Oct. 22, 2004
by John Heisler
Number of opponents for Notre Dame in its football history: 134
Number of those teams with winning records against the Fighting Irish: 11
Number of those 11 no longer playing in Division I-A: 4 (Chicago, Great Lakes, Indianapolis Artillery, Yale)
Number of opponents that have played 20 or more games against the Irish: 13
Value of a rivalry with Notre Dame: apparently, priceless
The questions come from all sorts of sources.
The well-intended journalists writing books or DVD scripts about college football want to know who is Notre Dame's biggest rival in football.
Is it USC? What about Michigan? How about Navy - in the longest continuing intersectional rivalry in the country?
What about the 68 games against Michigan State - and the 76 against Purdue - and the 60 against Pittsburgh?
What about Miami in the `80s? That one heated up when Lou Holtz arrived in 1986.
What about Boston College, the only other Division I-A football-playing Catholic institution other than Notre Dame?
How about Stanford, another school with a highly respected academic culture?
Does it require a shillelagh (USC and Purdue), a megaphone (Michigan State) or a crystal bowl (Stanford and Boston College) to make it a rivalry?
Those traditional trophies historically have been more fodder for game notes and media guides than post-game, mid-field presentations. Still, it was not so long ago that an Irish loss in one of these series prompted the winning school to send an administrator to South Bend early the next week to pick up the trophy in question.
Do green jerseys on Irish players (see USC '77, '83 and '85, Colorado in '94, Georgia Tech in '98 and Boston College in 2002) make for rivalry games?
The answers to all these questions are the same: Your opinion is as good as anyone else's.
A long-time journalist from Lafayette asked the question in the press box before this year's Irish-Purdue contest: Where does the Purdue rivalry fit in at Notre Dame?
The questions came fast and furious before and after last week's Irish game versus Navy. Do you still call it a rivalry when one team has won 40 years in a row (now 41)?
Irish coach Tyrone Willingham made it clear in his post-game comments at Giants Stadium Saturday afternoon that Notre Dame's history and tradition seems to make a rivalry of every game on the schedule based on the way Irish opponents make their assignments against Notre Dame red-letter dates.
Actually, it's challenging to be politically correct in these institutional debates. Coaches, and usually players, strive for politeness in this venue, so as not to create bulletin-board material. Media, on the other hand, seek the raw, human emotion involved. They'd love to have opposing players or coaches go toe to toe, debating the relative importance of a victory over such-and-such team.
Holtz didn't mind telling you that the USC series meant more than any other to him - and he proved it. He'd done his research on the series history, knew the stories of Knute Rockne and Bonnie Rockne and Gwynn Wilson and Howard Jones. He studied up on that particular rivalry - and even gave his freshman players annual quizzes on the series to make sure they grasped its importance.
A couple of other elements have made it easy to judge the relative importance of football series over the years.
Fifteen different games between Notre Dame and USC have been played with both teams ranked in the top 10. That's happened eight times in the Irish-Michigan series (including five out of six years from 1989 through 1994).
Of those 15 Notre Dame-USC matchups, one ended in a tie (21-21 in 1968) and each team won seven. Now, that's the sort of give and take helps to promote a rivalry.
Television provides some measure as well. In 40 consecutive Notre Dame-USC games played starting in 1965, 31 have appeared on national television (plus two more shown regionally). All 18 Notre Dame-Michigan games played starting in 1981 have been televised nationally.
Plus, all these things run in cycles. Michigan State came into its game with Notre Dame ranked in the top 10 on nine occasions from 1949 through 1966. That probably contributed to an eight-game Spartan win streak from '56 through '63. No one said all that much about Notre Dame-Purdue - other than the natural geographic happenstance - from '86 through '96 when the Irish won 11 straight meetings. But it was a whole different story when the Boilers were ranked 16th or better every year from '65 through '69 (and defeated the Irish four of those five games) - and with five of the last seven Irish-Purdue contests decided by a touchdown or less, there's been no lack of interest in that relationship.
If you talk to anyone from Boston College, it's never been anything but a heavy-duty rivalry, even if the teams have played only 15 times before today. David Gordon's game-winning field goal in 1993 to defeat a number-one-ranked Notre Dame team contributed mightily to that thought - and three straight wins by the Eagles from 2001 to '03 only added an exclamation mark.
Irish linebacker Mike Goolsby stood in the bowels of Giants Stadium last Saturday - with the exhaust fumes from the Irish-Navy clash still prominent in the rear-view mirror - and immediately he was being asked about today's Notre Dame-Boston College contest and what it meant.
So, be it Boston College or Tennessee or Pittsburgh or USC - call them all rivalries, if you will.
For Notre Dame, there doesn't seem to be any other way.