Pete Cawthon & Knute Rockne

Our next AC Roo story has been broken up into four chapters. This story is dedicated to my friend Mike Cloonan, Notre Dame alum, fan, and NBC producer of Notre Dame athletics. Welcome to AC Roo stories Mike!

Chapter 1: The Coach
Chapter 2: The Protégé
Chapter 3: The Relationship
Chapter 4: The Trip

Chapter 1: The Coach

There are few coaches that live up to the myth. But Knute Rockne is certainly one. Rockne coached Notre Dame for 13 seasons, winning 5 national championships and compiling a winning percentage over .900. And he slowly became an ambassador for the game itself.

Rockne’s coaching style differed from what came before. He created and employed his “Notre Dame grid” system, which called for total dedication to the team and the season at hand with few distractions. No longer would football be one of many of a man’s pursuits. It would be, outside of academics, the only pursuit.

At the same time, the system put increased importance on state of mind. While fitness remained an essential element, a player’s passion was also considered just as valuable. Rockne himself worked to ensure that practices were not physically excessive, in part so that by game day a player would be at peak physical readiness. He also worked hard to ensure his men were hungry to play above themselves when the time came.

Rockne is well known for these psychological endeavors. His famous “they can’t lick us” speech. His plea to “win one for the Gipper”. And many others.

The Notre Dame coach was not only a believer in his system, he was also an excellent promoter. Rockne was one of the first coaches to establish off season coaching schools around the country. Knute encouraged coaches far and wide to attend, and would gladly share his system and how to implement.

One of his many coaching clinics occurred on the campus of St. Edwards University in Austin, TX during the summer of 1925.

And a second year football coach at Austin College who was a fervent believer in the Notre Dame grid system was determined to make the trip.

Chapter 2: The Protégé

The Pete Cawthon trophy is awarded every year to the best athlete at Austin College. Cawthon was a legendary coach in Sherman from 1923 through 1927; his teams won TIAA championships, compiled winning records, and upset some of the finest Southwest Conference teams of the day. Cawthon’s TIAA championship in 1923 was outstanding enough. It was arguably trumped the next year when the Kangaroos won their most impressive game in school history.

Over a six week period, the Baylor Bears rolled to the SWC title with wins over Arkansas, A&M, UT, and Rice. SMU managed a tie. The only blemish? A 7-3 loss to Austin College in Waco. As mentioned in a previous story, that game ball remains on campus today. AC Athletic Director M.L. Cashion was unable to schedule SMU, Rice, or Baylor in 1925 because of the reluctance of those schools to play and potentially lose to a non-SWC foe.

Cawthon was an enthusiast of Rockne’s system, and he employed it with gusto in Sherman. Playing football for Cawthon at AC meant ONLY playing and studying. No distractions. Social activities were discouraged, smoking and drinking resulted in dismissal. Cawthon’s boys were at school for two reasons: to get an education and to win every game. No exceptions.

And Coach Cawthon was more than enthusiastic when Rockne announced his coaching camp in Austin during the summer of 1925. The entire AC coaching staff made the trip, including many of “Pete’s boys” who would go on to successful coaching stints themselves (more on that later). In Austin, Cawthon & Rockne became close colleagues and established a strong friendship. See photo of Cawthon & Rockne in Austin.

At the camp, Rockne used younger coaches to display his plays, and Cawthon was chosen to contribute. After the camp ended, Rockne invited Cawthon to attend a future spring training in South Bend; Cawthon accepted. During that spring training, Rockne invited the head Roo to his house for dinner.

It’s likely Rockne was familiar with Cawthon and AC already. SWC champion Baylor’s first game during the 1925 campaign would be against Notre Dame in South Bend (ND would win). At the St. Edwards camp just weeks before the game, Rockne mentioned that his squad had best be prepared for a stellar Baylor squad, who after all were defending SWC champions and who had most of their players back. Rockne surely knew that Cawthon’s Roos had done what no SWC team could in 1924, and probably could have been excused for asking the AC coach for a few words of advice.

Pete Cawthon’s last season as AC coach was 1927. Cawthon departed for health reasons. But the lure of coaching would come calling again, and his relationship with Rockne would deepen.



Baylor’s undefeated run towards the 1924 Southwest Conference championship. Damn shame about that one blemish.

