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Remembering Knute Rockne and His Connections to Kansas

Knute Rockne, Notre Dame's legendary football coach, died in a plane crash in the Kansas Flint Hills on March 31, 1931.
Knute Rockne, Notre Dame's legendary football coach, died in a plane crash in the Kansas Flint Hills on March 31, 1931.

It was 85 years ago today (March 31, 1931) that a small, passenger plane went down in Chase County, Kansas - killing everyone onboard. One of the victims was Knute Rockne, the legendary football coach at Notre Dame. This weekend, alumni and fans of the Catholic school's famous coach will gather near the crash site for a remembrance ceremony. Guest Commentator Bernie Kish will be among them.

Guest Commentator Bernie Kish is a sports management lecturer at the University of Kansas and the former executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana. He lives in Lawrence. This Saturday (April 2), Kish will join Notre Dame alumni and others in Cottonwood Falls and at the crash site in Chase County to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the plane crash that claimed the lives of Knute Rockne and seven other men.



It happened 85 years ago, in the rich pasture land of the Kansas Flint Hills. Knute Kenneth Rockne, the legendary football coach at the University of Notre Dame, along with seven other men, died in a plane crash.

Born in Voss, Norway, Rockne came to Notre Dame in 1910, as a 23-year-old freshman from Chicago's Scandinavian North side.

At Notre Dame, he excelled in sports, captained the football team his senior year and helped the Fighting Irish pull off a 35-13 victory over Army at West Point. That victory helped put Notre Dame, a small Catholic school, on the college gridiron map.

A fine all-around student, Rockne acted in school plays, helped edit the yearbook, played flute in the school orchestra and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in chemistry.

In 1918, he became Notre Dame's head football coach. And, in just 13 years, he compiled an unmatched record of 105-12 and 5. Along the way, his football team captured three national championships.

Yes, Knute Rockne died in Kansas, but he had many other connections to the state. He had a close relationship with KU Basketball Coach Phog Allen. He gave a presentation to the Native American students at Haskell Indian School in 1928 - and traded coaching philosophy strategies with the Indians' football coach, Bill "Lone Star" Dietz. Charlie Bachman, a fellow Notre Dame alum and the head football coach at Kansas State, provided Rockne with the "dope" on Rockne's gridiron nemesis - the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Moreover, the Rockne Football Coaching School held an annual session in Wichita.

On the 30th of March, 1931, Rockne departed South Bend, Indiana, stopped in Chicago to visit his mother on her birthday and then took the overnight train to Kansas City to catch a plane to Los Angeles. The main purpose of the trip was to be an advisor for a movie on college football.

While stopping in Kansas City, Rockne planned to meet his sons, Billy and Knute Jr -- students at Pembroke School -- who were returning by train from a trip to Florida. But the train was late. So, Rockne proceeded to the Kansas City Airport and -- along with five other passengers -- boarded a small plane operated by Trans World Airlines (TWA stood for Transcontinental and Western Air at the time). 

The flight departed Kansas City at 9:30 a.m. on a chilly, overcast morning for its first stop in Wichita to pick up mail. About 40 minutes into the flight, the TWA Pilots encountered low clouds and limited visibility and thought of returning to Kansas City. But they radioed ahead and were told by TWA officials in Wichita that the weather there was "clear with an unlimited ceiling." And so the plane pushed on.

At 10:45 a.m., a radio operator in Wichita transmitted this message: "Are you going to get through to Wichita?" The co-pilot on Rockne's plane replied: "Don't know yet - Don't know yet." Those six words were the last received. 

Investigators believe it was just a few minutes later that the airplane came down violently in a cow pasture, just south of Bazaar, Kansas.

The bodies of the passengers, pilot and co-pilot were taken to the Croy Funeral Home in Cottonwood Falls for identification and embalming. Rockne's body was taken by train -- accompanied by his two sons -- to South Bend.

The funeral was held on Holy Saturday, April 4. Fourteen hundred people packed the Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame. Ten thousand more gathered outside the church. The whole service was broadcast worldwide by CBS Radio.

Knute Rockne was 43 years old when he died.  

Obviously, there's no way to know how the lives of these men -- Knute Rockne, the pilots and the five other passengers -- would have played out. All deaths, tragic or otherwise, leave the rest of us wondering... just what might have been.