Nov. 16, 2001
By Craig Chval
It’s almost inconceivable that a team could lose to the same opponent 37 consecutive times, but still not lose an ounce of respect in the eyes of its foe.
Surely such a one-sided rivalry would breed indifference, if not scorn or ridicule on the part of the team holding the upper hand.
But just as surely, that’s not the case with the University of Notre Dame and the United States Naval Academy.
The two institutions – not teams – meet for the 75th consecutive season today, and while the Midshipmen will be fighting for their first victory over the Irish since 1963, one thing they don’t have to worry about fighting for is respect. That they gained a long time ago.
Notre Dame and Navy first met on the football field in 1927, while Knute Rockne was the Irish head coach. Notre Dame won the first six meetings between the teams and holds a 64-9-1 advantage in the series, which has been played in seven different cities, not counting Notre Dame Stadium and Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland.
The series hasn’t always been so one-sided, though.
In the early 1960s the Irish coaching staff was hot on the trail of another high school star. This time, the prize recruit was Jim Lynch, a linebacker from Lima, Ohio, and everybody else was after him, too. But Notre Dame seemingly was looking pretty good because Lynch was from a Catholic family and attended a Catholic high school.
This situation presented a slightly unusual twist: Lynch’s older brother Tom was already playing at Navy, one of the other schools recruiting Lynch. But, after all, it was difficult to imagine an elite player passing up the chance to play for Notre Dame to attend the Naval Academy, right?
There’s just one problem with that theory, as sound as it may appear to fans too young to know any better. When Jim Lynch was being recruited to entering college in the fall of 1963, Navy was enjoying more success than Notre Dame.
The Midshipmen had defeated Notre Dame in two of the past three seasons. And in the nine seasons (1954-62) since Irish head coach Frank Leahy had retired, Navy earned five top 20 finishes in the final Associated Press poll, same as Notre Dame. The Middies had finished the 1960 season ranked fourth in the country, while Notre Dame’s most recent appearances in the final polls were back-to-back rankings of 17th in the nation in 1958 and 1959.
Jim Lynch wound up enrolling at Notre Dame, but things weren’t quite ready to turn Notre Dame’s way yet.
In 1963, Jim, along with the rest of his freshman teammates, was ineligible to compete for the varsity under NCAA rules. Meanwhile, Tom Lynch was a senior captain for the Midshipmen, who were quarterbacked by a young naval officer of some renown, Roger Staubach.
The Middies came to Notre Dame Stadium ranked fourth in the nation. They left with a 35-14 victory, which they used as a springboard to a number-two ranking in the final Associated Press poll, along with a Heisman Trophy for Staubach.
And few would have thought that things would change anytime soon. After all, the Irish limped to a 2-7 season in ’63, their fifth straight campaign without a winning record. On the Navy side, Staubach would be returning for his final year, shooting to become history’s first two-time Heisman winner.
But injuries cut short Staubach’s bid for a second Heisman Trophy (Ohio State’s Archie Griffin would become the only two-time winner in 1974-75). Even more significantly from the Notre Dame point of view, a new head coach arrived that offseason.
Ara Parseghian came to South Bend in December 1963 by way of Northwestern University. As the Wildcats’ head coach, he had led Northwestern to four straight victories over Notre Dame. It took Parseghian exactly one season to reverse Irish fortunes, as they trounced the Middies 40-0 in 1964. The shutout propelled 6-0 Notre Dame to the top of the Associated Press poll, a position the Irish would hold until a season-ending loss to USC.
But, truly understanding the Notre Dame-Navy series requires a trip back to the 1940s, when Leahy had the Irish on top of the football world. Leahy coached the Irish to a national championship in 1943, his third year as head coach, just before enlisting with the Navy to serve in World War II. Following the war, Leahy and the Irish picked up right where they had left off, going four entire seasons without a loss and claiming national championships in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
But World War II cost Notre Dame a lot more than its talented head coach and a slew of players (including 1943 Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli). It virtually wiped out the small, all-male school.
