Why Notre Dame plays Navy
Notre Dame's relationship with the service academies is deeply rooted both on the football field and on the Notre Dame campus with ties dating back to the days of Knute Rockne.
Notre Dame first played Army on the gridiron in 1913 when Rockne teamed with his roommate, quarterback Gus Dorais, to stun the Cadets, 35-13. They were led by a revolutionary invention - the forward pass.
Five years later, Notre Dame signed a contract with the Armed Forces for Students' Army Training Corps (SATC) with some 700 students enrolling at the University.
About a quarter-of-a-century later, as World War II broke out and nearly two decades after the Irish first began playing the Naval Academy, the Army declined University of Notre Dame President Rev. Hugh O'Donnell's offer of the University's facilities. Thus, three months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps became the University's first "ROTC detachment."
Notre Dame was in desperate need of students as the war and its repercussions cut significantly into its enrollment. The Midshipmen School and the V-12 Program began at Notre Dame in 1943, and by mid-war, civilian undergrads totaled only about 250. The rest of the enrollment was dedicated to the training of naval officers.
So closely tied was the University to the Naval Academy that Notre Dame's football roster in 1943 included the "military status" of each player. Approximately 12,000 officers completed their training at Notre Dame from 1942-46. In 1947, an Air Force detachment was established on campus.
In 1946, Admiral Chester Nimitz - who had accepted O'Donnell's plea in 1941 - was presented with an honorary degree from Notre Dame. In 1947, Rear Admiral Cary Jones presented Notre Dame President Rev. John J. Cavanaugh with a commemorative plaque honoring Notre Dame's "efficiency, patriotism and cooperative spirit."
Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh - Notre Dame's president from 1952-87, and a former Navy chaplain, by the way - was a strong proponent of the Notre Dame-Navy football series.
"The Notre Dame-Navy connection is very close," said Hesburgh, now 97, in 2013. "We're like a big family…They're always going to be on our schedule."
For the 88th straight year this Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., Notre Dame and Navy will square off on the football field. It remains today an enduring rivalry, albeit a one-sided affair for 43 years - from 1964-2006 - until Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo defeated the Irish three times in four years from 2007-10.
It wasn't always one-sided. Rockne had been a proponent of playing Navy with the games alternating sites between Baltimore and Cleveland. Rockne's untimely death prevented him from ever taking a team to play Navy in Cleveland (which began in 1932, two years after Rockne's death).
During a four-game stretch from 1933-36, Navy won three times, sparking talk at the Academy that perhaps the Midshipmen should find a team to replace Notre Dame so as to assure "a more sturdy challenge." Notre Dame took charge of the series from that point, winning 17 of the next 19 with one tie interspersed.
Following the post-Frank Leahy era, Navy gained an advantage in the series. From 1956-63, the Midshipmen won five times, including in 1960 with Heisman Trophy-winning halfback Joe Bellino leading the way, and in 1963 with Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, another Heisman Trophy winner, directing a decisive 35-14 victory in Notre Dame Stadium.
Four decades of Notre Dame dominance over Navy began with the arrival of Ara Parseghian. Parseghian reeled off 11 straight victories. Dan Devine won six more. Gerry Faust claimed all five of his match-ups with the Midshipmen. Lou Holtz won 11 in a row. Bob Davie was 5-0 against Navy, and Tyrone Willingham won all three of his games against the Mids. Charlie Weis won his first two before the streak came to an end at 43 in 2007.
In October of 1986, the University unveiled the Clarke Memorial Fountain - just west of the library (and Touchdown Jesus) - honoring those affiliated with Notre Dame that had perished in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Over the years, venues for the Notre Dame-Navy game have included Soldier Field in Chicago, Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (later replaced by the New Meadowlands/MetLife Stadium), JFK Stadium and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Raljon, Md., the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Memorial Stadium and Ravens Stadium in Baltimore, and even Croke Park and Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland.
"There's a tremendous story to tell when you talk about the relationship between Notre Dame and the Naval Academy, both on and off the football field," said former Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White in 2005. "There's been a great history and tradition involved in this rivalry over the years."
"I'm pleased to have been able to continue the series, which is a highlight for our student-athletes and fans every fall," said Chet Gladchuk, the Naval Academy's director of athletics.
"Whether we visit South Bend or the game is played on the East Coast, it is of great interest to our collective national audience of Irish fans, Naval Academy Alumni, and the Navy family at large. Two institutions with similar values rekindling a lengthy and well-respected relationship make this game special."