Notre Dame returned to South Bend licking wounds from Saturday’s 28-27 loss to Navy in Jacksonville. Now the Irish regroup to play Army on Saturday in San Antonio. The games are a step back in time for more reasons than one.
If Notre Dame (3-6) playing Navy (6-2) and Army (5-4) back-to-back sounds like something out of the 1940s, it is. In those days, they were three national powers that met annually.
What changed was by the 1960s, seismic American cultural shifts collided like tectonic plates. They moved for unrelated reasons, but with the same consequences at the academies. Nationally elite athletes were less interested in college football with military commitments upon graduation.
NFL salaries grew lucrative as the pro game surpassed college ball in national popularity. The divisive Vietnam War resulted in college-bound males looking for ways to stay out of the military. Change pervaded the landscape.
That makes this week a good time for a college football history lesson.
Army put Notre Dame on the national map in 1913, when it scheduled the lightly regarded Irish and were embarrassed, 35-13. Notre Dame surprised Army with an innovative play — the forward pass. The teams subsequently met met annually from 1919 through 1947 until the series of intense national interest was interrupted for 10 years. The reasons were well-meaning considering the times, but quaint by today’s cynical epoch.
The fever pitch began with Army’s roster, stocked by World War II enrollments, routing Notre Dame 59-0 in 1944 and 48-0 in 1945. In 1946, the teams played to a 0-0 tie in what was called the “Game of the Century.” The game featured three Heisman Trophy winners – Army’s Doc Blanchard (1945), Army’s Glenn Davis (1946) and Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack (1947).
However, the 1946 game crossed a line in the minds of Notre Dame president John Cavanaugh and West Point superintendent General Maxwell Taylor.
It was reported in the Dec. 31, 1946, edition of the Chicago Tribune that Army and Notre Dame planned to end the series after the 1947 game. The schools decried: “The Army-Notre Dame game had grown to such proportions that it had come to be played under conditions escaping the control of the two colleges … ”
The story added from sources that the schools felt unable to control “ticket demands” and “gambling” for the games played at Yankee Stadium. Imagine in today’s cynical times a rivalry of intense national interest canceled now that television dollars are in control.
Navy and Notre Dame also played nationally significant games, but unlike Army, the Navy win on Saturday continued an uninterrupted series dating to 1927.
It has been how the Irish honor a debt owed the U.S. Navy. Notre Dame suffered economic hardship as an all-male school during the World War II years, but the U.S. Navy established a training center for V-12 candidates that provided funding to keep campus doors open.
Credit the administrators and athletic programs at both schools for the unbroken tradition no matter how much it was weakened at times. Once the 1960s changed college football forever, Notre Dame’s nationally ranked teams had little to gain from playing Navy, as it dominated the series with 43 straight wins from 1964 to 2006. At the same time, Navy was outgunned.
Navy finally broke its 43-game losing streak in 2007 with 46-44 triple overtime win under former coach Paul Johnson. That loss turned up the heat on then-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.
Times have changed since then. The academy talent pool has deepened with renewed respect for the military since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Midshipmen’s 28-27 win last week was their fourth over Notre Dame in the past 10 years. Ken Niumatololo is Navy’s first head coach to beat Notre Dame three times since Wayne Hardin (1960, 1961 and 1963).
Army’s football program still has ground to make up with Navy and Air Force, although the Black Knights have made progress. They are 5-4 as they prepare to play Notre Dame for the first time since 2010.
Notre Dame has beaten Army 14 straight times. Army last beat the Irish 14-2 in 1958 behind Heisman Trophy-winning halfback Pete Dawkins.
As an example of the times, Dawkins eschewed the NFL and remained in the Army. He retired after 24 years as a brigadier general in 1983. Navy’s Roger Staubach won the Heisman in 1963, but he played 11 NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys after serving his four-year commitment. Staubach is the only academy Heisman Trophy winner in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Although the Army-Notre Dame series lost its sacred place in college football long ago, we can still use the Navy-Notre Dame series as a timeline. It marks changes in American college sports and society in general.
That’s what makes the series more significant than Army-Notre Dame, although this week in San Antonio is a nod to history.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter @shanny4055