“When the war started, Notre Dame was nothing like it is today,” explains Jack Connor, who played for Leahy in 1948-49 and chronicled the Leahy years in his book, Leahy’s Lads.
“The University was having terrible financial problems, and as an all-male school with so many young men being drafted and going off to war, there was almost nobody left to attend the University.”
As part of the war effort, the Navy needed more officers than the Naval Academy was able to produce in a short period of time. So a decision was made to utilize a number of institutions across the nation in which young men would attend college and receive training to become officers. Notre Dame became the site for one such program.
Not only did Notre Dame now have a much-needed influx of students preparing to become Naval officers, but the Navy also built a number of facilities on campus that served Notre Dame for years.
“That saved Notre Dame,” says Connor.
“Notre Dame probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Navy.”
Connor’s sentiment is reflected in Notre Dame’s long-standing commitment to the series, regardless of Navy’s win-loss record. While the Midshipmen earned a victory and a tie against Notre Dame in 1944-45, the series has been short on victories and long on frustration for the Academy. The 1963 romp over Notre Dame remains Navy’s last win in the series, although there have been a number of near-misses, including Notre Dame Stadium thrillers in 1997 and 1999.
It would be inaccurate to say, however, that continuing the series is simply a matter of Notre Dame repaying a debt to Navy that may never be erased.
Because while it would be a stretch to suggest that victories over the Midshipmen have often served to springboard Notre Dame in the national rankings, the annual battles provide the Irish with an opportunity to test their mettle against an unyielding foe.
Steve Orsini served as a captain of Notre Dame’s 1977 national championship team. He recalls Parseghian and his successor Dan Devine warning the Irish players they would be up against a different type of opponent when they squared off against the Midshipmen.
“The coaches definitely emphasized things differently in preparation for Navy and the other academies,” says Orsini.
“They told us that they weren’t going to beat themselves, that they would be very disciplined and that they were never going to give up.
“In every case, that scouting report held true.”
It’s a scouting report that has remained unchanged and accurate for decades.
“No team on the whole schedule played with more spirit,” says Connor.
“And it’s still the same – they’re disciplined, they’re in great shape and they’re tough.”
Mark Green was a captain on Notre Dame’s most recent national championship team in 1988. “You can always count on them to play hard and fight to the finish,” says Green.
“They play with a tremendous amount of heart and they execute everything to perfection.”
Orsini offers a very unique perspective on the series, having served five years as associate director of athletics at the Naval Academy.
“The series is very important to Navy from a financial standpoint, but it goes far beyond that,” he says.
“More important, it’s two schools that stand for the essence of the student-athlete. There’s no easy way through the academics of Notre Dame and there’s certainly no easy way through four years at the Naval Academy.”
Years after helping to lead Navy’s football team to its victory over Notre Dame in 1963, Tom Lynch returned to lead the Naval Academy as its superintendent for over a quarter of a century.
Rear Admiral Lynch first confesses to a little surprise at how one-sided things have become since the end of his playing days, but continues to be a strong advocate of the series.
“People would ask me why the Academy should continue to play Notre Dame,” he says.
“And 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.
“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.”
While acknowledging the restrictions that often prevent the Naval Academy from successfully recruiting as many blue-chip football players as Notre Dame, Lynch embraces the challenge.
“It’s great for these young men to be able to measure themselves against the best,” he says.
“The purpose of the Naval Academy is to prepare young people for a career of military service,” Lynch says.
“In those careers, they’re not always going to have the assets and resources that they need, but they’re still going to have to get the job done while putting themselves in harm’s way.
“There’s no question we can’t compete in terms in talent,” Lynch says.
“But we’re still going to give them a hell of a game.”
Lynch gets no argument there.
And for those Notre Dame players, coaches and fans that look forward to the opportunity to line up against an opponent that embodies much of what is so important to Notre Dame, Lynch has good news.
“The Naval Academy will not be the one who backs away from this series.”
These days in particular, Lynch’s words are more than a little encouraging, not only for some football fans, but for a nation.
Craig Chval is an ’81 Notre Dame graduate and former student assistant in the Irish sports information office. He is currently an attorney and freelance writer living in Vienna, Va.