Win one for the Gipper: An interview with Jack Cavanaugh

You've heard the expression, but chances are, you don't know the story behind it. The words were those of George Gipp, perhaps the most legendary football player of all time, who played in the 1920s for Notre Dame under equally legendary coach Knute Rockne. Then again, maybe the words were Rockne's own -- Gipp allegedly said them to Rockne on his premature deathbed at age 25, but Rockne didn't use them to inspire a team until eight years later. Whatever the case, those famous five words are the stuff of myth, and that's exactly what author and longtime sports correspondent Jack Cavanaugh explores in his new book The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football, which he'll be reading from tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover. In advance of that reading, Westword caught up with Cavanaugh to talk about the book, the legend and Rockne's well known tendency to make stuff up.

Westword: You first wrote about George Gipp for Sports Illustrated in 1991. What inspired your interest in him? How did you get into that mythology? Jack Cavanaugh: You know, ever since I was a kid, I'd heard about George Gipp. He's like this mystical, legendary figure that's too good to be true, like an all-American boy, and he was a great Notre Dame football player. And I heard the "win one for the Gipper" expression very early in life, as almost everybody does. As I say in the book, I think it's probably the most famous sports rallying cry ever, you know, "win one for the Gipper." People say it in jest; people don't even know who he was. And Ronald Reagan popularized it when he was president because he played George Gipp in a 1940 movie.

So what happened was, early on I got intrigued by this guy, and I never knew much about him, I'd never heard anything about him, even as a kid when I was already starting to read sports books, when I was 10 or 11 years old. And over the years, something piqued my interest -- I forget exactly what it was -- maybe listening or watching a Notre Dame game on television, and I heard Gipp mentioned. So then I decided to check him out a little bit more and see if anything had been done. And I'd already written several articles for Sports Illustrated, and I asked them if they had ever done anything on him, and they said they hadn't. Nothing definitive, anyway.

So I called Notre Dame. Fortunately, a number of his teammates -- a few of them, seven or eight of them -- they were still alive in their eighties -- mostly late eighties, one of them I think was ninety -- and I got their phone numbers. And I called them. One of them, Chet Grant, he was working in the Notre Dame sports archives library. So I called these guys, and they were great. So the essence of my surrey was, you know, this expression, "win one for the Gipper," how'd it come about? So what I found out right away was, one or two of the players, one in particular, Hunk Anderson, came from the same area of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan -- went to the same high school -- and he was one of Gipp's best friends, and he roomed with Gipp for a while. He went on to become a head coach at Notre Dame, and then he went on to play for the Chicago Bears, and he became the coach of the Bears for a while -- so, you know, Hall-of-Famer. So I talked to him, and he was great. You know, a lot of what I have in the book is based on my interview with him. And he doubted, frankly, he doubted if George Gipp ever said that, "win one for the Gipper." He doubted it because he said George wasn't that kind of a guy, he said, George was totally unsentimental. Which I think comes through in the book. He was kind of cynical, if anything. He was kind of a fatalist, living day by day like there was no tomorrow, and Hunk Anderson doubted very much if George would have said that.

George was a big gambler, a big poker player, a big billiards player -- terrific, won a lot of money at both. And one or two of the others, including Chet Grant, a quarterback of Notre Dame, said the same thing. And they both pointed out, as did some other players, that Rockne was prone to making up stories. I tell some of them in the book. He'd make up stories to motivate the players. And they were kind of like white lies, nothing outrageous, but some players doubted that he said it, but some of the other players said, hey, maybe he did say that to Rock. Rockne was alone with him at the bedside, so who's to say he didn't say it?

Later in the book, there are several guys who were in the locker room, friends of Rockne's, who claim that Rockne did indeed say that, but whether or not Gipp said it has never been proven, and it's impossible to prove. The only witness to it was Rockne, and he's long gone.

WW: Right. The only source of that story was that Rockne said that's what Gipp had said. JC: And the thing is, why a lot of people were dubious as to whether he said it, was he was on a death bed, it was December of 1920. Yet Rockne didn't use that to motivate a team until 1928 -- eight years later. That means that, what, 75 games later, and he never used it? But admittedly, the 1928 team was his weakest team since the time he became head coach in 1918. And they were playing a very powerful Army team that was a prohibitive favorite. And as it turns out, they beat them. The team was inspired by the "win one for the Gipper" speech. But some people thought, "wait a minute, why'd he wait all that while?"

