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Vol. 4, No. 9
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

The Power of Desiring to Win *

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2006 William A. Cohen, PhD  

        One of the greatest football coaches of all time was Vince Lombardi. What he accomplished was legendary. In 1958 the former Army line coach  became head coach of the Green Bay Packers, a team that had done nothing and was going nowhere. In nine seasons with the Packers, Lombardi led that former losing team to six conference titles and five championships, including victories in the first two Super Bowls. They said he accomplished a miracle. Reporters quoting him as saying: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But Lombardi never said that. What he said was that winning wasn’t everything, but not desiring to win above all else was.

        Football is an interesting sport. It requires teamwork, thinking, and physical courage. But more than that, I think it helps to instill the desire to win, and demonstrates that when you really want to do something badly enough, you can do it, even if it seems impossible. Let me tell you about another winning football coach and how he got his team to win against pretty near impossible odds.

Knute Rockne was the greatest of Notre Dame coaches, but in the 1928 season he was desperate. His 1928 team had been decimated by injuries. It had already lost two of its first six games. Three teams, all powerhouses, lay ahead. My alma mater, West Point or Army as it is know in sports, was the first of these three, and Army had had an undefeated season up to that point. You can well imagine that Army was the out and out favorite. On top of this disturbing situation for Rockne, stories were going around that Rockne himself had “lost it” – that he was no longer the coach he once was. Rockne knew that if his Irish could upset Army, this notion would be largely dispelled. He wanted to win badly. What happened wasn’t an accident. We know this because despite the odds against it, he actually told his neighbor that Notre Dame would win the game with Army before the game was played. Considering the known facts, that was quite a prediction.

How could Rockne make such a prediction? Notre Dame might not be able to win on talent, but Rockne knew that one other thing that can’t be defined usually counts for a lot more. Rockne not only desired to win, he knew how to instill this desire in others. In doing this he would deliver what would later become known as the most famous inspirational talk in sports history.

The game was played at Yankee Stadium before 85,000 fans. Some same it was before the game that the event occurred. Others say it was at half-time. It really doesn’t make that much difference when this happened. That it did happen is what is important. Rockne huddled his players in the locker room. It is said that they sat on the cold cement floor on old army blankets, surplus from World War I. The blankets were uncomfortable and barely retarded the chill from the cement floor. Rockne waited patiently until the room was silent and then began to speak slowly and softly. This was pretty unusual and captured immediate attention, because Rockne was known for his fiery half-time speeches. He began talking about George Gipp, a player who had played for Notre Dame eight years earlier. Gipp had died during his senior year at Notre Dame.

Gipp had had an incredible four-year, 32 game college football career. Known as “The Gipper,” he had scored 21 touchdowns during which the Fighting Irish had won 27, lost 2 and tied 3 games. On defense, Gipp was equally outstanding. Some called him invincible. Not a single pass was completed in his protective zone during his entire four years of play. During Gipp’s final 20 games, Notre Dame’s record was 19-0-1, with the team scoring an incredible 560 points to their opponents’ miserable 97.

Gipp was Notre Dame’s first All American, the greatest player of his time, and Rockne’s present team knew all about him. Unfortunately, during his senior year Gipp contracted a strep infection. In his last game, Notre Dame trailed Northwestern. Rockne kept Gipp out of the game because of the throat infection. Notre Dame fans demanded that their hero enter the fray. They chanted: “Gipp! Gipp!” over and over again. Gipp himself begged to be put into the game. Rockne finally relented and let the pleading Gipp onto the field despite his throat ailment and a painful shoulder injury that he had also incurred.  Without fanfare, Gipp immediately made a touchdown. He remained in the game, probably in great pain, until the Notre Dame victory was certain. Only then did he take himself out. But his throat infection was worse than Rockne or anyone else imagined. Two weeks later he was forced to enter the hospital. The infection was now coupled with pneumonia.

From there, it was all downhill. Doctors tried everything, but they could do nothing. The mighty Gipp was failing. Rockne had been frequently at Gipp’s bedside. Rockne told his team that he had kept Gipp’s last words to himself, but that now was the time for them and told them the following story.

“The day before he died George Gipp asked me to wait until the situation seemed hopeless – then ask a Notre Dame team to go out and beat the opponent for him. This is the day, and you are the team,”  Rockne said. Then he added, “These were Gipp’s last words to me:

‘I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys – tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.’”

