Comrades in arms in more than a game

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

AMERICAN FOOTBALL NOTRE DAME v NAVY:While college football can have bitter rivals, Notre Dame and Navy share a rivalry based on respect, not revulsion, and are bound together by tradition, writes EWAN MACKENNA

IT CAN drive people to some strange and desperate acts, this college football. In the northwest the derby match-up between Oregon and Oregon State is known as “The Civil War” and back in 1970, it led a Ducks supporter to kidnap the OSU homecoming queen. Just last year, the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn saw the iconic and beautiful Toomer’s Trees intentionally poisoned by a Crimson Tide fan – he later said it was in retaliation to them being draped in toilet paper in celebration of the passing of famous rival coach Paul Bryant.

In the case of former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, it didn’t drive him anywhere. Their contest with Michigan is known simply as “The Game” and when running out of petrol in enemy territory and asked about filling up, he fumed, “No, goddamn it. We do not pull in and fill up. I don’t buy one goddamn drop of gas in the state of Michigan. We’ll coast and push this goddamn car to the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money.”

But if Navy and Notre Dame sits close, if not quite beside those games, in terms of stature, it’s for very different reasons. Theirs is a rivalry fuelled by respect rather than revulsion, and it’s that which distinguishes it – not just in terms of American sport, but sport in general.

When the United States joined the second World War, it stripped many universities of their male students. Notre Dame was hit worse than most and until the Navy offered to establish a College Training Program on the South Bend, Indiana, campus in July 1943, it was edging towards bankruptcy.

As Rev Theodore Hesburgh, president of the private university for 35 years before his retirement in 1987, put it, “Without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students. Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy.”

That’s what this game has been about ever since.

Notre Dame, with its 11,733 students and heavyweight football reputation, is too big and too good to be playing the fixture every year, yet it is the longest-running annual non-divisional game and is seen by the Fighting Irish as a repayment. In fact in the programme from their 1927 tie, when their streak of yearly fixtures began, Notre Dame president of the time, Rev Mathew Walsh, penned: “Notre Dame, Army, and Navy make an ideal group for a football triangle. Their students live on campus, they draw their student body from all parts of the country . . . The outcome of our game with the Navy is not so important as the best feeling of sport and good-fellowship always prevail. We are indeed happy to have Navy on our schedule: we trust it will continue so long and so amiably as to become a part of our best loved traditions.”

In truth, Notre Dame’s meetings with the Army have far more historical exclamation marks. That was the scene of the first high-profile use of the forward pass from Gus Dorais to Knute Rockne in 1913; 11 years later came Grantland Rice’s famous christening of the “Four Horsemen” in the New York Herald Tribune in reference to the ferocity of the Notre Dame backfield, in much the same way as Hell’s Kitchen stuck in Tipperary; in 1928 it inspired some of the most famous words in sport with then coach Rockne’s “win just one for the Gipper” speech at half-time. But a falling out in 1948 damaged that series and this one took over.

Has it been competitive? Hardly. The Navy lost 43 straight games between 1964 and 2006 in what was the most lopsided streak in college football history, and today they’ll do well to get within a couple of touchdowns. But it’s never been purely about the score and often it’s been the occasion rather than the outcome that has mattered most.

“If there’s any relationship that we have in athletics that has really held up over the years, it’s the Navy,” Rev Hesburgh has noted. “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.”

As an independent team, Notre Dame are famed for picking out tough schedules. As a military institution the Naval Academy hate losing more than most. Yet despite those contradictions, this rivalry will continue indefinitely as it transcends the predictable parameters of sport.

It’s that which will see 35,000 Americans land in Dublin specifically for the contest and will see Lansdowne Road filled today, although the venue is more a marketing ploy than a homecoming. Notre Dame’s links to this country are limited, the Navy stadium in Maryland is deemed too small for the fixture, their hosting of it has always moved about and after the 1996 meeting of the sides in Croke Park, they decided it was again time to spread their gospel all the way to these shores.

Whether it’ll catch on is doubtful and whether it’ll be close is unlikely. But unlike other college football rivalries, with Notre Dame and Navy it’s never been about how it’s played or where it’s played. For these two, it’s about why it’s played.

Fighting Irish: in name only

Perhaps the leprechaun with his clenched fists gave it away, but in truth Notre Dame has few links to this country. It’s not known for sure where the name came from. Some say it originated with the Union’s Irish Brigade during the civil war, with the college’s third president serving as a chaplain at Gettysburg.

Another story suggests that at half-time in a 1909 game with Michigan, one player turned to a group with Irish-sounding surnames and said, “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick”. Others say it’s to do with the never-say-die attitude of the university in the 1920s which, for some reason, was believed to be an Irish trait. What is known is the university was founded by a French priest called Edward Sorin, thus the Notre Dame title.

College football: for dummies

Each team has 11 players on the field at any one time although team’s have special offensive units, defensive units and special teams units (for kick-offs, punts and field goals)

When in possession a team has four downs to make a 10-yard gain and earn a new set of downs, similar to tackles in rugby league. After third down you can either try for a field goal, punt the ball away for position or try and make the yardage, however if you come up short then possession is turned over at that spot.

A touchdown is worth six points and is followed by either the point-after, which is similar to a rugby conversion, or two-point play, when you again try and enter the end zone. A field goal is worth three points. A safety, when you are tackled in your own end zone results in two points for the opposition.

While their coaches are highly paid and college football is a multi-billion dollar industry, players are not allowed receive any perks outside of scholarships. Their academic scores must also reach a certain standard or the football programme will face punishments, sanctions and restrictions.

In Division One of college football, there are 144 teams across 12 conferences and 41 states.

The national championship game is currently decided by a poll with team’s rankings within the top 25 changing throughout the year depending on results. Those outside the top two – who play for the title – are invited to various bowls across the country. From next season, however, a four team play-off for the title will be introduced.

In this year’s pre-season poll USC are ranked No 1, ahead of last season’s champions Alabama, last year season’s runners-up LSU, with Oklahoma and Oregon rounding out the top five. Neither of today’s sides start the season ranked.

Princeton and Yale are the top two teams in college football’s roll of honour but neither have won a title since 1935. Modern powerhouses Alabama and Notre Dame are third, with 13 titles each.

Three to watch

Manti Te’o (Notre Dame)

Much of their defence, which ranked 30th in football last year, is back for more but the linebacker is their biggest weapon. Had he left school early it’s believed he’d have been the first player in his position taken in the NFL draft but since he waited he’s seen as the best in his position in college football.

Everett Golson (Notre Dame)

Starting quarterback Tommy Rees is serving a one-game suspension today so it’s the chance of the sophomore to run the offence. He’s never started a game but that may not be a bad thing given the Fighting Irish have thrown 33 interceptions in the last two years.

Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame)

With Michael Floyd gone to the NFL, he’ll be expected to step up in the tight end position. Caught 63 passes for five touchdowns and 803 yards last season and will want to repeat, if not improve, on those figures across the coming months. At 6ft 6in and 245lb watch out when he occasionally moves to wide receiver.

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