So to get back to your original question, why I got motivated, I talked to these guys and I had a lot of material. So I wrote this piece for SI that maybe ran 2,000, maybe 2,500 words, and I had a lot of stuff left over. And I always just said to myself, someday -- and I'd never written a book at that point -- someday, I'd like write a book about this guy, because I have all this material and no place to put it. And I saved the notes from these former teammates -- all of whom have passed away, all of whom actually died within the next five or 10 years. So that gave me a big advantage, having talked to those guys. If I was to do that book a year ago, if I hadn't talked to any of them, it would have been much more difficult. I would have had to rely entirely on magazines, newspapers, other kinds of sources, you know, but as it was, I managed to talk to roughly five of his teammates and had a lot of great quotes that never got into the SI story, though some did. So and anyway, after my last book, I was looking for another subject, and then I thought, "hey, wait a minute, I've been thinking about doing this book for almost 20 years." And I finally went ahead and did it.

I did it actually in just about a year's time, which was pretty fast. See what happened, as I understand it, was the publisher wanted it to coincide with the resumption of the Notre Dame-Army rivalry at Yankee stadium -- they haven't played in many, many years. They used to play each other there on a regular basis going back to the '20s and into the '30s and '40s, and they played sporadically after that. But here they are, going to be playing in the new Yankees Stadium, and that was where, in his last game against the Army, when Rockne used that rallying cry, "win one for the Gipper." That was the last time he coached Notre Dame against the Army. And I'm sure a lot's going to be about that leading up to the game in November in the media, and that's why the publisher wanted the book to come out and didn't give me a whole lot of time, but I managed to finish it.

WW: So you had a lot of material left over, but a book is obviously a lot more words. Did you have to do quite a bit more research? JC: Oh, tremendously. I went out to Notre Dame last fall, and I spent I think four or five days out there. They have a wonderful archives department, and I was in there every day. And the archives people were tremendously helpful to me, and I made a hundred copies of stories from their files and from The Scholastic, which was -- I don't know if it still is -- the campus weekly paper. So they had every game that Gipp played in, and I made copies of all the game accounts. And Notre Dame was extremely cooperative.

In addition to that, I did, as I've had to before in my previous books, I'd go to the library and call up the inter-library loan and request copies of, like, the South Bend Tribune for each of the four years Gipp played. And I'd get them on microfilm, and wait sometimes a week, two weeks, a month, and then she calls me and I'd go down to the library and spend hours and hours looking at microfilm accounts of all these games he played. Same thing with the Chicago Tribune. So there's a huge amount of research. Also, when he'd come to play the Army, calling up the New York Times on microfilm and reading their accounts, the pregame stories, the actual game stories. A lot of that I used in the book. Yeah, I did a huge amount of research. I read everything I could get my hands on. Probably about a dozen books that had quite a lot in them about Gipp -- they're all acknowledged in the back of the book -- magazine stories I came across, a huge amount of research.

WW: One of the things I think is really interesting about George Gipp is that he was actually a pretty slight guy -- about six foot, 185 lbs, which is right about my own height and only a couple of pounds heavier. And I'm certainly not built like a football player. JC: Well, you know, at that time -- and actually, his first year he was about 175, and I think by his third year he was up to about 180 -- but at that time, that was pretty average. As a matter of fact, the last couple of years he played, they only had one guy on the team that weighed over 200 lbs. Nowadays, you get a team of 55 guys, 50 of them weight over 200 lbs, and maybe 15 of them weigh over 300 lbs. Back in those days, there were guys like Hunk Anderson, all-American guard, Hunk was 170 lbs, playing two way -- two way! -- offensive and defensive guard. There were other lineman that weighed 180, 185. So George was pretty average. You know, I'm six feet, my son is 6'4. That's the way it works. The next generation is always taller. If Gipp was around today, he'd probably be like 6'2, 200. Yeah, six feet tall, even six feet tall, if you played basketball, he played center. In other words, he probably was the biggest guy on the team. Totally different situation. Everybody was smaller and lighter.

Jack Cavanaugh appears Wednesday, September 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax, to discuss and sign copies of The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football. He is also the Author of Giants Among Men and Tunney.

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