From the acclaimed author of Shake Down the Thunder.
With the 1940 release of the classic film Knute Rockne, All American, the myth of the hero scholar-athlete was born, and with it came the age of big-time college sports in America. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including press accounts, letters and diaries, historical papers, and interviews with many who were there, Murray Sperber recounts how the myths created by Hollywood studios were embellished and codified by a hungry press, infiltrating the collective unconscious with epic stories of players, coaches, and teams. As college sports became a mainstay of popular entertainment, they also were fertile ground for near-fatal scandal, ultimately giving rise to the modern NCAA. Sperber vividly re-creates the world of postwar America, with its all-powerful radiomen, its lurid press, its growing prosperity, and, of course, the infancy of television. Onward to Victory is a brilliant, detailed, and engrossing work of social history for not only sports fans, but anyone interested in the development of modern American culture.
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About the Author
Murray Sperber is an associate professor of English and American studies at Indiana University. His previous books include Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football and College Sports, Inc.
Murray Sperber is a regular media commentator on college sports. A professor of English and American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, his previous books include College Sports, Inc.; Onward to Victory: The Creation of Modern College Sports; and Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football.
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Onward to Victory
The Crises that Shaped College Sports
By Murray Sperber
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Murray Sperber
All rights reserved.
Knute Rockne Becomes Myth
The movies are furnishing the nation with a common body of knowledge. What the classics once were in that respect, what the Bible once was, the cinema has become for the average man. Here are stories, names, phrases, points of view which are common national property. The man in Cedar Creek, Maine, and the man in Cedar Creek, Oregon, see the same movie in the same week.
— Sociologist Margaret Thorp, 1939.
Dr. Thorp worked at a time when movies were America's favorite leisure pastime, when a large majority of Americans spent at least one afternoon or evening a week in a movie theater, and many went more often. Ticket sales averaged ninety to a hundred million per week in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Her research indicated that film images and stories profoundly influenced moviegoers, with viewers often reacting to the screen behavior of popular actors by imitating it. When Clark Gable revealed in a 1934 film that he did not wear an undershirt, the sales of men's undershirts plummeted, effectively ending their general production.
American mass culture had existed before the 1930s, but during that decade the film industry gave it an immediacy and uniformity previously unknown; this period began the age in which we still live, television and other media building upon the film production system. Movies became the common experience shared by most Americans. Subsequently, even such rebels against mainstream society as the founders of the Beat Generation acknowledged Hollywood's power during the classical studio period: "Moviegoing in the 1930s and early 1940s ... gave us all a fantasy life in common from which we are still dragging up the images that obsess us" (John Clellon Holmes, the Tom Saybrook character in Jack Kerouac's On the Road).
You'll probably argue with me but I think that the most important movie ever made was Knute Rockne — All-American. Certainly in terms of what I love and spent my life doing — college sports. I'm prejudiced, of course, I played for the man and it's about my school ...
But for college sports and American life, it's the most important picture because it set up the ideal for coaches and players. People forget that college sports was in bad shape before that movie came out ...
— Edward "Moose" Krause, former Notre Dame athlete, coach, and athletic director, in a 1991 interview.
Most film critics would give the Greatest Movie Award to a picture made during the same period as Knute Rockne — All-American: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Without question, from an aesthetic point of view, Citizen Kane is far superior to the football biopic. However, in terms of affecting American culture and leaving a permanent imprint upon an important part of it — intercollegiate athletics — Moose Krause's favorite picture deserves full accolades.
Great films use and illustrate great myths: Citizen Kane, the rise and fall of a monarch; Knute Rockne — All-American, the immigrant and Horatio Alger sagas. Unlike most outstanding films, however, Knute Rockne also began a number of important myths and aided the career of a politician who, immersing himself in the old and new myths of the movie, became one of the most popular American presidents of the twentieth century.
* * *
I like what I hear about America. It's a new country, full of new life and opportunities for a working man like me. (He glances toward a small, sturdy four-year-old boy who has sauntered into the open shop, eating an apple.)
But mainly I want those things for my children.
— The opening scene in the shooting script and film, Knute Rockne — All-American, 1940.
The movie begins in Voss, Norway, the country village where the Rockne family lived at the end of the last century. Knute's father, Lars, announces to three village elders that he plans to go to America. They are skeptical, but he articulates the credo of generations of immigrants, emphasizing the newness of America — as opposed to the quaint street scenes and cottages of Voss in the old country. Most of all he wants to emigrate for his children. He calls over young Knute: "I want Knute here, and his sisters, to start their lives on an equal basis with all other children, and they can only do that in America."
