Georgia’s historic trip to South Bend includes Voss, Norway and the likes of Knute Rockne and Paul Hornung.
Notre Dame began similarly to a lot of American universities by getting established in the countryside. Actually, the Irish beginnings were on Indiana acreage, which was good for growing corn.
Early on, a football team was established (1887) and was popular just as it was across the country in places like Athens, Ga., Auburn, Ala., Chapel Hill, N.C. and Madison, Wisc. The Irish played against high school teams and touched the national conscience when Knute Rockne became the head coach and used what many believe was an apocryphal story with his star player, George Gipp, to upset Army in 1928, 12-6 at Yankee Stadium. You remember his, “Win one for the Gipper halftime speech.”
Rockne was a native of Voss, Norway which brings about recall of a couple of Voss vignettes …
Once on a tour of Norway, there was an overnight stop in Voss where there is a statue of the famous coach. It was in 1985 that Coach Vince Dooley considered offering to run for the U.S. Senate against St. Simons Island’s Mack Mattingly who had upset Herman Talmadge in the senatorial race of 1980. Vince was enjoying a spring trip to Scandinavia after having organized a press conference at the Atlanta Airport, just before departing for Brussels, announcing that he was considering the idea of running for the Senate. It was in Voss that he began hearing that the natives back home were very, very restless. They got more restless as Vince’s vacation trip continued. You know the rest of the story.
Initially, he wanted to coach the team while deciding if he had “the fire in the belly” to run. Public and political pressure led to an abandonment of his plan to coach and “moonlight” a potential political campaign. He gave up on that idea, but a few years later the bug bit again and he considered running for governor. Vince, I have always concluded, thought there was nothing more underhanded than football recruiting shenanigans, but he found out that most mean spirited and underhanded game of all—is politics.
Then there was an exchange student at old Athens High from Voss in the fifties who later returned for a class reunion. When I met him, I explained that I was familiar with Voss and that I had been to his native city. “Your hometown,” I said is the birthplace of the famous Notre Dame football Knute Rockne, his first name commonly known as “Ka-nute.” He grinned and said, “We don’t ‘ka-know him.”
Another South Bend story surrounds the College Football Hall of Fame (when it was located there) that included frequent trips to the campus and for the annual enshrinement of the most recently elected players. When Coach Wallace Butts of Georgia was enshrined, George Steinbrenner (a member of the National Football Foundation board) who spent time as a coach in his early years, told the Butts family of his friendship and relationship with the former Bulldog head coach.
Of course, the lore about Paul Hornung continues to circulate in South Bend where he remains a popular figure. If you recall, Hornung is the only winner of the Heisman trophy whose team had a losing season (2-8) the year the Downtown Athletic Club of New York honored him in 1956.
When he was in Athens speaking a couple of falls ago, his stories about his days with Vince Lombardi and the Packers were one of reverence and respect. There was a mutual admiration society with Lombardi and Hornung.
In his insightful book, “Run to Daylight,” Lombardi praised Hornung for his most valuable player abilities giving him the ultimate compliment for a running back. “He (Hornung) can smell the goal line,” Lombardi said.
Most observers considered Hornung, the consummate playboy, and Lombardi, the strict disciplinarian, the odd couple. However, when it came to building a bond which led to victory, the coach and the player were always on the same page.
Spending time with all those old Packers brought about a lot of laughs and an appreciation for why they won big. Lombardi was a leader who had an unusual ability to communicate with his players, especially with the team’s most popular star and Notre Dame alum, Hornung.
The underlying respect is why Green Bay became known as “Titletown.” When he speaks, Hornung carries around photographs of him with Lombardi and will autograph it with a reference to his former coach as one of the “greatest men” ever. Although Hornung had a well-deserved party reputation, he was an unselfish football player. His teammates loved and respected him.
One of his best friends was another playboy on the team, Max McGee who was a colorful guy who brought levity to every conversation. In one of Hornung’s books, there was one story about Paul taking McGee to mass. Max knew very little about Catholic ritual. When the collection basket was passed Max looked the other way. With a couple of special offerings, the basket was passed again. Hornung opened his billfold and Max reached over and slipped a $20 from Paul’s billfold and put it in the basket.
When Max saw the ushers coming a third time, he leaned over to Paul and said, “What are they going to do now, search us?”