How Good was George Gipp?
By: Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview
When Notre Dame was forced to cancel spring football after just one practice last March, the plans of a journalist covering Notre Dame Football, along with most everything else in our society, were turned upside down.
So, during the early weeks of the pandemic, a story, that had been in the back of my mind for years, bubbled to the top and I wrote In Search of George Gipp. The project turned into two parts and roughly 4000 words. It was picked up by IrishIllustrated.com and became one of the most widely read pieces I’ve ever done.
And a long time itch I’d had to write about George Gipp had been scratched, but that itch didn’t go away. George Gipp was still on my mind.
In early January of this year, one of my sons, Nick (middle name David, initials “ND”) passed along plans of a getaway to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a few days of snowmobiling and adventure. My George Gipp trigger was tripped. “Nick, the only way to get where you are going is to drive through the hometown of a Notre Dame legend and one of history’s greatest athletes.” Nick’s attention was hooked, and I reeled in, “The great George Gipp was born in Laurium just a few miles south of your destination. If I was anywhere near that area I would be stopping at the George Gipp Memorial to breathe the air and pay my respects, I might even shed a tear. Your Mom, by the way, who knows my sentimental side well, would patiently smile and understand!”
Nick was not a hard sell, he knew who George Gipp was. In fact having the initials “ND” combined with the fact that Nick will be fulfilling a life long ambition by attending grad school at ND next fall, caused him to listen as I enthusiastically shared a few tales with him of the great George Gipp.
It was at this point that I realized to myself that George Gipp had cast something of a spell over me, my fascination with his enigmatic life was becoming a passion, the itch I had “scratched” by writing about Gipp revealed that my research into Gipp wasn’t done, and had really only “scratched” the surface. Shortly after my two-part article In Search of George Gipp was published in early May of 2020 I came across a book entitled The Life and Times of George Gipp. Written in 1988 it contained a whole other trove of Gipp info. Life in Laurium! Gambling on games! Days of AWOL from the team! Extraordinary skills on the billiards table! Celebrations in South Bend after wins! Pay for play games the day after his ND games! Moonshine running! And more.
Lots and lots of information about the very amazing life of a complex and beyond interesting man.
At the time I wrote the original articles, I had utilized about a dozen sources-books, articles, websites and my own personal background of 59 years immersed in Notre Dame football culture. Today with more information and sources discovered, I feel like my article could have been twice as long.
And as more details of the rich story of George Gipp entered my mind, one central premise about George Gipp kept coming back to me. The Gipper was a great athlete, perhaps one of the greatest of all time. But how good was he?
Well, lets examine that question.
One way to measure “greatness” particularly in this age of analytics is by looking at numbers.
George Gipp was a large man for his day, standing 6-2, he weighed 185 pounds. According to his coach Knute Rockne he ran the 100-yard dash, “in 10 and one-fifth seconds.” That’s fast, especially for a “big man”.
Gipp’s playing statistics, even when compared across different era’s are impressive. Most convincing of his prowess is the fact that more than 100 years later he still holds several Notre Dame records.
In his career Gipp rushed for 2,341 yards, a record that stood at Notre Dame for nearly 60 years. In an era were passes were rare, he threw for 1,789 yards. Gipp scored 21 career touchdowns, averaged 38 yards per punt, 14 yards per punt return and 22 yards on kick returns. He is still Notre Dame’s all-time leader in three categories: average yards per rush for a season at 8.1, career average yards of total offense per play of 9.4 and career average yards of total offense per game of 128.4.
What did Gipp’s opponents, have to say about his talents?
After ND defeated Kalmazoo to open the 1919 season, one of the Kalamazoo players is quoted as saying, “He was hard to bring down, in fact as far as I was concerned, he was impossible to bring down with a solo tackle.”
After a game later that season against Mount Union, one of the opposing defenders said of Gipp, “we just couldn’t stop him, he would run to daylight but if he was hemmed in he would run you over.”
Coaches also weighed in.
Rockne, who discovered Gipp in 1916 and convinced him to go out for football, called Gipp, “the perfect performer, who comes around rarely more than once in a generation”
Rockne had plenty more to say about his star player. Often overlooked are Gipp’s skills as a defender. As a defensive back he snared interceptions, and was a leading tackler. Rockne described his tackling style as that of, “a tiger pouncing on his prey.” Rockne also claimed that as a full-time defensive back, “that not a single forward pass was ever completed in territory Gipp defended”.
Heartly “Hunk” Anderson, who grew up with Gipp in the Upper Peninsula, was one of his linemen and later became head coach at ND. In a 1978 interview Anderson had this to say about Gipp’s athleticism, “He was born 60 years too soon. Had he been playing today, George Gipp would be called the greatest football player of all time.”
Elmer Layden, one of the Four Horsemen and ND head Coach from 1934-1940 said that at Notre Dame “We look down upon Gipp as the greatest football player ever turned out at Notre Dame, one whose ability has been surpassed if at all by few cleated warriors.”
Another way to judge athleticism is to consider versatility.
Running, passing, kicking, tackling and more, as his statistics show, Gipp was very versatile on the football field.
The stats don’t show another “football” skill he had: drop kicking. Fairly common in his time, but now an all but lost art, Gipp on multiple occasions demonstrated this skill to adoring fans as part of a pre game routine. At the start of warm ups Gipp would carry two footballs to the 50 yard line. There he would drop kick one of the balls over one goal post. He then would then turn and do the same with the second, over the other goal post. The crowds loved the exhibition.
He truly could do it all on the football field. But what about cross sport versatility?
Think Bo Jackson or closer to the home of Notre Dame Fans: Kevin Hardy defensive tackle and three sport wonder from the 60’s, or more recently, Jeff Samardzija who was a two-time All- American wide receiver who also pitched on the baseball team and has gone on to a long and lucrative MLB career.
Well, using multi-sport versatility as a measure of how good he was, Gipp checks out pretty well. In high school he didn’t even play football, his sports were basketball and baseball. As a starter he led Calumet High School to a 29-1 record and its first ever regional championship.
But it was the game of baseball where he really made his mark. As a youngster he played in adult leagues and was known for his long home runs and a .492 batting average. In fact, Gipp originally went to ND on a baseball scholarship and did play some baseball at ND. He played well enough that he was offered professional contracts by both the White Sox and the Cubs.
Oh, and don’t forget that Gipp was an expert billiards player as well. He was well known for his exploits on the pool table. In May of 1919 he won a title of sorts by winning a highly publicized match played in Mishawaka. That match, according to the South Bend Tribune, established Gipp as “the best player in the State of Indiana.”
Rockne also had an opinion on Gipp’s versatility, according to him, Gipp was expert, “at almost anything he took up.”
Finally, was Gipp a winner? Lets call this the “Ian Book factor”, I think Brian Kelly would appreciate that! With Book as a starter, the Irish went 30-5. With Gipp in the lineup, Notre Dame was 27-2. Yes, George Gipp was a winner.
Statistics, expert opinions, athletic versatility and success on the scoreboard. Gipp clearly was an extraordinary athlete.
Rockne nailed it when he described George Gipp as, “nature’s pet”.
Which brings me back to my son Nick “ND” Houk’s journey to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a few weeks ago.
About a day into his journey, I got a text message. “Dad are you sitting down?” I replied, “sure Nick what’s going on?” In quick order I learned that “ND” Houk was in Laurium, Michigan, had just passed a daycare called, “Little Gippers”…. and was standing at the George Gipp Memorial.
I couldn’t help but pause and vicariously enjoy the moment.
And yes, I got little tear in my eye.