July 22, 2009
By Adam Caparell
NEW YORK – Few can get away with questioning The Boss, but Charlie Weis is someone who can.
His status as the Notre Dame head coach gets him a lot of things most people only dream about, including a sit down with the one and only George M. Steinbrenner, III.
So there was Weis, in Steinbrenner’s office at Legends Field, in the Yankees spring training facility in Tampa two years ago, talking college football with the Yankees’ principal owner when Weis casually put Steinbrenner on the spot.
“I looked at him and I said, `Hey Mr. Steinbrenner, you’ve got this new stadium coming up. You’re not going to have Army and Notre Dame scheduled for your first football game?'” Weis said.
Weis was joking at the time. He had no idea that two years later one of the most storied rivalries in college football would return to the address where it became legendary.
The Yankees, Army and Notre Dame jointly announced Monday that come Nov. 20, 2010, the Cadets and Fighting Irish will meet in the new Yankee Stadium, adding to the tradition that saw the two programs meet 22 times previously on the most hallowed grounds in all of sports.
Of course, those meetings came at the old Yankee Stadium, which now sits as a relic, awaiting its ultimate demolition, while the newer version shines across 161st St. in the Bronx.
But as the Yankees were in the middle of constructing their new building, they made sure it could handle events other than baseball, just like the old Stadium. While it hosted plenty of baseball, the old Yankee Stadium saw everything from college football and the NFL to heavyweight title fights, soccer matches, concerts, masses and commencements during its 85 year run. So the Yankees had the new place winterized, giving it the ability to transform for just about anything. Yankee officials already had idea of bringing back college football to Yankee Stadium for the first time since 1987. All they had to do now was find some partners.
They didn’t have to search far and wide to find the right pair.
Two teams synonymous with college football happen to have played some of their most famous games – not only against each other but in the sport’s history – at Yankee Stadium. From 1925-46, Army and Notre Dame met 21 times in the Bronx, producing some legendary moments. There was Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” halftime speech in 1928. There were the four matchups from 1943-46 when both teams were ranked No. 5 or higher. There was the 1946 scoreless tie between No. 1 Army and No. 2 Notre Dame that has forever been known as “The Game of the Century.” In the 40’s alone, the two schools produced five Heisman Trophy winners and six national championships.
The Boss may no longer oversee the day-to-day operations of the team he bought in 1973, but he’s still clandestinely consulted on many matters and he loved the idea of Army and Notre Dame at the new Stadium. As a former player at Williams and an assistant coach at Northwestern, his affinity for college football has never been a secret.
“When we first floated this idea past him and told him Notre Dame was interested and Army was interested he was very excited and eager to get a deal done, so to speak,” Yankees general managing partner, and son of The Boss, Hal Steinbrenner said.
And so were the two teams.
Notre Dame is just beginning a new scheduling strategy that will have them playing at least one high-profile neutral site game every season for next five-to-seven years. They’ll play in San Antonio this Halloween vs. Washington State and have looked at securing games at other notable venues like the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium opening this summer to the Giants/Jets new stadium opening next year.
Originally, Notre Dame officials looked at playing a game at Yankee Stadium in 2013. But once they found out the Yankees wanted to stage a game sooner rather than later, Notre Dame got down to business, rearranging next year’s schedule to make a date at the new Stadium happen.
“What drove 2010 is we really felt we wanted to be the first college game back in the Stadium,” Notre Dame senior associate athletics director Bill Scholl said.
And when Army was approached, they couldn’t say yes fast enough.
“It was brought to me as a possibility. Would that be something we would be interested in?” Army’s new head coach Rich Ellerson said. “I just can’t imagine why not. What an opportunity for West Point to put itself back into the national picture and do something that’s a part of our history. This is a great part of our history. This is a symbol of our storied past.”
They’ve met 49 times before. Next year will be the 50th. But will the 18, 19 and 20-year old kids playing under Weis and Ellerson be able to appreciate the significance of the game?
Apparently yes because while the announcement wasn’t official until Monday, rumors have been swirling for weeks that this would happen. And Weis already had one unnamed senior ask if he could be red-shirted this upcoming season just so he could play at Yankee Stadium next year.
“When I pop into the office, the locker room will be buzzing,” Weis said.
But no one will be more excited for that game than Weis. Growing up in New Jersey, Weis was a Yankees fan and spent plenty of afternoons and evenings at the old ballpark watching his favorite teams.
“I was one of those guys sitting in the left centerfield bleachers watching the Giants play when I was a kid,” Weis said. “I was one of those guys coming to Yankee games in the old Yankee Stadium when those pillars were right in your face before they renovated it.”
The Jersey boy was having a grand old time at the new Stadium Monday and you could see it on his face. Standing outside the Yankees dugout, leaning on a wooden bat, watching batting practice and soaking up the late afternoon sun, life was good for the Notre Dame coach. He held court with Derek Jeter in the dugout, talked to another half dozen or so Yankees, including G.M. Brian Cashman, and a boatload of Baltimore Orioles Fighting Irish fans who were in town to play the Bronx Bombers.
The only man missing on the afternoon was Steinbrenner himself. The Yankee patriarch is never seen around the Stadium anymore, a product of diminishing health, but he’s never far from conversation.
Weis recalled The Boss laughing when he innocuously asked him that question two years ago.
“I don’t think he’s used to people busting his chops too much, to tell you the truth,” Weis chuckled, before turning serious. “He looked at me very inquisitive. I think that idea had long come from him long before I said it to him. I’d like to take the credit but I don’t think it works that way.”
The Yankees are a team built on tradition and that comes from Steinbrenner. And when it comes to college football, Army-Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium has a special tradition that no one can match. That’s why it made too much sense not to have the two programs play the first college football game in the new Yankee Stadium.
The rivalry has been renewed, the tradition continues, just across the street.
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