Rockne’s full genius was on display. He was quick-thinking as he laid out the conditions and judged the responses. Challenging his charges to come along with him on an imaginary journey through a football game of the future. Inspiring their vision to see all that was happening about them. In this scene, he took his knowledge of the game, developed by Walter Camp and passed on through Stagg to men like Eckersall and Jesse Harper, and made it his own, imbued with his unique brand of energy, humor, imagination. He was coach, yes, but so much more—teacher, communicator, entertainer, psychologist, salesman.
It is probably not surprising that, when the actual trip to Princeton occurred that October, the studiously-prepared Irish rolled to a 25-2 victory over the defending national champions.
Much of this article is excerpted from Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, by Jim Lefebvre. Copyright 2013, Great Day Press. All rights reserved. For more information, including how to order an autographed, inscribed copy of Coach For A Nation, please visit . Jim is also the award-winning author of Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions. He operates the website Forever Irish at
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