Nov. 18, 2015
Game Week Central | Shamrock Series Merchandise
By Todd Burlage
When it comes to the debate over which opponent is the University Notre Dame’s fiercest rival, the candidate list is longer than any other team’s in the country.
USC has longevity and an important cross-country dynamic on its side, both enhanced by some legendary players and a long history of bitter West Coast recruiting battles.
The University of Michigan and Notre Dame are separated by less than 200 miles, and like USC, these two programs swim in a familiar recruiting pool in this border war that dates back almost 130 years.
Navy and Notre Dame have played in every season since 1927, and the two series with Purdue University and Michigan State University date back to the 1800s.
But when it comes to similar school profiles, epic games and general disdain, no Notre Dame rival fits a fiercer profile than Boston College.
This “Holy War” — that features the only two Catholic schools in the country that play in the premier Football Bowl Subdivision — didn’t begin until 1975. But the memories and moments from the 22 previous meetings in this series will live forever as this important rivalry renews tonight in Fenway Park.
The actual football series between Notre Dame and Boston College dates back 40 years, making it a relatively young rivalry. Yet, the animosity between these proud programs goes back almost 75 years to when two football teams were competing for the services of one elite coach.
A former player at Notre Dame before becoming an assistant coach at Fordham, Frank Leahy took his first head-coaching job in 1939 at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He thrived there, going 20-2 in two years at BC, including a perfect season in 1940 that was capped by a Sugar Bowl triumph over Tennessee and a share of the national championship along with Minnesota, Stanford and Tennessee following a fractured title vote.
Quick coaching success made Leahy a wanted man and he did nothing to hide his desire in returning to his alma mater, while Boston College did nothing to hide its expectation for Leahy to stay put. Notre Dame ultimately won the Leahy lottery, and after four national titles under his watch in South Bend, the rest became Irish program history.
Twenty-two years passed between Leahy’s retirement from Notre Dame in 1953 and when the first game of this series with Boston College was played in 1975 between first-year Irish coach Dan Devine and veteran Eagles’ head man Joseph Yukica.
Still riding the winning wave set in motion by recently retired coach Ara Parseghian, Devine had Notre Dame on a higher plane when he beat the Eagles in the series opener, 17-3, in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Eight years passed until the second meeting between these two schools in 1983, an unlikely postseason matchup that came about through chance, not scheduling.
Led by eventual 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie at quarterback, the 9-2 Eagles had already committed to play in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee, against an opponent to be determined.
Notre Dame typically turned down any invites to second-tier bowl games during this era, but with the unranked Irish struggling under head coach Gerry Faust, a decision was made to change course and accept a Liberty Bowl bid to help give the program a needed morale boost, even though at 6-5, it was the worst record any Notre Dame team had ever taken into a bowl game.
“We have determined that the general sentiment of the players favors accepting the opportunity to play,” said Gene Corrigan, the Notre Dame athletic director at the time.
Led by quarterback Blair Kiel and running back Allen Pinkett, unranked Notre Dame pulled an exciting 19-18 upset of No. 13 Boston College in Memphis, ending any hopes the Eagles held of finishing with a top-10 final ranking.
Under second-year head coach Lou Holtz, the Irish also won another exciting 32-25 game over BC four years later in 1987, moving Notre Dame to 3-0 in the series. This sporadic rivalry was only set on simmer at the time, but the boiling point was coming.
The 1993 game put this series on the map. But to fully understand the context of that legendary game, it’s important to revisit the matchup from a year earlier.
After a nine-year break in the series, No. 8 Notre Dame entered its home game with Boston College in 1992 with one loss against the undefeated and No. 9 Eagles; both programs very much in the hunt for a major bowl invitation.
Boston College head coach Tom Coughlin was emerging as one of the best young college coaches in the business and this matchup provided a chance to prove his program could stand next to the big boys of college football.
Instead, Notre Dame put a 54-7 drubbing on Boston College, ruffling a few Eagle feathers along the way when Holtz called a fake punt in the second half with the game already firmly in control. The blowout loss sparked a 1-3 finish for the Eagles that season and ruined any hope of a premier bowl appearance. Notre Dame went on to win its last two regular season games and then beat No. 5 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to finish 10-1-1 and No. 4 in the final polls.