Chapter 3: The Relationship

Cawthon departed Austin College in 1927 to recuperate from a variety of health issues. See photo of Pete Cawthon at AC just before the end of his tenure. By 1930, his health was back and Cawthon was ready to coach again. And Texas Tech landed him. The university was a mere 7 years old, with few facilities and little tradition when Cawthon was hired. By 1939, the Cawthon led Tech team would be playing in the Cotton Bowl.

Pete Cawthon won the head coaching job with the help of Rockne, who provided a strong endorsement of his friend to university administrators. Rockne always backed his close friends, especially devotees of his system at Notre Dame.

Later that same year, Rockne journeyed to Dallas, a guest of SMU athletics department officials. At a dinner at the Dallas Country Club, Rockne gave a speech about football, Notre Dame, and the game itself. During a Q&A after the speech, Rockne was asked which coach he considered to be the best proponent of the Notre Dame system:

“There’s a guy out at Texas Tech who knows more about the Notre Dame system than I do. His name is Pete Cawthon.”

Notre Dame would go 10-0 during the 1930 campaign and Rockne would win his fifth national championship in 12 years. SMU was one of those 10 victims.

Winter 1930 turned into Spring 1931. Time once again for another spring training in South Bend. And Cawthon made the trip just as in years before. Pete Cawthon was debating the idea of holding his own coaching school in Lubbock and wanted Rockne’s opinion of the idea. Rockne was enthusiastic, and even promised to attend. The trip to Indiana was in part to work out the details.

By the end of March, it was time to head back home. Cawthon was a guest in Rockne’s home, and on March 29th Knute explained that he was to depart two days later for California for various functions….including discussions about a Hollywood movie.

“Why don’t you come along Pete?”

Cawthon had promised his wife that he would not fly. But after a phone call home, he agreed to travel by train and meet Rockne in Los Angeles. On March 30th, Cawthon said goodbye to Rockne and left Chicago for L.A. by train. One day later, Rockne’s plane departed Chicago bound for L.A. by way of Kansas City.

They would never see each other again.

Chapter 4: The Trip

The problems with Rockne’s plane started very soon after takeoff from Kansas City. Poor design plus wear of the wood-framed aircraft put tremendous strain on the wing, leading to an increasingly large flutter and eventual separation from the fuselage. The crew and passengers never had a chance as the plane plummeted to a Kansas cornfield. No survivors.

Cawthon got the news in Vinita, OK during a layover on his way west. He was, obviously, devastated and in shock. He made his way to Dallas, meeting up with some of his “boys” who arrived to console him.

“Rockne was so good to me…he helped me so much.”

Eventually, Cawthon returned to the work of turning Tech into a major Texas power throughout the 1930s. But he also resumed his quest to start a coaching school in Lubbock in the spirit of Rockne. And boy did it succeed. By 1935, Cawthon’s clinic was drawing nearly 1200 coaches and students from schools across the nation and as far away as California, Michigan, and Maryland.

Cawthon’s relationship with Notre Dame would continue after Rockne’s death. When ND running back Ed Mckeever was in jeopardy of being cut in 1931, he began to look at transfer options. Mckeever recalled many positive conversations with Cawthon and staff in South Bend, and made the decision to head to Lubbock. Mckeever played for Cawthon for three years, then joined him for another four as assistant coach. Frank Leahy hired him as an assistant at Boston College for another two years, before Leahy secured the ND head coaching job in 1941 and brought Mckeever with him. WWII eventually needed Leahy’s services, so McKeever took over head coaching duties for the Irish during the 1944 season. Thanks to Cawthon, he had come full circle.

Cawthon’s coaching would continue beyond Tech. But he never forgot where he got his collegiate coaching start. At retirement, one of his residences was in Sherman. And he remained close to AC athletics. See photo of Cawthon presenting the Cawthon trophy at AC in 1955.

Cawthon’s quotes were legendary, and in one of them we see the lasting legacy of Rockne’s influence on him. During a particularly poor outing by his Red Raiders, Cawthon famously screamed “I dress you like Notre Dame! I feed you like Notre Dame! And you play like Canyon Normal!”

For you young folks, Canyon Normal is now West Texas A&M. The only thing missing was an appeal to get out there and win one for the Rockne.

Future AC Roo stories in West Texas await. But the next one takes us back to East Texas, and will be dedicated to my good friend and AC alum Mr. Cliff Brooks.

Go Roos!


The 2016 Cawthon trophy was awarded just last night…