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Notre Dame-Army: A Series for the Ages

Nov. 10, 2016

By Craig Chval Sr.

The notion of a “storied rivalry” has almost become cliché in this era of the ESPN Instant Classic. ESPN’s programming department tells us unmistakably by the frequency with which it televises their matchups that the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox engage in a significant rivalry–despite the fact the Yankees were responsible for all 26 World Series championships won by the two teams between 1917 and 2003.

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers battled for NBA supremacy through the better part of 60 years, although it’s been four seasons since both teams managed to qualify for the playoffs in the same season and neither team has won an NBA title since 2010. More recently, their sustained greatness has made the NBA San Antonio Spurs the de facto rival to a series of challengers to their two decades of excellence and five NBA crowns.

NBC Sports has turned National Hockey League rivalries into a weekly series, with its Wednesday Night Rivalry Night on NBC Sports Network.

The National Football League may be the king of of this category with its long-standing rivalries played out on national television stages. Chicago-Green Bay epitomizes the old saw about rivalries being rivalries regardless of the teams’ current won-lost records.

College sports certainly don’t take a backseat when it comes to rivalries, with North Carolina-Duke playing out prominently nearly every basketball season and rivalry trophies strewn across the national football landscape. The Notre Dame-USC football series is unmatched when it comes to national title implications over the years. The likes of Michigan-Ohio State, California-Stanford and Auburn-Alabama seriously stoke the fires of those fans connected with those programs-and beyond when there are national implications.

But when it comes to having profound and lasting impact on an entire sport, it’s tough to argue that any rivalry matched the Notre Dame-Army rivalry of the 20th century.

The two teams met for the first time 103 years ago, when the upstart Notre Dame team traveled east to play the powerful Cadets at West Point. To counteract Army’s superiorities in size and strength, Notre Dame coach Jesse Harper unleashed a potent passing attack, facilitated by new rules intended to make the game safer. While other teams had effectively utilized the forward pass, none had done so with the New York Times in attendance.

The visitors from the Indiana prairie didn’t just shock an established, eastern powerhouse, they shocked the United States Military Academy and, in so doing, shocked the world. Had Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorais completed 13 of 17 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns–numbers unheard of at the time–against Alma or South Dakota or any of Notre Dame’s six other 1913 opponents, Dorais probably wouldn’t have become an All-American.

But Dorais put up those numbers against Army, and people took notice, including the New York Times. Harry Cross’ game story in the Times claimed that Notre Dame “flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year.”

Cross continued his praise, writing, “Football men marveled at this startling display of modern football. Bill Roper, former head coach at Princeton (whose teams earned national championship recognition in 1906 and 1911), who was one of the officials of the game, said that he had always believed that such playing was possible under the new rules but that he had never seen the forward pass developed to such a state of perfection.”

In a very real sense, seeds were planted that day that may never have been planted otherwise.

News of the spectacular effectiveness of Notre Dame’s passing attack spread far and wide in the pre-television era, thanks largely to the Times. The game of college football never again would be the same. And, at the same time, due to the East Coast media attention already devoted to Army, the upset transformed Notre Dame from a little-known Midwest football squad to a giant-killer of national repute–soon to become the most recognized and most successful college football team in the nation.

And Army would continue to play an indispensable role in Notre Dame’s ascension.

Dorais’ primary receiving target against Army in 1913 had been classmate Knute Rockne, who would eventually give up a promising career as a chemist to become Notre Dame’s head coach.

The “modern” game of college football that was birthed in that 1913 Notre Dame-Army classic, with its greater utilization of passing and increased national scope of the sport, was tailor-made for Rockne–one of the greatest innovators in the history of college football and still the owner of the highest career winning percentage (.881) in history among major college coaches.

Notre Dame’s first consensus national championship came from Rockne’s 1924 squad, which posted a 13-7 victory over one-loss Army in the first game between the two schools played in Yankee Stadium.

On hand for that 1924 contest was famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was moved by what he witnessed to pen perhaps the most famous words in American sportswriting history in his New York Herald Tribune account of the game:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed.

Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky ââ’¬¦”

Does any true sports fan not know what comes next? “The Four Horsemen rode again ââ’¬¦”

In a time before electronic media, when sports fans had to rely upon sportswriters to paint word pictures to bring to life epic battles in far-off venues, no grander words have been written. Rice’s prose has stood the test of time, etched in immortality along with Russ Hodges’ famous 1951 radio call, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” and Al Michaels’ gold standard television call of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team’s gargantuan upset over the U.S.S.R., “Do you believe in miracles? ââ’¬¦. Yes!”

It’s no coincidence that Rice’s transcendent words didn’t appear in an account of a Michigan-Ohio State game or a Nebraska-Oklahoma clash. Indeed, it would be two more years before Rockne took his squad to Los Angeles to battle USC for the first time and even longer before that series would make its mark as the nation’s greatest intersectional rivalry.

Four years later, Rockne’s Irish were experiencing a rare down season, entering their Nov. 10, 1928, game against 6-0 Army with a 4-2 record (the Irish would finish the season 5-4, one of just two times during Rockne’s 13 seasons as head coach that Notre Dame lost more than one game).

And, on that day, Rockne delivered the most famous locker room speech in sports history. According to legend, Rockne shared the deathbed request of legendary Notre Dame halfback George Gipp (whose Notre Dame career rushing record stood for 58 years) that Notre Dame win a game in his memory.