This scene fades out and, in the script, the direction for the FADE IN reads, "Over a background-effect of the Atlantic Ocean, blending into the skyline of New York, then Chicago, as those cities appeared in the 1890s, we superimpose [the following words.]" However, in the actual movie, before the city scenes appear we see a long take of the Statue of Liberty and hear many choruses of "America the Beautiful." Then the message scrolls:
AMONG MILLIONS LIKE THEMSELVES, SIMPLE, HARD-WORKING PEOPLE FROM THE OLD COUNTRIES, FOLLOWING THE NEW ROAD OF EQUALITY AND OPPORTUNITY WHICH LED TO AMERICA, THE ROCKNE FAMILY SETTLED IN CHICAGO ...
The filmmakers added the extra patriotic touches not from worry that the audience would fail to get the message, but because they enjoyed presenting the national icon and hymn, saw them as crucial to telling the story, and unabashedly celebrated them. In large part because of this film, Knute Rockne's story so came to exemplify the American immigrant saga that Life Magazine in its 1976 "Special Bicentennial Issue" proclaimed him, along with Andrew Carnegie and Albert Einstein, the three most important immigrants in the nation's history.
The opening of the film and every subsequent scene connects directly to the title Knute Rockne — All-American. Although referring to Rockne's selection as a player on the 1913 All-America squad (third team), the title's emphasis is less on sports than on the coach's qualities as an All-American, a man for All Americans, representing the country's deepest hopes and dreams. Forties audiences loved the overt patriotism, accepted the portrayal of Rockne's life, and were deeply moved by the film's final scenes of his tragic death and funeral.
Subsequently, Knute Rockne — All-American transcended its Hollywood origins and became not only the most important college sports movie in film history but also part of the nation's political mythos; the actor who played Rockne's great halfback, George Gipp, took on the character's nickname and used his cinematic dying words — "Win one for the Gipper" — as his political slogan for successful gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.
Ronald Reagan also added to the myths. After recovering from the assassination attempt in 1981, his first major address was at the University of Notre Dame, and instead of the planned, prepared talk on administration policy, he spoke at length and in his own words about the film, particularly its meaning for him and his vision of America. Some analysts consider this the moment when the public embraced Reagan as an authentically "heroic character," fully fused with the heroic Gipp and Rockne. The president began his talk with the themes that he loved: "First, Knute Rockne as a boy came to America with his parents from Norway. And in the few years it took him to grow up to college age, he became an All-American in a game that is still to this day uniquely American."
Reagan's next line paraphrases one of Rockne's key speeches in the movie and also illustrates how the film helped to raise Rockne's profession, sports coaching, from a sweaty occupation to a Noble Calling: "As a coach, he did more than teach young men how to play a game. He believed truly that the noblest work of man was building the character of man." The film, the first major portrait and glorification of a college coach, deeply influenced public attitudes about this profession in its time and ever since.
In addition, President Reagan discussed the University of Notre Dame, praising its historic independence and religious values. The New York Times noted that "Mr. Reagan's dying words in the film, 'Win one for the Gipper,' provided a political slogan for him, a battle cry for this university, and a strong bond between Notre Dame and Mr. Reagan."
Thus Knute Rockne — All-American, a film that is neither great art nor accurate history, became part of the national legend, its importance far transcending its grainy black-and-white images, bad sound, and period acting. Through an amazing process, it fused its biographical subjects and themes with core American myths.
* * *
Rockne stands squarely at the center of America's myth about itself. He deeply believed in that myth, that only in America could an immigrant child be launched within a life's span into the nation's collective unconscious.
— Sports historian Michael Steele, 1983.
Myths are the stories that a society tells itself about itself, helping to unify, celebrate, and distinguish it from neighbors and enemies. Historically, myths were passed on as folktales but, in the age of industrialism, with the population moving from villages like Voss to cities like Chicago, mechanical story-tellers replaced human ones, first with the dime novel, then the movies, radio, and, eventually, television.
At the turn of the century, the Horatio Alger stories dominated popular fiction; Rockne himself later commented, "As a boy I read the Horatio Alger works and found them very interesting. They created a fine impression and stimulated ambition." These stories relate the tale of the poor boy who through pluck and hard work achieves fame and fortune. Generations of young Americans cast themselves in this role, and many immigrants came to America to attempt to live it. Not surprisingly, those who fulfilled the dream often described their lives in terms of the Alger formula, including Knute Rockne.