Boston College returned to Notre Dame Stadium for the regular-season finale the following year against a top-ranked and undefeated Irish team that was coming off its epic 31-24 win a week earlier over previous No. 1 Florida State in the “Game of the Century.” That win over the Seminoles made the Irish just one win against Boston College away from securing a place in the Orange Bowl and a chance to play for a national championship.
Holtz often talked about how emotions and distractions always made playing the final home game of the season a difficult prospect, and his concerns held especially true in this 1993 Senior Day matchup.
Eagles quarterback Glenn Foley started fast and played well, helping Boston College to a seemingly insurmountable 38-17 lead in the fourth quarter. But after three quick touchdowns and a two-point conversion, Notre Dame had remarkably rallied to a 39-38 lead.
Down but not out, Boston College caught a big break with a roughing penalty on a Notre Dame kickoff and Foley parlayed the 15 extra yards into a short drive and a 41-yard field-goal attempt by placekicker David Gordon on the last play of the game. Gordon’s kick wobbled through good, giving BC a 41-39 victory that ended a 17-game winning streak for the Irish, and squashed any hopes at a ninth national championship.
“To be down so far and then come back, and then for them to come down and kick a field goal, it’s heartbreaking,” Holtz said immediately afterward. “The loss is very devastating. We hurt, but it is all part of life and you learn how to handle it. It’s not the end of the world.” Coughlin obviously had a different assessment.
“You couldn’t ask for a better ending to a football game. We’re a better football team than we are a year ago,” he said of rebounding from the 47-point blowout the previous season. “It was two different years, two different teams.”
The revenge win for Boston College was its first victory in five tries against Notre Dame and served as notice that these two proud programs were very much on equal footing.
If the 1993 game served as the turning point for Boston College in this series, a 30-11 Eagles rout of the Irish in the 1994 game added some valuable validation. This rivalry is tied at nine wins apiece since Notre Dame won the first four games of the series.
The 1993 game remains the most memorable and impactful between these two schools but there have been plenty of other moments and mayhem since.
No. 13 Notre Dame preserved an important 31-26 win with a goal-line stand in 1998, and an unranked Boston College team went into Notre Dame Stadium in 2002 and handed the 8-0 and No. 4 Irish a 14-7 upset loss that served as a green jersey nightmare for first-year Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham.
Current Irish head coach Brian Kelly enters today’s game 3-0 against the Eagles, including a hard-fought 16-14 win in 2011.
Following are a few notes, stats and trends to what remains a sporadic but intense rivalry:
*With both programs now linked to the Atlantic Coast Conference with their scheduling obligations, this rivalry will remain hit and miss for at least another decade. After today’s game, Notre Dame will next play BC on Sept. 16, 2017, at Alumni Stadium. The Eagles will return to Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 23, 2019, and the two teams are scheduled to play on dates to be determined at Notre Dame in 2022 and at Boston College in 2025.
*The six consecutive wins for Boston College over Notre Dame between 2001 and 2008 are the second most of any opponent in Irish program history. Michigan (1887-1908), Michigan State (1955-63), and most recently USC (2002-09), each beat Notre Dame eight straight times.
*The Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl, a large crystal-cut trophy, is given to the winner of the game. The Ireland Trophy, created by the Notre Dame student government in 1994, is also presented to the winner as a token of goodwill and camaraderie in this “friendly” rivalry.
*The series always has been marked by last-minute and/or tight games. Of the 22 meetings, 11 have been decided by no more than a touchdown, seven of those outcomes coming by three points or fewer.
*Today marks the 17th time in the 23-game series that at least one of the two teams is rated in the AP poll. Twice, in 1992 and 1993, both teams were ranked.
This series isn’t the longest-running or the richest in the proud football history of either school. But when it comes to hard feelings, familiarity, similarity, classic games and now a new chapter that includes a historic trip to Fenway Park, it’s hard to argue that the Holy War rates as one of the best rivalries in all of college football.