Sept. 24, 1999
by Cappy Gagnon
Across the college football landscape, several long-term rivalries rate the headline “The Big Game.” Harvard-Yale, Stanford-California, Texas-Oklahoma, Army-Navy and Lehigh-Lafayette are a few which come to mind.
During the 113-year history of Notre Dame football, many teams have been able to lay claim to being Notre Dame’s “Big Game”. The six teams mentioned in this piece have each been on the Notre Dame schedule for more than 70 years and have played more than 25 games against the Irish.
Among the teams not included in this “Big Game” category are Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, Miami, Florida State and Penn State, even though match-ups with these teams produced many national championships, “Game of the Century” accolades, ends of long winning streaks, exciting bowl games and fierce rivalries.
In the early years of Notre Dame football, Michigan was the premiere opponent. Not only were the Wolverines the most dominant team in the “West” (the Big Ten was once called “The Western Conference”), but the men from Ann Arbor had a special history with the Fighting Irish.
In November of 1887, it was the Wolverines varsity which taught football to a group of Notre Dame athletes and then proceeded to defeat their pupils the following day. Michigan had been playing the sport for about a decade. After two years of varsity football, Notre Dame held a 1-3 record, with all three losses coming in home games against Michigan. The lone Notre Dame win was a home affair against an aggregation called Harvard Prep ? a secondary school from Chicago. (not to be confused with the Crimson from Cambridge). One hundred and thirteen years later, Notre Dame and Michigan rank one-two in the 20th century for winning percentage and games won
The Michiganders administered five additional beatings to Notre Dame, from 1898 through 1908, with each game being played in Michigan, except the 1902 affair which was played in Toledo, Ohio, about halfway between the two schools. The 1908 season was the first time Notre Dame won more than five games against teams which were not medical schools, but the 8-1 record still contained no significant wins.
During the 1909 season, the final year Knute Rockne served as a Chicago postal worker, the Irish put themselves on the map, perhaps inspired because the “Notre Dame Victory March” was first played during the season. The Irish knocked off their powerful northern neighbor, 11-3, on November 6. This was arguably the first “big win” in Notre Dame football. The loss was so tough on the Wolverines, they couldn’t bring themselves to re-new the rivalry for 33 years and then for only two games.
With Michigan off the schedule, Army assumed the role of the “Big Game”. It can be argued that the most important game in Notre Dame football history was the November 1, 1913, battle against the Black Knights of the Hudson, played at West Point. The 35-13 drubbing not only gave the Irish their first win against a significant intersectional opponent, but also introduced the forward pass in a big way, under the gaze of the largest media outlet in the world.
The game also showcased the pass catching ability of the young former postal worker from Chicago. The Irish ended 1913 with their first undefeated and untied season at 7-0. Wins over Penn State, Texas and South Dakota foreshadowed Notre Dame’s eagerness to take on teams from across the country.
The Army-Notre Dame game became a staple of the college football season, with this “Big Game” being played every year from 1913 through 1947, except for the war year of 1918.
Because of the popularity of this “Big Game,” and Notre Dame’s huge national fan following, the game was played in either the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium, or Soldier Field, every year from 1923 through 1946.
The New York City press created the nickname “Subway Alumni” because of all the Notre Dame fans who were disengorged from subterranean transportation to attend the games in Gotham.
If the 1913 Army game was the most important in Notre Dame history, the 1946 0-0 tie, which was labeled as “The Game of the Century,” may have been the most famous tie ? at least until the 1966 one against Michigan State.
The 1946 game, played in Yankee Stadium, featured Army, the defending national champion from 1944 and 1945, versus the team which would win the national championship in 1946 and 1947. After 60 minutes of defensive struggles and punting contests, the teams walked off the field as they began, with no points on the board. Perhaps the most talked about play was Johnny Lujack’s open-field tackle of Doc Blanchard, stopping Army’s best scoring threat.
Perhaps the most dramatic single moment in this series occurred on November 10, 1928, when Rockne used the “Win one for the Gipper” speech to defeat Army. Rockne would need that stratagem to avoid posting his only losing season, because he dropped a home game against Carnegie Tech the following week and the season ended in Los Angeles two weeks later, to finish at 5-4. That was the only season Rockne lost more than two games.
Unfortunately for the Knights, the Irish hold a 36-8-4 career edge in the series, causing this “Big Game” rivalry to lose some of its luster. The Cadets had their only two-year sweep in ’44-’45 thanks to the inside/outside running of Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.
In the ’20s, two new rivals, who would achieve “Big Game” status, joined Notre Dame’s schedule. Coach Knute Rockne, urged on by his wife, and perhaps because of the appeal of Hollywood, began a series with USC.
The first Notre Dame-USC game was played in 1926, and except for the war-time travel restrictions of 1943-45, this “Big Game” has been played every since. Because of the relative balance of the games (Notre Dame holds a 39-26-5 lead), glamour of the teams, and number of times one or both of the schools has been ranked in the top 10, this series has produced many marquee matchups. Since the late ’60s, most Notre Dame fans would chose the game with USC as the “Big Game.”
In 1927, the Irish faced Navy for the first time. Now heading toward its ninth decade of play, the Notre Dame-Navy game is the longest continuous running intersectional rivalry in college football.
Despite the outcomes (Notre Dame leads the series 62-9-1), the game often has had a special place on the Notre Dame schedule. It was the Naval Academy which served as the opponent in the October 11, 1930, game that served as the dedication game for Notre Dame Stadium. Two years earlier, Notre Dame and Navy drew 120,000, in Soldier Field, for what is still the largest crowd ever to see a college football game ? tied with the same number who filled Soldier Field in 1927, to see the Irish and the Trojans.