The famous coach frequently pointed to the distance between his hardscrabble childhood on Logan Square in Chicago and his later prosperity. Knute Rockne — All-American plugs him into this paradigm, and one of its earliest scenes shows the young Rockne toiling at the Chicago post office in order to save money for college. The script directions read: "Flashing scenes that convey the busy, swarming atmosphere of a great city's post office at work, and the long hard labor of Rockne's practical education."
Horatio Alger Jr.'s stories and the American tradition of the self-made hero not only influenced a generation of readers but also other authors, notably the writers of sports fiction for young males. In the early twentieth century, Edward Stratemeyer, the promoter of the best-selling Baseball Joe series, and Gilbert Patten, the creator of the popular Frank Merriwell stories, read deeply and borrowed constantly from the Alger parables, in the process creating the athlete-hero, a new ideal for American youth. The best study of this phenomenon notes that in the juvenile sports novels, especially the Merriwell stories, "the athlete-hero's career follows a nearly identical pattern" to the Alger paradigm, "with the single substitution of athletic triumphs for wealth as the success goal."
In the first decades of the century, young sports fans ingested the athlete-hero ideal by reading Frank Merriwell novels and similar stories. By the 1920s, Hollywood began producing silent film forms of this hero for moviegoers. In the 1930s Depression, when many Americans were skeptical of traditional pieties, the fictional athlete-hero languished or sometimes was mocked in stories and films. But in 1940, on the eve of a vast patriotic crusade, Hollywood presented the athlete-hero in a fresh and more persuasive manner, one intended to unify a population of diverse origins.
* * *
FATHER: Knute, where have you been and what have you been doing?
KNUTE: (eagerly) Outside, playing the most wonderful game in the world. It's called football!
MOTHER: (leans forward) Your nose is bleeding!
KNUTE: (wipes it with a napkin and looks at the blood with interest) Somebody stepped on it. I guess that's part of the game.
(This is too much for Papa Rockne. He shoves back his chair and bawls Knute out in a torrent of Norwegian, very angry and stern.)
KNUTE: (when his father pauses for breath) Oh, papa, don't talk Norwegian. Talk American. We're all Americans now.
(he looks around proudly, his dirty face beaming) Specially me. I'm left end.
(Mother and sisters begin to laugh — then father laughs — then Knute. With the whole family laughing at Knute's earnestness, we [cut to next scene])
— From the shooting script and film, Knute Rockne — All-American, 1940.
This exchange climaxes the movie's second scene. When the parents are not speaking Norwegian, they pronounce English with heavy accents. However, Knute and his sisters already talk Hollywood "American," i.e., neutral middle-class English. The emphasis in the scene is on the "melting-pot" myth, with sports as the means of Knute's integration into American society.
In historical fact, from the nineteenth century on, many immigrants entered the American mainstream through sports, first in boxing with Irish, Jewish, and Italian fighters and champions, then baseball with its legion of ethnic players, and finally, in the first decades of this century, intercollegiate athletics. The epitome of the "melting-pot" dynamic in college sports — one beloved by the media and all immigrant groups — was the University of Notre Dame's Fighting Irish football teams, featuring not only players of Irish descent but also many of Polish, Italian, Slavic, and even Jewish heritage. The main promoter of Notre Dame football was the Scandinavian immigrant Knute Rockne, and this movie codified his great achievement.
The filmmakers plug young Rockne into the athlete-hero paradigm and begin the first sports scene with him watching older boys play sandlot football. He wants to join them, but the largest boy tells him, "Naw, you're too little ... G'wan, get outta the way!" Knute persists and the script directs the other boys to "look at him again, now very annoyed at the 'runt's' interruption."
The young Knute keeps trying to get into the game but the script directs the other boys to regard him with "disgust for an undersized runt." He is the archetypal underdog. Eventually, because one team is losing by thirty points, its captain allows him to join. On the first play, Knute successfully tackles a bigger boy but is "knocked out cold." The other boys worry that they have seriously injured him, but Knute struggles to his feet, ready for more. With this, he earns the praise of the older boys, their leader telling him, "Kid — you've got spunk, you're all right," and he asks his name. With the reply, "Knute Rockne," we know that our hero has begun to acquire fame and that his life trajectory is moving up.
