Nov. 19, 2010
While the rivalry between Notre Dame and Army often occupied center state of the college football world in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Notre Dame also has long-standing and colorful rivalries with the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy.
Notre Dame’s series with Navy dates back to 1927, and has been played every year since, making it the nation’s longest continuous intersectional rivalry. The Irish compiled against Navy the longest winning streak against a single opponent in NCAA history, 43 games between 1964 and 2006. Lately, however, the Middies have had the upper hand, snapping the streak with a 46-44 triple overtime victory in 2007 and also defeating Notre Dame in 2009 and earlier this season, 35-17 in Giants Stadium.
The Air Force rivalry is approaching its fiftieth anniversary, as the two teams first met in 1964, Ara Parseghian’s first season as Notre Dame head coach. The Irish won that inaugural matchup 34-7, and went on to win the first 11 games in the series before Air Force reeled off four straight victories against Gerry Faust and the Irish between 1982 and 1985.
Navy was the opponent in the dedication game for Notre Dame Stadium, falling to Knute Rockne’s final Irish squad, 26-2, on October 11, 1930. That was the first time Navy had played on the Notre Dame campus. The Middies visited Notre Dame Stadium just one other time (1937) before the series began to play at Notre Dame Stadium in alternating years starting in 1957.
Other than those sporadic visits by Navy to Notre Dame, the series was exclusively played at neutral sites in its early years. Baltimore was the most frequent site, hosting the game 17 times through 1958, starting with the series’ inaugural contest. After a hiatus of nearly 30 years, the game returned to Baltimore in 1986, and has been played there a total of 22 times, the most of any site.
Cleveland was also a frequent early site, hosting the game a total of 11 times, followed by Philadelphia with nine and East Rutherford, NJ (Giants Stadium) with seven, including this season’s game.
In some respects, the series’ heyday came during the 1940’s, just as was the case for the Notre Dame-Army series. Four out of the five games between 1941 and 1945 featured a pair of top-10 teams. The Irish won the first three of those five, before Navy responded with a 32-13 upset of number-two Notre Dame in ’44 and a 6-6 tie in ’45. Ironically, Notre Dame head coach Frank Leahy was serving with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II in ’44 and ’45.
World War II also proved crucial to the series and the relationship between the two institutions in ways that go far beyond the football field, where Notre Dame leads the all-time series, 71-12-1.
As World War II broadened and United States military involvement became greater, the majority of college-age young men were in active military service. Colleges and universities across the country lacked adequate numbers of students to sustain themselves, and many closed. Notre Dame was in a similar predicament, but avoided such a drastic fate thanks to a collaboration with the Naval Academy.
The U.S. war effort required a greater number of naval officers than the Naval Academy could train and prepare in such a compressed timeframe, so the Navy turned elsewhere. Notre Dame agreed to allow the Navy to utilize Notre Dame as part of that effort. As a result, the Navy built needed facilities on the Notre Dame campus. Even more critically, the influx of young men and cash into Notre Dame allowed Notre Dame to keep its doors open.
Until Navy recently turned the tables on the football field, Notre Dame had held the upper hand to such an extent that many wondered why Notre Dame continued to schedule Navy. But to both institutions, the series goes far beyond football. Along with the debt of gratitude for helping to keep Notre Dame open during World War II, Notre Dame views Navy as an institution sharing many common values.
Steve Orsini was a captain on Notre Dame’s 1977 national championship team, and is currently the director of athletics at Southern Methodist University. He previously spent five years as an associate director of athletics at the Naval Academy, giving him a unique perspective on both institutions.
“It’s two schools that stand for the essence of the student-athlete,” he says. “There is no easy way through the academics of Notre Dame and there’s certainly no easy way through four years at the Naval Academy.”
Tom Lynch was captain of the 1963 Navy football team that was the last team to defeat Notre Dame before the Middies’ 2007 victory. His younger brother Jim captained Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship team. Years later, Tom Lynch served as the superintendent of the Naval Academy.
During Navy’s 43-game drought, Lynch would frequently be asked why Navy would continue to play Notre Dame.
“My answer would always be that when you think of the epitome of college football, you think of Notre Dame with its tradition, graduation rates and quality of players,” he says.
“For young men to be able to come to the Naval Academy and have the opportunity to play Notre Dame every year is important, playing on national television, in front of a full house,” says Lynch. “It will be one of the highlights of their careers.
“You remember two games – Notre Dame and Army.”
In the Air Force series, Notre Dame ran off victories in the first 11 games between the two teams before the Falcons turned the tables with four successive victories over the Gerry Faust-led Irish between 1982 and 1985. Notre Dame’s early success, though, was not without drama.
In 1975, Dan Devine’s first Notre Dame team traveled to Colorado Springs with a 4-1 record, having narrowly escaped North Carolina the previous week, thanks to late heroics by an unheralded backup sophomore quarterback by the name of Joe Montana.
Against Air Force, Montana was back on the bench and the Irish were back in trouble. Notre Dame trailed 30-10 early in the fourth quarter before Montana went to work. Montana threw for one touchdown, ran for another and led the Irish to 21 straight points and a 31-30 victory.
Notre Dame again utilized late heroics against Air Force in 2000, this time earning the first overtime victory in Notre Dame history. First, Glenn Earl blocked Air Force’s 28-yard field goal attempt on the final play of regulation to send the game into overtime. Then, after the Cadets had taken a 31-28 lead in overtime, Joey Getherall scored on a nine-yard end-around for his third touchdown of the day and a 34-31 Irish victory.
In addition to the four-game winning streak in the 80’s, the Falcons have defeated Notre Dame in 1996 and in 2007, making the all-time series record 22-6-0 in favor of Notre Dame.
Over the years, Notre Dame has played all three service academies in the same season nine times, most recently in 2006. The Irish have swept all three opponents six of those nine times, posting 2-1 records the other three times. Two of those three-game sweeps came during national championship seasons for Notre Dame – 1973 and 1977.