The other special relationship between Notre Dame and the Naval Academy concerned the Navy’s World War II Officer Training Programs. With much of its student body (including Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks Angelo Bertelli and Johnny Lujack) serving in the armed forces, Notre Dame faced difficult times.
The Department of the Navy chose Notre Dame as a site to run Officer Training programs, with the resultant infusion of naval students, helping to keep Notre Dame’s books in the black through the war years. While other schools reduced or suspended their football programs, Notre Dame continued to thrive. When head coach Frank Leahy and quarterback Lujack returned from two-year stints in the Navy, the Irish did not skip a beat while they posted four undefeated post-war seasons, winning three national championships.
The Navy series remains a popular one, because its has provided Notre Dame’s legions of Eastern fans with games in such cities as Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and East Rutherford, N.J.. Although the Middies have been unable to upend the Irish since Roger Staubach’s junior year of 1963, Notre Dame’s East Coast alumni still point to this game as a big one.
During the decades of the ’50s and ’60s, two neighboring Big 10 schools provided the “Big Game” for Notre Dame. At one time, both Purdue and Michigan State owned the Notre Dame series.
Purdue won nine out of 12 games, from 1958 through 1969, usually led by an All-America caliber quarterback, such as Len Dawson, Bob Griese, and Gary Phipps. Purdue’s 28-14 win, on October 7, 1950, at Notre Dame, ended Frank Leahy’s streak of 39 consecutive games without a loss (37-0-2).
The Spartans held the advantage over the Irish for an even longer period, taking 12 out of 14 games, from 1950 through 1965.
Ironically, most of the damage against Notre Dame in the ’50s and ’60s was inflicted by Michigan State head coach Duffy Daugherty, a fiery Irishman. Daugherty was always ready with a quip and he was arguably the most popular opposing coach among Notre Dame students.
On November 19, 1966, Notre Dame and Michigan State lined up for a “Game of the Century” as the two teams entered the game ranked 1-2. The game would have some echoes of the battle with Army, 20 years before.
The Irish had begun 1966 by beating Purdue 26-14, in the coming out party of Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour.
After romps against Northwestern, Army, and North Carolina, Ara Parseghian’s Irish had vaulted from sixth in the polls to No. 1. Oklahoma, Navy, Pittsburgh, and Duke provided little opposition in the next four weeks, as Notre Dame yielded only a single touchdown.
When Notre Dame traveled to East Lansing, it faced a Spartan squad which had also steadily moved up in the polls, sitting in the No. 2 spot.
Notre Dame featured a balanced team, with an offense averaging more than 36 points a game and a defense giving up a paltry 38 points in the four games which were not shutouts. The Spartans had a devastating defense, led by Bubba Smith and George Webster.
The 10-10 outcome of this “Game of the Century” would leave each team frustrated. The Irish thought they were the better team, but by the end of the first few plays, they were missing three of their key up-the-middle stars. Center George Goeddeke, quarterback Terry Hanratty and halfback Nick Eddy were all felled by injuries.
It is a telling tribute to the strength of the Notre Dame team that without these three All Americans, they were still able to stalemate the Spartans. Stepping up in the place of these fallen stars were under-sized center Tim Monty, versatile quarterback Coley O’Brien and workmanlike halfback Bob Gladiuex. Monty’s tenacious blocking kept the defense away from O’Brien and O’Brien and Gladieux hooked up on a 34-yard touchdown pass play.
O’Brien’s efforts were even more heroic because it was only a few weeks earlier that he had taken ill, on the Oklahoma weekend, and learned he had diabetes. At that time, O’Brien was the only prominent athlete in the country who was known to have diabetes. His courage, grace, and skill in overcoming this obstacle made him a folk hero to many persons with similar ailments.
The Spartans knew they were primed to defeat the Irish, because of their suffocating defense and varied offensive weapons.
Mike Celizic’s excellent book, “The Biggest Game of Them All,” provides a complete account of the game and the events leading up to it. A few items, however, bear repeating because of the impact they had on the game and on the future of college football. In those days, there was no overtime, so ties remained as ties. The Irish were ranked ahead of the Spartans, so a tie game on enemy turf was unlikely to dislodge them from the top spot.
Michigan State had one of the top field-goal kickers in the country in the barefoot Hawaiian, Dick Kenney, so Irish coach Ara Parseghian was unwilling to risk an interception in the waning moments, as the Irish ran the ball on the game’s final series. Daugherty had punted the ball to Notre Dame, on his final series, knowing he was unlikely to get the ball back.
The Michigan State season concluded with this game, but Notre Dame had one game left, with USC in Los Angeles. The Irish knew that a win over the Trojans would preserve their national championship. The 51-0 whipping of USC won the title for Notre Dame, but served as the pregame pep talk for John McKay and the Trojans for the next 18 years as USC won 14 of 16, with two ties.
The tie game caused a lot of talk about creating a method for resolving ties and determining a national champion. The Spartans were not eligible for a postseason game and Notre Dame had chosen not to play in post-season games since its only venture, in the 1925 Rose Bowl.
The best post-mortem of the game may have been uttered by star Spartan halfback, Clint Jones. He stated that maybe it was a good thing that the game ended in a tie, because people are “still talking about it.” Jones speculated that people may have long forgotten about the game, if there had been a winner.
As a postscript, while McKay was using his 1966 game with the Irish to motivate his team to great heights, the Irish were apparently able to do the same with the Spartans. In the next 28 years, the Irish won 24 times. The Irish dominance, coupled with the Trojan resurgence, transferred the mantle of “Big Game” 2,500 miles to the West.
But, as the Irish enter today’s game with a two-game losing streak to the Spartans, another “Big Game” is on the horizon for the Irish.
Notre Dame has had many rivals during its long fooball history, including USC, shown here against the Irish in the Los Angeles Coliseum.