After Knute Rockne — All-American established this scene for the cinema, many sports films used it; indeed, the opening of a 1990s homage to Notre Dame football, Rudy, lovingly replicated the entire sequence, even on a Chicago area sandlot. Another mythic element of the scene that is frequently repeated is the ethnic and racial mix of the sandlot teams. The boys represent various immigrant groups, and the ball carrier whom Knute tackles is African American. By depicting him as an important player, the film gives a positive signal about racial integration in America.
In the history of race relations, college sports played a pioneering role and, when combined with Hollywood's approval, advanced racial integration. In 1940, few areas of American life were integrated, but one prominent exception was college sports, particularly on the West Coast. During this period in Los Angeles, Jackie Robinson and his brother Mack as well as other African Americans starred in various sports at UCLA. Knute Rockne — All-American suggested that the athlete-hero can come from the lowest economic strata and can even be black. This proposition later became an essential part of the mythos of intercollegiate athletics, one cherished to this day.
In Knute Rockne — All-American, the sandlot sequence and the family dinner offer the only glimpse of the hero's childhood in America. However, not only is its content crucial for the athlete-hero legend but so is its form. Anthropologists describe myths as "ritual condensations whereby human experience is quite literally condensed into patterns," and this helps explain the simplicity of the film's story line, the quick and easy plot resolutions, and the larger-than-life qualities of the hero and all other characters.
Excerpted from Onward to Victory by Murray Sperber. Copyright © 1998 Murray Sperber. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Part 1: Knute Rockne — All-American: American Myths and College Sports,
1: Knute Rockne Becomes Myth,
2: George Gipp Becomes Myth,
Part 2: The Best Defense Is a Good Offense,
3: Hollywood and the Critics of College Sports,
4: Hollywood and Knute Rockne — All-American,
5: College Sports as Classical Genre,
6: The Fighting Irish as Classical Ideal,
7: "Rockne Picked Him": Frank Leahy,
8: The Golden Age of Sports Radio,
Part 3: World War II: The Deterioration of College Sports,
10: Programs as Propaganda,
11: The Military vs. College Sports,
12: Hollywood Reconstructs College Sports,
13: War/Football Movies,
14: Football Becomes the Black Knights and Colonel Blaik,
15: The Wartime Irish and Rockne's Other Heirs,
Part 4: Postwar Years: The Worsening Crisis in College Sports,
16: The End of the Notre Dame-Army Annuals,
17: The Black Market and the Birth of the Modern NCAA,
18: The NCAA's "Principle of Amateurism",
19: Notre Dame Reacts to the NCAA's "Purity Code",
20: Sports Media Confusion,
21: More Media Confusion — but Not About Frank Leahy,
22: Reporters Cover College Sports, and Notre Dame's Charlie Callahan Covers Them,
23: The NCAA's "Sanity Code" Crashes into the Power Blocs,
24: Curly Byrd Exposes NCAA Hypocrisy,
25: Notre Dame Responds to the New NCAA,
26: Fan Confusion — "Block That Two-Platoon System",
27: Leahy's Lads Capture the Spotlight,
28: Images of College Sports from Hollywood and Elsewhere,
29: Postwar Programs as Propaganda,
Part 5: Scandal Years,
30: The Rise and Odor of College Basketball,
31: College Basketball Starts to Implode,
32: Scandal/Scoundrel Time: Players Confess, Coaches Escape,
33: Coach Bee vs. Author Bee: The Death of the Frank Merriwell Hero,
34: The Fixes Play in Peoria and Find an Old Kentucky Home,
35: Football Becomes the Postwar Scandal and Colonel Blaik,
36: ND President Cavanaugh and the ACE Try to Reform College Sports,
37: The NCAA Finds an ACE Traitor and Subverts Reform,
38: ND President Cavanaugh Reacts to the ACE Failure,
39: The NCAA Battles Notre Dame on TV Rights: Opening Round,
40: The NCAA Battles Notre Dame on TV Rights: TKO,
Part 6: Recovering from the Scandals: Media-Made College Sports,
41: Hollywood and College Sports in the Early 1950s,
42: Mixed-Form Films Become the Norm,
43: The Temporary Return of Classical Football Films,
44: Fan Pleasure: The Return of One-Platoon,
45: Programs as Propaganda — When Needed Most,
46: College Sports Publicists and Sportswriters: Symbiosis Squared,
47: Magazines Discover Revisionism,
48: The Fainting Irish and the End of Frank Leahy's Notre Dame Career,
49: Saving College Basketball and Creating Mixed-Form Sportswriting,
Conclusion: The View from the End of the Century,