March 31, 1931, was not only a dark day in Notre Dame football History, but a dark day in American History as well.
On that day, Notre Dame head football coach boarded a plane in Kansas City due to fly to Los Angeles. He was going there to help work on the motion picture “The Spirit of Notre Dame’, which was released to the public that fall.
By 1931, Knute Rockne had led a very small, Catholic university in northern Indiana to the top of the college football world. Rockne was an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame, but it was his coaching that made him famous.
Knute Rockne was the head football coach at Notre Dame for 13 years from 1918 to 1930. During that time, he led the Fighting Irish to a record of 105 wins, 12 losses, and five ties. This included three national championships, including five undefeated seasons. It was during the Army game on November 10, 1928, when Notre Dame was losing 6-0 at the half, that Rockne gave his “Win one for the Gipper speech”. The Fighting Irish went on to win that game 12-6.
As he boarded that plane on March 31, 1931, he just led the Fighting Irish football team to the 1929 and 1930 national championships. He was revered around the country, especially in Roman Catholic conclaves.
The plane crashed because one wing fell off over Bazaar, Kansas and all eight passengers on board were killed. The magnitude of that disaster was so great that the public cried out for an investigation of the crash. At first, it was thought that the plane, a Fokker F 10 tri-motor, lost a wing because it went through a thunderstorm. Weather reports showed there was no thunderstorm in the area. It is hard to believe that planes in those days were built out of wood laminate!. The wood on this plane just gave out.
The Rockne plane crash caused one of the greatest advancements in aviation history. After the crash, planes were built with metal designs. Planes became better in their design, their strength, their quality and their safety. Simply stated, Airplane travel went from the most dangerous means of transportation to the safest.
On an emotional level of what Rockne’s death meant to our country, we give some context to the loss felt by people around the country.
Herbert Hoover, President of the United States, stated, “Mr. Rockne so contributed to the cleanness and high purpose in athletics that his passing is a national loss”.
Will Rodgers said “We thought it would take a president’s death to make a whole nation, regardless of age, race or creed, show their heads in real sincere sorrow…Well, that’s what this country did today Knute for you. You died a national hero… Notre Dame was your address, but every gridiron in America was your home”.
Rev. John F. O’Hara, University of Notre Dame stated, “Knute Rockne has had a wider influence in developing the ideals of fair play than any other man in his generation, and he did it under the banner of the Mother of God”.
To Notre Dame fans, Knute Rockne is an inspiration as a man and as a coach. He lifted up a small, Catholic university into the nation’s consciousness, an institution that today is among the greatest universities in the world.
Even in death, he vastly improved an entire industry. But his greatest legacy may be that he made fair play paramount in athletics, and he left the name of Notre Dame known throughout the world.