Words of Notre Dame

Author: Fred Shapiro

Other universities have histories. Notre Dame has legends.

When I edited The Yale Book of Quotations, I found that Notre Dame alumni are well-represented when it comes to famous quotes. In fact, some of the sayings of Notre Dame alumni are so well-known that they have literally entered the language.

The most obvious example comes from Fighting Irish coach Knute Rockne (a 1914 ND graduate) and player George Gipp. A November 22, 1930, article by Rockne in the magazine Collier’s quoted an alleged request to Rockne by the dying Gipp, who succumbed to a throat infection during his senior year: “Tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.”

In Murray Sperber’s Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, he concludes that this version of a 1928 Rockne pep talk was, in all probability, written by Rockne’s ghostwriter at Collier’s, John B. Kennedy. Rockne did apparently quote Gipp in 1928 (the November 12, 1928, New York Daily News had the words as “On his deathbed George Gipp told me that some day, when the time came, he wanted me to ask a Notre Dame team to beat the Army for him”), but there is much evidence against Gipp having actually made such a request.

In any case, the phrase “Win one for the Gipper” was immortalized by the 1940 film, Knute Rockne All American, in which future U.S. President Ronald Reagan played Gipp.

Another famous Rockne-ism is “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” The earliest attribution I found appeared in The Washington Post_, August 15, 1943, and was worded, “’Show me a good loser,’ he [Rockne] used to say, ‘and I will show you a failure.’” A third well-known quote by the coach is: “Most men, when they think they are thinking, are merely rearranging their prejudices” (_Reader’s Digest, October 1927).

A different ND football coach contributed the famous words: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The slogan is frequently attributed to Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy, but on May 24, 1954, eight years before the earliest known Kennedy reference, it was credited to Frank Leahy ’31 in the Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail. The article refers to the quotation as Leahy’s “own personal football motto.”

The witticism of Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Walter “Red” Smith ’27 was applicable beyond sports to all literary and journalistic endeavor: “Writing is easy. You just stare at the keyboard until little drops of blood appear on your forehead” (Mansfield [Ohio] News Journal, October 24, 1967).

Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, ’39, president emeritus of Notre Dame, had a lot to say. His more well-known quotes include:

“The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”

“Voting is a civic sacrament.”

Other memorable words from Notre Dame graduates:

“I am no one special. Just a common man with common thoughts. There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten. But in one respect I have succeeded as gloriously as anyone who ever lived. I’ve loved another with all my heart and soul and for me that has always been enough.” — Nicholas Sparks ’88, The Notebook (1996).

“Politics is important. It is nothing less than the peaceful resolution of conflict among competing interests. It works.” — Mark Shields ’59, political columnist and television news commentator, quoted in Washingtonian, January 2004.

“There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.” — Condoleezza Rice ’75M.A., testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, April 8, 2004, when she was national security adviser.

“I am one of those people who deeply resents not having been born in the 19th century, when there were still open places to explore.” — Bruce Babbitt ’60, quoted in Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1987, when he was governor of Arizona.

Then there is law Professor G. Robert Blakey ’57, who wrote and named the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, abbreviated RICO, in 1970. Blakey to this day refuses to confirm or deny that he chose the statute’s title intentionally to match the name of the Edward G. Robinson character Rico in the movie Little Caesar.

A final quote, on a less serious topic : television host Regis Philbin ’53 didn’t invent the question “Is that your final answer?” on the program Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (it came from the original British version), but Americans will forever associate it with him.

Fred R. Shapiro is the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press) and is associate law library director and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School, New Haven, Connecticut.