Photo: Notre Dame and Navy players stand together for singing of the Navy alma mater
Navy-Notre Dame is a time-honored college football tradition with continuity strengthened through American history. The specific epochal period was World War II.
It's the reason the rivalry, renewed for the 92nd time Saturday night in San Diego, remains the nation’s longest uninterrupted intersectional series. It dates to 1927, despite playing out as one-sided affairs many years.
Navy looks forward to the game, even in a year like this one that appears to be a mismatch with the 2-5 Midshipmen facing the unbeaten and No. 3-ranked Irish (7-0), a team motivated to maintain their bid for a College Football Playoff bid.
“We know every year we’re going to play one of the storied football programs in the country,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo in a conference call. “The football tradition is pretty well known and it gives us a lot to talk about in recruiting. Not a lot of guys get an opportunity play twice in South Bend. It’s definitely something we try to spotlight. It helps us in recruiting.”
In the 1940s, Notre Dame was an all-men’s school with an enrollment under 1,000. So when World War II depleted its student body to alarmingly low numbers, the school’s finances teetered.
The future was grim until the Navy launched its V-12 program on July 1, 1943. Notre Dame was selected as one of the college sites for an officer training program. and it was a godsend to the Catholic school: Notre Dame needed students and the Department of Defense decided the Navy needed college educated officers – quickly.
Notre Dame wasn’t the only school to benefit from federal funds to train officers, but the Irish have never forgotten their benefactor as time and circumstances passed. The full weight of their football program continues to compensate Navy, sharing its prestige that highlights the game and the dollars that flow from tickets and TV.
But to survive this long, the series also had to overcome the conflation of another war at the same time that pro football salaries escalated. The appeal of academy football lessened for the nation's top recruits following the quagmire of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and the NFL-AFL 1960s bidding war that drove up salaries.
Navy was still a power in 1963 when the Midshipmen, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach, who is both a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, beat the Irish 35-14 in South Bend. Navy finished the season ranked No. 2 n the nation to Texas.
But as Navy’s talent pool declined, after the '63 game Notre Dame ran off 43 straight wins in the series. Notre Dame’s victories were often double-digit affairs, but the rivalry continued, even though the Irish were often criticized around the nation for scheduling an easy victory.
Now, though, some balance has returned to the series in the 21st century. Patriotism fostered by the 9/11 terrorists attacks of 2001 attracted some recruits. The economic crash of 2008 also contributed; academy grads had a guaranteed job as an officer without six-figure college loan debt. The pool is still shallow, academy coaches say, but it's broader than the past.
On the field, Navy also gained competitive footing when Paul Johnson arrived in 2002 with his triple-option offensive that levels the playing field. Johnson inherited a 0-10 Navy team, but he went 8-5 his second year and 10-2 his third. His first three Notre Dame games were losses but decided by single digits.
Navy finally ended the streak in 2007, beating the Irish 46-44 in triple-overtime in South Bend. It was Johnson's final season before he left for Georgia Tech. Since then Niumatalolo, who served as Johnson's offensive coordinator and was promoted, has beaten Notre Dame back to back in 2008 and 2009 and again in 2016. That's four Navy wins in the last 11 seasons. The last five games have been decided by 10 points.
“They play extremely well against us,” Kelly said in his campus media session. “We'll have to be at our best playing a complete football team that plays hard for four quarters. That's my piece as it relates to Navy. The respect we have for the Academy, for Ken, their football team.”
The games are more intriguing than Niumatalolo’s first stint at Navy as an assistant in the 1990s, but the approach to the game remains the same.
“We recognize who we are,” Niumatalolo said. “We have to play perfect, like we do against a lot of teams we play. We have to minimize our mistakes against a team and hope that they’re a little bit off. That’s our only chance; we recognize that. We know who they are and they’re going to be the best team we play ever year. It’s a tall order to beat them.”
For me, the Navy-Notre Dame history has a personal notation. One of those Notre Dame/V-12 students was my uncle, my namesake. The experience made him a Notre Dame fan for life -- not to mention many others, including his classmate, Jackie Cooper, the child star turned director in adulthood.
My uncle loved to tell the story about how one day in a physical training class he booted Cooper in the butt. He recounted it the same way every time, punctuated with a punchline laugh: “Jackie Cooper turned to me and said, ‘Tom, Why’d you do that?’ I told him, ‘“I always wanted to kick a movie star in the ass.” ’
When my uncle was still with us and the TV show M*A*S*H was a top hit, anytime we watched the show after a Sunday night dinner and Cooper’s name appeared in the credits as the director, that was plenty enough for him to re-tell the story from his V-12/Notre Dame days. Same story, same laugh.
Cooper served in the Navy in World War II, although he flunked out of Notre Dame after a delinquency trial, while my uncle’s life altering path to South Bend resulted in a 30-year career in the Marine Corps. His final post upon retirement as a Colonel was Camp Pendleton outside of San Diego in Oceanside.
Only in America can a Hollywood star and a Pittsburgh tavern owner’s son end up at an elite school for the same reason.
His San Diego post led to my sports writing career in San Diego. Over the years, I saw many San Diegans play for the Navy; some of them enjoyed a homecoming. Morse High’s Gervy Alota, one of my all-time favorites, was a Navy safety and team captain when the Midshipmen played at San Diego State, in 1997.
Navy has also played in the San Diego’s Holiday Bowl and Poinsettia Bowl. Navy was obvious as an at-large bid in San Diego’s inaugural Holiday Bowl, in 1978, but only because the Midshipmen posted just their third winning season since 1963 and Staubach. The Midshipmen beat Western Athletic Conference champion BYU, for a 9-3 record that marked emergence from the Vietnam shadow.
Another Navy-Notre Dame tradition is Midshipmen take the game to large NFL stadiums when they serve as the host team -- Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium only seats 34,000 -- but this is the first trip to San Diego.
The latest San Diegan with the chance to enjoy a homecoming is senior starting guard Chris Gesell. He had already committed to Navy his senior year at St. Augustine High when he learned in May, 2015 the 2018 game had been scheduled for San Diego.
“I’ve had that game on my radar for a long time,” Gesell said. “I’ve been talking to my parents and my friends about going to the game. I’m excited its finally here.”
San Diego, as Navy town, was long overdue for a series combining college football tradition and American history.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
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