This true story hits highlights in the life of America's pioneering football coach.
Carriage-maker Lars Rockne (John Qualen) leaves Norway in 1892 to go to America and settles in Chicago. Three years later his son Knute plays football and gets a bloody nose. Knute Rockne (Pat O'Brien) works in a post office for several years. In 1910 he quits to go to Notre Dame and rooms with Gus Dorais (Owen Davis Jr.). Father Julius Nieuwland (Albert Bassermann) offers excelling Rockne a job in his chemistry lab, but Rockne and Gus work as lifeguards. They plan to use the forward pass. Rockne and Bonnie (Gale Page) plan to marry. Against Army Gus passes to Rockne, and they win. In June 1914 Rockne graduates. He teaches chemistry while helping to coach football. Bonnie has a baby boy. Rockne tells Father John Callahan (Donald Crisp) he wants to coach. Rockne sees that George Gipp (Ronald Reagan) can kick and persuades him to play football. Gipp can run and pass too, and Notre Dame wins. Rockne ejects a gambler. Gipp tells Bonnie that Rockne is unique and teaches clean living. Gipp has a cough, and in the hospital he is very ill. Gipp tells Rockne to ask the team to win one for him when they are up against it.
Rockne gives kids a football and his players a lecture on teamwork. Rockne trains them to tackle and block. He takes his team to see chorus girls and gets the idea for a backfield shift. Rockne teaches it to four backs, who are called the four horsemen, and they win the national championship. On a train confident Rockne promises Bonnie a trip to Florida. Army uses laterals and leads Notre Dame at half-time 13-0. Rockne gives players a pep talk, but they lose. Papers say Rockne was over-confident. Students greet their train nonetheless. Rockne has big offers but tells Father Callahan he will never leave Notre Dame. Rockne gets a letter from an alumnus to play his son O'Flaherty, and he lets him kick off.
A doctor (Henry O'Neill) tells Rockne he has phlebitis and orders him to stay in bed; but Rockne coaches anyway. Navy leads at half-time. Rockne tells how Gipp asked them to win one for the Gipper; they play well and win. Football is investigated for subsidies. Coaches ask Rockne to go to New York. He testifies that football is better than wars and speaks of character building. On a Florida beach Bonnie asks Rockne not to fly to California. The plane crash kills Rockne, making headlines. The Notre Dame choir sings, and Father Callahan eulogizes Rockne. An announcer names Rockne's former players and where they are coaching.
This is an inspiring story of an immigrant who innovated
as he achieved success in his chosen field. The contests between
Notre Dame and Army and Navy symbolize the constant struggle between
religion and the military, and the excellence of Rockne implies
the spiritual victory over force.