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What if ... Knute Rockne came to Bloomington in 1914 and changed the trajectory of IU football?

Before he became American football’s most renowned coach, Rockne was recommended for a vacant assistant coaching position at Indiana. But IU passed. Oops!


The four-paragraph letter drips with self-importance.

It’s dated June 28, 1914, a formal notice from Clarence “C.C.” Childs, Indiana University’s new 30-year-old football coach. Childs was writing to inform IU President William Lowe Bryan that he’d just completed his final duties as the head coach at Wooster College and was preparing to head to Bloomington.

Childs’ hiring that spring was viewed as a promising development for IU, which had failed to produce a winning record in coach James M. Sheldon’s final three seasons. According to the Indiana University Alumni Quarterly, Childs, a product of football powerhouse Yale, would lead the program in such a manner that “the jinx which for some time has ruled the athletic domain will be effectually buried.”

Whoops! Not exactly!

In that same letter to Bryan, Childs advised his new boss that he had been considering his options for the vacant position of assistant coach. One of the names recommended to Childs was that of Knute Rockne, a former star player at Notre Dame who had recently graduated and was looking for work. Childs, however, didn’t think Indiana would be the right fit for Rockne.

“It has been suggested to me that a Mr. Rockne of Notre Dame assist in foot ball next year,” Childs wrote to Bryan. “He is to take medicine at Indiana in this event. For several reasons I am not in favor of this plan. It has been my intention to interest the Alumni as far as possible this coming season, and I am sure that the methods of Notre Dame are quite different than those of Indiana or Yale.”

Childs didn’t elaborate on what he meant by that, but the previous fall, Rockne and Notre Dame began revolutionizing the sport through the use of the forward pass as a primary offensive weapon. The tactic helped Notre Dame upset Army, 35-13, in West Point, N.Y. during the 1913 season, with Rockne operating as one of the key contributors.

According to the IU archives, there are no other letters or documents regarding Rockne’s candidacy for the job. Suffice to say, Childs did not hire Rockne. Instead, Rockne returned to Notre Dame as an assistant coach in 1914 before eventually taking over as head coach in 1918. During his 13 years at the helm, Rockne led Notre Dame to three national championships, five undefeated campaigns and a 105-12-5 record.

Childs, meanwhile, went 6-7-1 as head coach at Indiana, serving in the role for two seasons. But what if he had hired Rockne after all? Imagine this alternate history of the tortured IU football program:

Rockne takes over for Childs in 1916 and he quickly establishes Indiana as a top destination for the Midwest’s best talents. The allure of the forward pass drives attention toward IU football games, so much so that football becomes the state’s sport of choice and Hoosier children grow up dreaming of playing under Rockne.

Simply put, Indiana would’ve stolen a march on everyone else with Rockne’s unique offense, his “IU Shift” and a platoon system designed to wear down Western Conference opponents. With Notre Dame, Rockne won each of his eight contests against Indiana, outscoring the boys from Bloomington 170-26 and shutting them out in four of the final five meetings under his watch.

His methods were quite different, indeed.