History of the Rivalry
• Priest's Letters Gave Irish Alumni in WWII Taste of Home
Each year since 1927, three autumns after the Four Horsemen helped a small, Catholic school expand its national identity, Notre Dame's football schedule has included a game against the U.S. Naval Academy.
But the man in the office overlooking the golden dome understands the renewal at New Meadowlands Stadium involves far more than the streaks of annual meetings. It is about blue and gold from sideline to sideline and essential, mutual support during periods of vulnerability, influences that have directed thousands of young lives, including his.
The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame for 35 years before his retirement in 1987 and a leader in American higher education for longer than that, defined the place Navy holds in the history of his school.
"All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students," Hesburgh said during an interview in 2004. "Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy."
During World War II, as Notre Dame's enrollment dropped to Depression-era size, the Navy's decision to establish a Navy College Training Program on the South Bend campus in July 1943 provided much-needed economic relief and a surge of energy.
During the Vietnam era, as college administrations elsewhere restricted or abolished ROTC programs, Hesburgh's insistence preserved the Navy presence on campus.
"We said they're going to stay on campus," Hesburgh recalled. "This is their home, too. They're here, and they're welcome and they're going to stay here.
If there's any relationship that we have in athletics that has really held up over the years, it's the Navy," he said. "People said, 'Well, Navy has a terrible team,' and I said, 'I hate to be winning all the time, but there were days when they won back in the glory days.' It has always been cordial."
The Notre Dame-Army series holds a more widely acclaimed place in the history of the game. It featured the Irish's first high-profile use of the forward pass from Gus Dorais to Knute Rockne in 1913, the 1924 game that inspired Grantland Rice's christening of the Four Horsemen in the New York Herald Tribune, Rockne's 1928 halftime exhortation to win for the late George Gipp and the national frenzy building toward the 1946 0-0 tie at Yankee Stadium.
But Notre Dame and Army did not meet between 1948 and 1956, a decision based partly on the relationship with Cadets coach Earl "Red" Blaik.
"That was back and forth a bit," Hesburgh said, sitting in his office on the 13th floor of the library that bears his name. Smoke wafted behind him in the late-afternoon sunlight. Eighty-seven is not too old for a good cigar.
After a moment he scowled and continued talking about the Army coach. "Of course, Blaik was a hard-nosed guy and not the easiest guy to get along with."
Contentiousness was not an issue with Navy. Not even during the eight-game period from 1956 through 1963 when the Middies, led by Heisman winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, defeated the Irish five times by an average of 14.2 points. The last victory, 35-14 at Notre Dame Stadium, took place Nov. 2, 1963.
Presidents and Close Ties
Joyce, who died May 2, 2004, once captured Notre Dame's view of the relationship. Hesburgh remembered: "Father Ned used to say, 'Gee, I wish the Navy would win - but not this year."
When Navy contemplated the possibility of de-emphasizing football more than a decade ago, Superintendent Thomas Lynch, the captain of the 1963 Navy team and older brother of Notre Dame All-America linebacker Jim Lynch, spoke with Joyce.
"He gave me comfort and confidence that we could do this, that it is possible to play," Lynch said.
In this series, football weekends have become a time for personal visits that are rarely a part of most football relationships.
"I stayed in the top floor of the admirals' residence at Annapolis," Hesburgh said. "In the morning on the day of the game, the first class would come marching by, the whole battalion, and when they got outside my window they'd say, as he leaned forward, lowered his voice an octave and barked, 'Go Navy! Beat Notre Dame!"
Hesburgh sighed. "And I'd have to get to the window and wave at them. It was all good sport."
Navy left halfback Bill Busik, nicknamed "Barnacle Bill" in the newspapers during the 1940 and 1941 seasons, remembered taking a tour of the Notre Dame campus before a game with his line coach, Rip Miller.
Miller, one of Notre Dame's Seven Mules, blocked for the Four Horsemen and helped establish the series as a Navy assistant coach in 1927. Miller, also the first Navy head coach to beat the Irish, was a Navy assistant athletics director from 1948 through 1974.
Busik became Navy athletics director from 1962 to 1965.
"A lot of people say we shouldn't play Notre Dame, because they keep beating us," Busik said. "But there was a time when people said they shouldn't play us. (Notre Dame) appreciated the fact that we kept them on our schedule in those days. They weren't that good, but we understood."
Part of the relationship can be explained by similar philosophies that are not visible on the Saturdays when the Notre Dame campus is temporarily transformed into an amusement park. The schools are far more alike than they appear.
"We have a spirit, and we have discipline," Hesburgh said. "We have our rules of performance. What we expect of students is just as tough as it would be at the academies, in some ways. They have a moral standard here, and they've got to live up to it."
By July 1, 1943, the Navy added 1,851 trainees to the campus. A contract between "The United States of America and University of Notre Dame Du Lac" called for a commitment of $487,711 for equipment, facility alterations, a drill hall and administrative expenses.
Notre Dame received $9,000 each month for heat, light and repairs and the maintenance of a recreational drill field and athletic facilities.
Then there were the thousands of incorrectly named 90-day wonders who were processed, group after group after group, within four intense months.
One Naval officer who trained at Notre Dame during that time remembers a feeling of isolation.
"We never saw another single part of the campus," said Marvin Karr, 82, a University of Michigan graduate who was at Notre Dame from June to September 1943.
"We weren't allowed to. We saw the buildings in the distance. I was confined to Morrissey Hall. It was kind of rundown and old. There wasn't even a Notre Dame employee sweeping the hallway. The Navy completely took over. We could have been 10 miles from Notre Dame."
As the war started to wind down, Hesburgh was preparing to be sent back to Notre Dame, where he attended college in the late 1930s.
He was ordained a priest in 1943 and then earned a doctorate at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
He wanted nothing more than to be a chaplain on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
Instead, in July 1945, shortly before the end of the war in the Pacific theater, he was assigned to Notre Dame, partly because of the demand the Navy created.
"After I came back here, I was unhappy that I wasn't able to get to the Pacific," Hesburgh admitted. "We had more Navy at Notre Dame than they had on any ship in the Pacific."
Over the years, Hesburgh has paid attention to the one-sided games with the Midshipmen and the narrow escapes including the 2003 meeting, when then-untested Irish walk-on D.J. Fitzpatrick had to kick a 40-yard field goal on the last play for the 40th consecutive victory.
"I'll tell you, if they had won, we would not have felt terribly bad," Hesburgh said, "because they're the best friends we've got."