Blue and Gold Illustrated

April 2023

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 51 of 55

IRISH ECHOES JIM LEFEBVRE 52 APRIL 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY JIM LEFEBVRE F ootball," Knute Rockne once said, "is a game played with the arms, legs and shoulders, but mostly from the neck up." In Rock's system, it was essential for ev- ery player to fully understand all aspects of the game, not just the requirements of his position. By being properly schooled in strategies, Notre Dame men could be counted on to make effective split-second decisions as they arose in game situations. Never was Rockne more focused on preparing his team than 100 years ago this spring, in anticipation of the 1923 sea- son. For Rockne had put together the most daunting schedule to date. It included the now traditional trips to play Army and Nebraska, a return match with southern power Georgia Tech, and another Eastern trip to meet the school most dominant in the first half-century of college football — defending national champion Princeton. Meeting Princeton, one of football's original Big Three and a bedrock of the Ivy League and Protestant establish- ment, would be a major boon to Notre Dame's prestige. As was his wont, Coach Rockne met the 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. In nine seasons guiding the Tigers, Roper was 58-10-8; his 1922 team was his fourth at Nassau to receive recognition as national cham- pions. Rockne respected his other 1923 opponents— but, from spring practice on, he made it clear Princeton was the game to win. Rockne clearly understood that foot- ball could not be taught entirely on the practice field; classroom work was necessary for a player to understand its nuances and challenges. The coach de- veloped a unique approach: every day during football season and spring prac- tice, 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 ex- pected. 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 back Jim Crowley. Repetition was a key in Rockne's lec- tures. The first time he covered the ma- terial, 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 un- derstand 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, play- ers were expected to know exactly what would be done in the next 90 minutes, as they had seen it described at lunch- time. In the spring of 1923, whenever he made a point about a tactical issue, the opponent was Princeton. One week, he decided to guide his players through a mythical "game" with the Tigers. Rockne set the stage, describing the conditions: who had the ball and where, the down, yards to go, the wind condi- tions, time left to play, what type of de- fense was shown. He would ask some- one in the class to call the play. The coach would then decide the re- sult of the play, based on whether or not he agreed with the call. Rockne knew enough of Princeton's system, players, and tendencies that he was using the exercise to prepare the Irish for what Rockne incorporated classroom work to prepare his players on every imaginable detail they might encounter in a football game. PHOTO COURTESY KNUTE ROCKNE MEMORIAL SOCIETY Knute Rockne Wanted His Players To Understand The Game As Well As He Did "

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