“There was no one in the room that wasn’t crying,” line coach Ed Healey said later. “There was a moment of silence, and then all of a sudden those players ran out of the dressing room and almost tore the hinges off the door. They were all ready to kill someone.”

Notre Dame was behind by six points when Notre Dame player Jack Chevigny made a one-yard plunge over Army’s goal line to tie the score at 6-6. He immediately shook off the Army players who had tried to stop him and shouted so that everyone could hear: “That’s one for the Gipper!”

In the fourth period Chevigny was spear-heading Notre Dame’s drive to the game-winning score when he was tackled so hard that he was badly injured and had to be taken out of the game. Even so, he refused to leave the field. He huddled on the bench. Now things were even more difficult for the Irish. They were at the Cadet’s 32-yard line when left halfback Butch Niemiec took the ball, and threw a pass over an Army defender. It wasn’t a great pass, but he managed to put it in range of his receiver, Johnny O’Brien. O’Brien plucked the ball from the air on Army’s 10-yard line, and without stopping, clutched the ball to his chest. He miraculously snaked past two Army tacklers and dove into the end zone. It was a clean touchdown.

O’Brien had never been and never became a starter in his entire football career. He was not on the first team. He was not a great player. Rockne put him in when Chevigny was injured because there was no one else. It didn’t make any difference. Notre Dame now led Army 12-6. But the Cadets hadn’t suddenly become pushovers. They were still a top-ranked team, and they wanted to win badly, too. Could Notre Dame hold onto its lead?

With less than two minutes to go, the West Point cadets charged through the Notre Dame defense, after a spectacular 55-yard kickoff return by Army All-American Chris Cagle. Cagle, who had played the entire game, collapsed at the 10-yard line from the effort. He had given it his all, and was carried from the field in a semi-consciousness state due to extreme exhaustion. This was a story of two teams, one a top-ranked team in the nation, the other, much less talented, playing on raw determination to win. But both teams were fighting with every ounce of strength they possessed.

 Cagle’s teammate Dick Hutchinson, who later became an Air Force colonel, took the ball and got it first to the Irish four and then on a second play to the Notre Dame one-yard line. But the clock was ticking, and it was over. Time ran out before the Cadets could run another play. Notre Dame fulfilled Rockne’s pre-game prediction. Against all odds and sober calculations It had “won one for the Gipper.” 1, 2, 3

Desiring to Win Makes the Difference

Those who win against the odds in football or in anything else in life have one thing in common. They put everything they have into whatever their enterprise. They risk all.  Not just financial resources, but time, effort, and physical and emotional blood. And every such leader of this kind of organization pours his soul into his or her enterprise. There is no other way of becoming successful and winning. There is no such thing as coming in second best in many circumstances. You either end up in first place, or you fail.

          Let’s be absolutely clear about this. If you want to win in a difficult situation. I will positively guarantee you that it will not be easy. You are going to encounter obstacles along the way that you never even dreamed of. At times you are going to wish you had never even thought about getting involved. You are going to get tired, you are going to wonder whether it is really worth it. You are going to long for the old, easy times. You are going to doubt yourself, your abilities, and those who work with and for you. You are going to wonder whether anyone can succeed under the difficulties you face. You will be tempted to quit and go back to the old, easier ways.

          I can’t guarantee that you will always succeed. No one can do that. But I can guarantee this. If you learn and apply the lessons of a Vince Lombardi or a Knute Rockne, you will have given yourself the best possible chances at success, regardless of the task or project and the odds against your succeeding.  The great Rockne knew that there are some things of the spirit and psyche that are more important than mere “facts.”  Like Rockne, you can fight to win and you can win, too, and I don’t care about the odds and neither should you.

* Adapted from Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraodinary by William A. Cohen (AMACOM, 2006)

1 No author listed, “win One for the Gipper,”  Web Site Accessed June 24, 2004 at

2 No author listed, “Win One For The Gipper:1928 Notre Dame vs Army,” Web Site Accessed June 24, 2004 at
3 No author listed. ”George Gipp,”  Web Site Accessed June 24, 2004 at





“Whoever wants to keep alive must aim at victory. It is the winners who do the killing and the losers who get killed.” – Xenophon

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