While football historians disagree over whether Gipp ever made such a request, Pat O’Brien (as Rockne) and Ronald Reagan (as Gipp) enacted Gipp’s dying moments in the 1940 Hollywood film, “Knute Rockne All-American.” In the film, Gipp says to Rockne:

I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask 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.”

In his New York News account of the game, Francis Wallace (who had worked for Rockne while earning his degree at Notre Dame) related that Rockne had invoked Gipp’s dying words, telling his team, “This is that day and you are that team.”

According to the film, Rockne told the team at halftime:

“Now I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Gipp. He was long before your time, but you all know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame. And the last thing he said to me, ‘Rock,’ he said, ‘sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell ’em to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock,’ he said, ‘but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy.'”

The Irish scored a pair of second-half touchdowns to upset the Cadets, with halfback Jack Chevigny punctuating his touchdown with the cry, “That is one for the Gipper!”

Regardless of the historical accuracy of his deathbed conversation with Gipp, it was hardly a coincidence that Rockne chose to deliver that speech against Army, rather than, for instance, 1928 opponents Drake or Carnegie Tech. The call to “win one for the Gipper” against Army has inspired movie scenes (“Airplane”) and became a rallying cry for Ronald Reagan’s successful presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984.

By the time the 1940s arrived, Notre Dame head coach Frank Leahy and Army head coach Red Blaik had their teams on top of the college football world. Never before and never since has a pair of teams dominated a decade of college football the way Notre Dame and Army did in the ’40s, combining for six national championships.

The Irish won the 1943 national title before Leahy and several of Notre Dame’s stars went off to serve overseas in World War II. Army claimed national titles in 1944 and 1945, while defeating the depleted Irish by a combined score of 107-0. With Leahy and perhaps the greatest collection of talent in college football history back at Notre Dame following the war, the Irish reeled off four straight undefeated seasons, capturing consensus national championships in 1946, 1947 and 1949.

Five of the 10 Heisman Trophy winners from the decade played for the two schools, with Angelo Bertelli (1943), Johnny Lujack (1947) and Leon Hart (1949) winning for the Irish, and Doc Blanchard (1945) and Glenn Davis (1946) earning the honor for Army.

Following the war, the two teams’ much-anticipated 1946 matchup between the two undefeated teams was billed as “The Game of The Century,” with tickets with a face value of $4.80 being sold for over $500 ($6,000 in today’s dollars). With four of those Heisman Trophy winners on the field, number-one Army and second-ranked Notre Dame battled to a scoreless tie, highlighted by Lujack’s open-field, touchdown-saving tackle of Blanchard followed by Terry Brennan’s interception in the Notre Dame end zone on the very next play.

The two teams had been playing annually in New York City for years–Notre Dame’s 27-7 1947 victory was the first visit by Army to Notre Dame Stadium. And, by this point, thousands of Notre Dame fans from the northeast would make the pilgrimage to see their beloved Fighting Irish play in person. Many of them arrived at Yankee Stadium by train, helping give rise to the term “subway alumni” and helping provide Notre Dame a national following that would support its one-of-a-kind national radio network, weekly television replay program and, ultimately, the only team with a network television contract to broadcast all of its home games.

Notre Dame’s rise to its unique position among the nation’s college football programs was unquestionably uniquely fueled by its rivalry with Army. Starting with the 1913 aerial-driven upset, through Rice’s description of the Four Horsemen during the 1924 national championship season, to the “win one for the Gipper” victory in 1928, through the epic battles of the 1940s with national championships on the lines–all against the backdrop of the national media and soldout games in New York City–only Army was a worthy opponent and catalyst for Notre Dame.

The two teams stopped playing annually following Notre Dame’s 27-7 victory in 1947, with the Irish leading the all-time series 38-8-4 entering today’s 51st meeting between the two institutions. Army’s most recent victory in the series came in 1958, when the number-three Cadets defeated the fourth-ranked Irish 14-2 in Notre Dame Stadium.

The 1990s saw a couple of near-misses for Army, including a 28-27 thriller in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1995. After spotting 17th-ranked Notre Dame a 28-7 lead, the Cadets pulled to within 28-27 on a seven-yard pass from Ronnie McAda to Leon Gantt with 39 seconds to play.

Army coach Bob Sutton called for a two-point conversion attempt, as there was no overtime in college football at the time. McAda found tight end Ron Lishinski running parallel to and just inches short of the goal line. But 5-foot-9, 161-pound Notre Dame defensive back Ivory Covington drilled the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Lishinski before he could turn, and somehow kept him out of the end zone, denying Army the victory.

The most recent contest between the two teams occurred in another Shamrock Series matchup in 2010, when Notre Dame defeated Army 27-3 in the first football game played in the new Yankee Stadium.

Today’s game may not carry the same stakes as some of those games in the early days of the rivalry. But when you look upon the landscape of college football in 2016, it’s undeniable that these two schools and their epic battles of the 20th century did more to establish college football within the fabric of American society than any other schools to be found.

Craig Chval is a former student assistant in the Notre Dame sports information department. A 1981 Notre Dame graduate, he now lives in Columbia, Missouri, and works as associate general counsel at Veterans United Home Loans (