Commentary

Army-Notre Dame is a throwback

Originally Published: November 17, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The game between Notre Dame and Army at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night might be like watching something you would see in Lexington, Mass., on Patriots' Day, or at Little Round Top early in July. Re-enactments of great battles are not the real thing. They are meant to commemorate the real thing, to honor it, to bring it to life for a new generation.

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AP PhotoThousands of fans clamored to see Army and Notre Dame play in Yankee Stadium in the 1930s and 1940s.

It is not the same Notre Dame (5-5). It is not the same Army (6-4). It is not even the same Yankee Stadium. Yet the game and the venue connect college football to an era when Notre Dame or Army -- and sometimes, deliciously, both Notre Dame and Army -- dominated not only the sport but all of American sport. From the Roaring '20s to the postwar boom, the annual Notre Dame-Army game captivated the nation.

By 1946, The New York Times called it "a rivalry that has come to transcend almost everything else in the game." That is, in part, why Army called it off. But more about that in a minute.

The game Saturday night, the 50th meeting between the two schools, is not your typical regular-season game. The Irish will have an alumni luncheon in Manhattan on Friday, hosted by Regis Philbin and featuring not only current coach Brian Kelly but 1947 Heisman winner Johnny Lujack. There will be a pep rally at Lincoln Center. And, on Saturday night, the Irish are scheduled to take the field in green jerseys, a gambit reserved for the biggest games.

It is a rivalry born in myth, the one that, in 1913, a little-known Catholic school created the forward pass, got off the train at West Point, shook the hay out of its hair and routed Army, 35-13. The score and the year are true. The part about Notre Dame creating the forward pass, or even being little-known, lived for years before being debunked.

Notre Dame and Army provided the tableau for the most celebrated -- and most parodied -- lead in sportswriting history. After Notre Dame defeated Army, 13-7, at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1924, Grantland Rice wrote, "Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."

That game captured the attention of the awakening Irish and Italian communities in New York. It also caught the attention of officials at Yankee Stadium, which had opened in 1923. According to Murray Sperber, whose 1993 book "Shake Down the Thunder" chronicles the creation of Notre Dame football, the manager of Yankee Stadium offered Notre Dame and Army a guarantee of $60,000 to play there in 1925. The schools played there for 21 of the next 22 years, moving only in 1930, Knute Rockne's last season, to Soldier Field in Chicago.

In 1928, Rockne invoked the ghost of former All-American George Gipp to spur the Irish past the Black Knights, 12-6. All we know about Rockne's locker-room speech is that the version made famous in his autobiography and memorialized in the 1940 film "Knute Rockne, All American" was created out of whole cloth. It may have been fictional, but 50 years after Rockne's death, and 40 years after the film, the actor who played the Gipper was elected president.

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AP PhotoThe full corps of West Point Military Academy, 1846 strong, marched into Yankee Stadium before the 1938 game.

Notre Dame won 14 of those 22 games in Yankee Stadium. Army won five. Three finished in a tie. Through it all, the teams thrust and parried for supremacy on the field and among the fans. Army commanded national respect. After all, it was the United States Military Academy.

"West Point always has regarded its football team as representative of the service, the country, the people," wrote longtime Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik in "You Have To Pay The Price," his 1960 autobiography. "We were received that way wherever we played, with one exception: the Notre Dame game in Yankee Stadium."

Notre Dame had the urban working class, the Catholic sons and daughters of immigrants looking for a beachhead in a sport long dominated by Ivy League schools that excluded people whose name ended in a vowel.

Army grumbled mostly to itself through the 1930s as Notre Dame defeated the academy year after year. From 1932 through 1943, the Irish went 10-0-2 against the Black Knights. In the last five seasons of that streak, beginning in 1939, the West Point squad failed to score a single point.

World War II turned the rivalry. Notre Dame lost its best players. Army not only kept its best players but got a few of the other schools' best players, too. Fullback Doc Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman Trophy winner, played his freshman season at North Carolina before receiving a wartime appointment to West Point.

One player Army did not sign created a rift with Notre Dame. In 1942, Lujack committed to West Point and received a congressional appointment. But somehow he ended up enrolling at Notre Dame. Army coach Blaik and the West Point administration became so angry that Father John W. Cavanaugh, the Notre Dame president, and coach Frank Leahy traveled to West Point to hash it out.

Lujack went into the service, as did so many other Irish greats. That's why Army won in 1944 by a score of 59-0, then again a year later, 48-0. The Cadets beat nearly everyone like that in those two national championship seasons. The one-sided margins, especially against the Irish, didn't sit well with a portion of the newspapermen, nor with the Notre Dame fans in the Bronx. Their reaction set in motion the beginning of the end of the rivalry.

"In its twelve winless years," Blaik wrote, "West Point had maintained a dignified, quiet sportsmanship of acceptance, not always easy in the face of the Yankee Stadium atmosphere. In contrast, our 1944 and '45 teams, leaving the field after victory, heard themselves referred to by people as 'slackers.'"

