Notre Dame and Army will play football this Saturday at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, the first gridiron matchup in that new baseball cathedral since it opened in 2009. Although neither team has covered itself with glory in recent years, the game will reawaken memories of greatness past.
The West Point pep band will help stir those thoughts with the Army Song during the pre-game hoopla: "Then it's Hi! Hi! Hey! The Army's on its way."
Next, the Notre Dame musicians will push ripples of nostalgia through the alumni in stands, both the real and subway varieties: "Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame, Wake up the echoes cheering her name."
For all football fans there are echoes aplenty from the 98-year history of Army-Notre Dame football, whether from iconic players -- Gipp, Cagle, Lujack, Davis, Blanchard --or memorable catch phrases -- "the game of the century," and "win one for the Gipper." Moreover, Saturday's game will highlight for today's fans a once storied rivalry, one that transformed college football in the 1920s.
Here's a brief run through the Army-Notre playbook, starting with the first kickoff.
1913: The teams played for the first time just before the Great War started in Europe. At West Point, Notre Dame shocked both the Cadets and the football establishment by completing 14 of 17 forward passes, an unprecedented aerial attack in the days of plunge and punt. The Notre Dame passing festival didn't change college football immediately; however, it sparked a movement within the game that led football toward acceptance as a spectator sport. Moving the ball up and down the field proved more fun to watch than 22 young men wrestling in the mud.
1920: At West Point, Notre Dame Halfback George Gipp shredded the Army defense for 124 yards rushing, 96 passing, 112 in kickoff returns, and three extra points. Notre Dame won, 27-17. Gipp died of strep throat just six weeks later, and his deathbed wish, either witnessed or imagined by Coach Knute Rockne, would figure in a later Army-Notre Dame game.
1923-24: Seeking larger gates and ticket revenue, the market-savvy Rockne convinced Military Academy officials to move the annual game to New York City, initially to the Dodgers' Ebetts Field in 1923. Thirty thousand attended the game, a crowd double that of the previous year's event at West Point. They played the next year at the Giants' Polo Grounds, and 55,000 watched Rockne's speedy backfield defeat Army, 13-7. Grantland Rice memorialized the game and the four backs with the greatest lead in sportswriting history: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again."
1925: The teams played for the first time in the original Yankee Stadium on Oct. 17. The subway alumni helped push the gate to an enormous total of 80,000, but they sadly watched the Cadets thump Rockne's Ramblers, 27-0. (Notre Dame formally adopted the nickname "Fighting Irish" in 1927.)
1928: A 4-2 Notre Dame squad arrived at Yankee Stadium, which bulged with 86,000 fans, to take on unbeaten Army on Nov. 9. After a scoreless first half, Rockne reached deep into his bag of locker room speeches and pulled out college football's (or perhaps Hollywood's) greatest pep talk -- "Win one for the Gipper!" And that they did, 12-6, by way of Johnny "One Play" O'Brien's touchdown reception. There was a little messiness at the end as Red Cagle led Army to the Notre Dame 1-yard line in the game's waning seconds. To the Cadets' astonishment, the referee abruptly ended the game. Did Gipp intervene from heaven? Or was there a quick whistle from Chicago Tribune sportswriter Walter Eckersall, who Rockne had paid to officiate the game?
Rockne's shrewd move of the Army-Notre Dame game from West Point helped propel college football into national prominence, and by the end of the Twenties, it rivaled baseball as the country's most popular spectator sport. The attention lavished on the annual Army-Notre Dame ritual came largely from the most powerful segment of the era's news media -- New York sportswriters. They generated the national attention that changed the sport. Sure there were other rivalries, especially among the Ivies, but this intersectional competition rode a publicity wave pushed by millions of World War I vets, and Notre Dame's vast fan base -- the subway alumni, and Catholic and Irish immigrants.
1946: In the "Game of the Century," No. 1-ranked Army played No. 2 Notre Dame on Nov. 9 at Yankee Stadium. Leading Army were running backs Doc Blanchard, "Mr. Inside" (1945 Heisman Trophy), and Glenn Davis, "Mr. Outside" (1946 Heisman). Quarterback Johnny Lujack (1947 Heisman) starred for the Irish. After 60 minutes of blocking and tackling, the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Perhaps a poetic finish, but to some, the game earned only a Bronx cheer.
In the decade of the 1940s, the Associated Press crowned Army the national champion in 1944 and 1945; Notre Dame gained those honors in 1943, 1946, and 1949.
After those glorious heights, the two teams met only four times during the period from 1947-1968, and never at Yankee Stadium
1969: Reprising their previous New York roles, Army and Notre Dame met at the Stadium on Oct. 11, with the Irish skunking the Cadets, 45-0. It would be their last game in the Bronx until this week.
Overall against Army since 1913, Notre Dame has won 37 games, Army eight, and they've tied four times. The teams have met 22 times at Yankee Stadium before this week, and the Fighting Irish lead that series 14-5-3. The Cadets haven't won at any venue since 1958. But looking at this year's Irish record of 5-5, the 6-4 Cadet team might be optimistic.
Although Notre Dame has dominated the series, both teams are coming off a decade of play that has been disappointing to each. During the period of 2000-2009, Notre Dame won seven or fewer games in six of those seasons, and until this year, Army had lost to Navy eight straight times. Further, both teams have been buffeted by the high winds created by the revolving door to the coach's office. Notre Dame has had six coaches since the start of the 2000 season, and West Point, five.
This week's game is one of a series of "off-site home games" scheduled by Notre Dame. Last year they beat Washington State in San Antonio, 40-14, and will meet Maryland at the Washington Redskins' FedExField in 2011. Others include Miami (Fla.) in Chicago, 2012, and Arizona State in Dallas, 2013.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is an author, most recently of "Heroes and Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports," released in 2009. Bohn also has written "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.