I'm a Notre Dame alumnus, a huge Fighting Irish fan, and heck, I even write a Notre Dame football blog. I've seen Knute Rockne, All-American and Rudy. So I always figured I had a decent understanding of, and the proper amount of respect for, the history of Notre Dame football. But a recent coast-to-coast plane trip provided me the excuse to finally dig into The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football, which has been sitting in my stack of books to read for a few weeks. I'm glad I packed it in my bag, because it was thoroughly enjoyable, extremely educational, and it made my trip across the country jammed into coach class much more bearable (not that I ever fly in other than coach).
The Gipper, written by Jack Cavanaugh and published by Skyhorse Publishing, focuses on the improbable and inscrutable life and career of George Gipp, but really covers the intertwined Notre Dame careers of Gipp and his famous coach, Knute Rockne. I was astounded by how much I didn't know about Rockne, Gipp, and college football in general in the early twentieth century.
Notre Dame was a very respectable football program before Knute Rockne became the coach. In the ten seasons prior to Knute being named head coach, Notre Dame's record under four different coaches was 66 wins, 7 losses, and 5 ties, for a winning percentage of .878, which is just shy of Rockne's .881 winning percentage over 13 seasons. Notre Dame had already burst onto the national scene with its historic win over Army at West Point in 1913, which featured quarterback Gus Dorais throwing the ball to end Knute Rockne in a historical display of passing proficiency which truly changed the way football was played from that day forward.
But it was the ascendancy of George Gipp as Notre Dame's star player and the promotion of Knute Rockne from assistant to head football coach that took Notre Dame football to the next level. When Rockne first became Notre Dame's coach, during Gipp's second varsity season in 1918, a typical crowd at a big game would be 5,000 fans at standing-room-only Cartier Field. In Rockne's final season, 1930, Notre Dame opened a new 54,400 seat stadium on campus and played Army at Soldier Field in Chicago in front of a crowd estimated at 110,000 fans. And, of course, as the fame of the Fighting Irish grew, so did the reputation of the University of Notre Dame which has sought since Rockne to achieve recognition and respect for its academic accomplishments while it nevertheless embraces the fame and the financial rewards that accrue to its football team.
The Gipper covers what is known of George Gipp's life growing up in Laurium, Michigan and all his exploits as a Notre Dame football player and sometime student. Ample coverage is given to Gipp's very sporadic academic pursuits as well as his expertise as a billiards player, card player, and gambler. And the author tries to sort the fact from the fiction of Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper" speech and Gipp's tragic death. As amazing as Gipp's statistics and performance as a football player are, I was even more amazed by how easily it apparently all came to him. He rarely practiced football, and normally reported for the season at the last minute, if not a week or two late. He was a talented baseball player who was actively sought after by multiple major league franchises and was the best pool shooter in Northern Indiana. He broke a leg near the end of his first varsity season, and scored a key touchdown in his final game, against Indiana, after suffering a dislocated shoulder and a broken collar bone.
In addition to providing a real education about two Notre Dame legends, The Gipper offers real insight into what college football was really like in its infancy. The lax academic standards, the Sunday pro games played under assumed names, players playing at West Point for four years after exhausting eligibility in All-American careers at other schools. The 1918 season that was almost entirely canceled due to a nationwide flu epidemic. Michigan's campaign to keep Notre Dame out of the Western Conference (forerunner to the Big Ten) and to blackball Notre Dame from playing Western Conference teams. All are covered here in an entertaining, easy to read presentation that fans of Notre Dame will love, and that all fans of college football history will appreciate.