You couldn't call a West Point man anything worse. The catcalls came from a minority of the fans, but it was a minority that came from across the spectrum of the Notre Dame following. Years later, a priest -- a priest! -- wrote columnist Red Smith after he had praised Blaik's teams of the mid- to late '40s.

"Even muscled zombies knew it was better to go to the Military Academy than to be sent overseas to face bullets," the priest wrote, according to Ira Berkow in his 1986 biography of Smith.

The drumbeat for the 1946 game began almost as soon as the previous year's rout ended. Beginning early in the calendar year, Blaik received a postcard every day from "SPATNC -- Society to Prevent Army's Third National Championship." According to Blaik, "While some of the letter … was humorous, most of it was scurrilous."

Army began the season boasting an 18-game winning streak. The Cadets won seven more before Nov. 9.

Notre Dame came into the Army game with a 5-0 record, having won each game by at least 20 points. The Irish had regained their best players from the service, as well as the best players of a couple of other schools. Holy Cross lineman George Connor, serving at Pearl Harbor, told Sports Illustrated that he was summoned to a meeting at a Honolulu hotel with Cmdr. Frank Leahy. After Connor came out of the meeting, he enrolled at Notre Dame.

The game featured four Heisman Trophy winners in uniform (Blanchard and Glenn Davis, 1946, of Army; Lujack, 1947, and Leon Hart, 1949, of Notre Dame) and 12 members of the College Football Hall of Fame. Remember, this was the era of one-platoon football.

Ticket prices, depending upon which newspaper you believed, climbed from $50 to $200 to $400. The average department store worker in Manhattan made $37 per week.

"If Yankee Stadium had a million seats," Army athletic director Biff Jones said before the game, "we would fill it for this game. I have never seen anything like it."

The week before the game, Blaik left his assistants in charge of the game against West Virginia and took the train south to Baltimore to scout Notre Dame as it played Navy. When he sat down in the upper reaches of the stadium, Blaik said he found himself two seats from comedian Bob Hope "with a friend who had a radio."

Blaik continued, "Hope took full advantage of the Michie Stadium drama, my own concern, and his own powers as a comedian to really pour it on in his 'rebroadcast.' His sense of timing was almost sadistic. The next week Bob spoke at our rally and had the cadets in the aisles."

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AP PhotoThe Army-Notre Dame series featured many of the game's greatest players.

The New York Times estimated that $5 million was bet on the outcome. The game consumed even in the parts of the city that didn't know football. A Belgian delegate of the 1-year-old United Nations went to Yankee Stadium to witness what all the fuss was about. According to Nashville columnist Fred Russell, after witnessing 10 minutes of the legalized mayhem, the diplomat said, "Wouldn't it be simpler if they just gave each team a ball?"

Blaik and Leahy played the game so close to the vest that they suffocated their teams. Notre Dame reached the Army 4-yard-line early in the game, yet Leahy chose not to go for a field goal. He thought he would need a touchdown to win.

As it turned out, the field goal would have been two points more than necessary -- the final score: Army 0, Notre Dame 0.

"The battle of the century, or battle of all time as some New York observers styled it, ended just where it started," wrote Bill Leiser in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The signature play of the game would be made by Lujack, the would-be Black Knight who instead signed with the Irish. Lujack, one year before his Heisman Trophy season, made a touchdown-saving tackle of Blanchard. The Army fullback broke through the line on a counter, crossed midfield and reached the Irish 37. Lujack, the only defender between Blanchard and the goal, brought him down cleanly. Army never got closer to the end zone than the Notre Dame 18.

Less well remembered is the fact that Lujack completed 5 of 17 passes against the Black Knights, with four interceptions, three by Army star Arnold Tucker. Sport Magazine, in a 1951 profile of Lujack, said that Leahy asked Lujack, "Tell me, John, how did you happen to throw so many passes to Tucker?"

"Well, it was this way, Coach," Lujack replied with a grin. "He was the only man I could find open."

Lost to that story is that Lujack intercepted Tucker in the fourth quarter after the Black Knights had crossed the 50 again.

After the game, Army remained No. 1 in the AP poll, Notre Dame No. 2. But in their final games, Army squeaked past Navy, 21-18, while Notre Dame beat its last three opponents by a combined score of 94-6. In the final poll, Notre Dame jumped over Army. Judging by Blaik's memory, the national championship didn't matter. Army wanted out.

The academy made an announcement late in the year that the 1947 game would be the last. Perhaps to soothe the separation, Army made its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won, 27-7.

"The game was generating a form of psychological hate detrimental to the best interests of the United States Army," Blaik wrote. "The Army could hardly tolerate a condition that bred such ill will for the service and the Military Academy."

Imagine the Red Sox announcing that they didn't want to play the Yankees anymore.

"The decision was wildly unpopular," Blaik said. "The animosity that descended on us was heavy and it lingered for at least three years. … I am as certain today, as I was then, that the break was a good thing. By coming when it did, it prevented a longer and more serious rift."

They didn't play again until 1957, this time in Philadelphia. Notre Dame and Army have played 14 more games before Saturday, only once, in 1969, at Yankee Stadium. They return there this Saturday. The game is a sellout.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com