A Rockne Road To Corvallis
Dec. 24, 2000
By Kip Carlson
Oregon State sports information
If the ghost of Knute Rockne ever makes a complete tour of all his old football haunts, the legendary Notre Dame coach could find himself in the middle of a pickup basketball game in Dixon Recreation Center on the Oregon State campus.
While it's true that the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 will be the first-ever football game between fifth-ranked OSU and 10th-ranked Notre Dame, the Beavers and the Fighting Irish did hook up on the gridiron long ago. Rockne - perhaps the most famous football coach of all time - visited Oregon State for five summers in the late 1920s to teach his system to other coaches on old Bell Field, which is now the site of OSU's student fitness complex.
Rockne was at the height of his career when he taught in the Oregon Agricultural College Summer Session from 1925-29. Rockne had been a pupil of 'Dad' Butler in the Midwest before Butler went on to develop some powerful Beaver track and field teams in the 1910s and 1920s, Rockne was also acquainted with OAC football coach Paul Schissler, whose team from tiny Lombard College had stayed within 14-0 of Rockne's Irish in a 1923 game.
In 1924, Schissler moved on to OAC. In his nine years in Corvallis, his teams went 48-30-2 and consistently pulled Beaver football into the national picture.
In addition to bringing Rockne to the Pacific Northwest in the summer, Schissler was responsible for making big-time intersectional games a regular part of the Beavers' schedule. Schissler's teams visited Nebraska, Detroit and Marquette, they went to New York to take on Fordham at the Polo Grounds and New York University at Yankee Stadium, and they met West Virginia in Chicago's Soldier Field. Often as not, the Beavers returned home victorious.
Notre Dame could have been added to that list of opponents. There are reports that Schissler and Rockne had reached an agreement for the Fighting Irish to visit Oregon State during the 1933 season, but the chances for that game ended with the plane crash that killed Rockne in 1931.
OSU archivist Larry Landis is a native of South Bend, Ind., and he has compiled a number of accounts of Rockne's visits. The April, 1925 edition of the OAC Alumnus reported Rockne had been engaged for the Summer Session's Coaching School, noting: 'No football coach has occupied the limelight longer, no coach has more consistently progressed with the constant changes in football.'
Rockne arrived in Corvallis on June 22, and the Alumnus said Rockne was the guest of honor at a dinner given by the city's service clubs. His courses drew over 100 coaches, and 'In personality and driving power Rockne exerted a dynamic influence, not only upon the men in his classes but upon all men in the community that came in contact with him,' according to the Alumnus.
In 1927, Rockne's stay resulted in some offensive trickery. The Alumnus noted: 'Fans and the student body had a chance to see the new shift when the Orangemen met the California Aggies, Saturday, Oct. 1, at Corvallis. This shift was worked out by Coach Schissler and Knute Rockne, the famous Notre Dame mentor, when Rockne was in Corvallis for the coaching school last summer. Rockne is using it at Notre Dame and Schissler here. A feature of it is that one of the backfield men is in motion towards his own goal line during the count.'
By now, Rockne was having Schissler assist him in the other courses he offered around the country in the summer. Rockne kept returning to OAC each June, and each time his national profile had grown larger. In 1928, Summer Session director M. Ellwood Smith wrote of Rockne's impending visit:
'There are other coaches, but there is no other Rockne ... he has turned out winning teams until the South Bend football laboratory is looked upon by coaches and critics as the experimentation football center of the world which may be counted on to reveal possibilities and defects in new rules and new plays as they develop. Through his syndicated articles he reaches the breakfast tables of the entire nation and through his summer schools for coaches he has reached progressive coaches and directors in a professional way.
'To have had work with Rockne gives one the feeling automobile salesmen refer to as `pride of possession.' `I have had work with Rockne' tells the story.'
If Rockne made a favorable impression upon Oregon State, then Oregon State also made a favorable impression upon Rockne. In an interview with the Alumnus in 1928, he said, 'What do I think of the campus? I think it is a splendid one. And say, you know, these new buildings are surely going to put it on the map. I can notice a vast improvement just in the four years that I have been coming here to teach at the summer session. The change has not all been in the physical campus construction either. Your athletics have been building up steadily.'
Later that year, Rockne used his nationally-syndicated newspaper column to comment on athletics in the Pacific Northwest in general and in Oregon in particular.
'In the average person's mind, the state of Oregon is associated with the covered wagon,' Rockne wrote. 'Emerson Hough, in a recent story, drew an epic picture of that great trek across the plains, over the mountains, and down the Columbia river to Oregon. Most of the people living in Oregon today are descendants of those dauntless pioneers ... In this Pacific northwest country it is natural that the descendants of these men who first settled the country should be athletically inclined.'
After commenting on various track and field, crew, baseball and basketball standouts from the region, Rockne added: 'It is in football, however, that this country really excels. The big, rugged boys brought up in the woods and on the ranches are natural timber for this strenuous combat game.'
Rockne concluded: 'One high school coach said to me, `How would you like to live out here in the big wide-open spaces, where men are men?' And I said: `No, the competition is too keen. I would rather go back home, where all the men are not'.'
Over the years, the relationship between Rockne and Schissler had grown warm enough that Rockne was apparently willing to grant the Beavers a visit from the Fighting Irish. In his 1993 history of Notre Dame football 'Shake Down The Thunder,' author Murray Sperber writes that in June, 1931 (Rockne died earlier that year) Schissler informed Notre Dame athletic director Jesse Harper that Rockne had promised, in writing, a home game against Notre Dame in 1933 and that 'Oregon State had already announced the game to an ecstatic local press and public, thus the West Coast school could not understand why the N.D. faculty athletic board had not yet approved the contest.
'It soon emerged that Rockne had made the promise without consulting the board, probably hoping that he could bluster the faculty men into accepting the game or making them the fall guys in an N.D. refusal ... in the end, the board refused to sanction the West Coast trip and the Fighting Irish never played Oregon State.'
Now, almost seven decades later, the schools once led by Schissler and Rockne will finally meet.
NOTES: Oregon State practiced in full pads for two hours on Sunday, the Beavers will take Christmas Day off and resume practice Tuesday. That's when OSU will begin sharpening its focus on the Fiesta Bowl, after the first three workouts were a chance for the Beavers to work some kinks out.
'We're trying to get back into timing and get back into shape,' OSU head coach Dennis Erickson said of the initial practices at Scottsdale Community College. 'It's not that these kids get out of shape that much, but just get back into football shape. We got a lot done in these three days, that's why we came down early and took advantage of this. We'll have a day off Monday and then go back at it. These three days, particularly, were to just try to get back into the timing of things and get the soreness out. It was a good three days, we accomplished what we wanted to.'
Following Sunday's regular practice, the Beavers' scout team players went through a short scrimmage. A number of the regulars stayed on the field to watch, and wide receiver Chad Johnson sprinted noisily downfield at one point to congratulate Dwight Wright after a touchdown run.
'I think we're having good practices, there's a lot of enthusiasm,' OSU quarterback Jonathan Smith said. 'Getting back down here to some nice weather, playing on some grass that's nice - guys are excited to be here, and it's shown in the enthusiasm in practice. Often times, a lot of these older guys wouldn't be out here checking this (scout team scrimmage) out, they'd be in showering to get out of here. But they're having fun and enjoying it, and you can tell we're enthused and happy to be here.'