Notre Dame–USC: A Rivalry of Respect and Heartbreak

Michael CollinsAnalyst IOctober 14, 2009

Maybe the football gods would have this no other way. Two of the most storied football teams in America meet as Indiana fall turns leaves golden and a chill is in the air.

No team has beaten USC more than Notre Dame. No team has beaten the Irish more than the Trojans.

Imagine a stable of running backs—Bush, White, Allen, Simpson, and Garrett led by Palmer and Leinart—facing off against an armload of quarterbacks—Huarte, Horning, Lattner, Lujack, Bertelli, Theisman, and Rice with Brown and Hart as receivers.

Two of the country’s three top Heisman-winning programs annually play each other. Only heroes and Heismans emerge from football’s greatest rivalry.

Twenty-two consensus national champions have emerged from this game. Counting all major selectors of national champions, USC and Notre Dame have been chosen 38 times from a game that has been played 80 times.

Without this virtual elimination game, imagine how many national championships these teams could have claimed.

Always there has been mutual respect—as well as heartbreak.

USC and Notre Dame Through the Decades

After the first game in 1926, Howard Jones came to the Irish locker room after a heartbreaking one point loss to congratulate his friend, Knute Rockne.

Rockne thanked Jones and said, “It was the greatest game I ever saw.” More than one Irish coach would feel that way throughout the years.

Over a five year span from 1928 to 1932, the two teams combined to win the national championships between them every year—USC in 1928, 1931, and 1932 and Notre Dame in 1929 and 1930.

The Trojans spoiled an Irish championship and undefeated hopes in the last game of the season in 1938, 1964, 1970, 1980 and the tie in 1948. The Irish returned the favor in the last game in 1947 and 1952.

A War Story

In 1937, Mario Tonelli, an Italian Catholic from Chicago, took a handoff with the game tied 6-6, late in the fourth quarter, deep in Irish territory.

He rumbled 70 yards, was tackled short of the goal, and then scored the winning touchdown moments later for the Irish victory.

The following year, Tonelli and the rest of the Irish entered the Coliseum ranked #1. The Trojans ended that Irish squad’s national championship aspirations with a 13-0 victory.

Three years later, Tonelli was trapped with his comrades in the Philippines and forced to march 70 miles on the infamous Bataan Death March. He had been stripped of his treasured Notre Dame class ring by scavenging Japanese soldiers.

A Japanese officer soon approached Tonelli and asked in perfect English, “Did one of my soldiers take this from you?” The officer pulled the ring from his pocket. “I went to the University of Southern California,” the officer said. “I graduated the same year you did. In fact, I saw the game when you made that long run that beat us. You were a hell of a player. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you.”

“He gave me my ring back and wished me good luck,” Tonelli recalled many years later.


After the war, when Frank Leahy was targeted by some Big Ten teams and having difficulty scheduling opponents, Jeff Cravath, the former coach at the University of Southern California wrote to him and said:

“There never will be a time when USC drops Notre Dame from its schedule. The Irish play football the way it was meant to be played and it is a distinct privilege to coach against Frank Leahy.

Let’s preserve the classic USC–Notre Dame game for our grandchildren. The Trojans are proud to play Notre Dame. Never would I criticize boys who fight with all their hearts and soul for their school. Hopefully, that is the same spirit we have at USC.”

After the 1948 game, which ended in a tie between the teams and spoiled Notre Dame’s national championship hopes, “Coach Leahy tried to enter to congratulate his opponents, the (USC) students hoisted him on their shoulders and even gave him three cheers. ‘This is the first time in my coaching career that I have been so highly honored by the student body of an opposing school,’ said the surprised Leahy.” (Source: “Notre Dame vs USC, The Glamour Game,” Cromarte, 1989)

The great coach John McKay said:

“Notre Dame has always lent a lot of dignity and tradition to college football. The enthusiasm of their student body is tremendous, their fight song is inspiring and I get goose bumps when I go back to South Bend and see the leaves falling and the golden dome shining in the sunlight…

It amuses me that coaches say they like to play Notre Dame, but when it’s time to schedule them, few teams stand in line… In 1971 before the game in South Bend, I told my players ‘We’re back here together in the greatest hotbed of football, Notre Dame, and this is the game that typifies college football.

This is what its all about. This is what I’ve believed in since I was a little kid. And I still believe in it.’ Notre Dame–USC is the greatest in college football.” (Source: “The Game is On – Notre Dame vs. USC,” John McKay, 1976)

John Robinson echoed the feeling: “Notre Dame–USC is one of those elite games that is second to none, with great nationwide interest. The entire coaching staff has that feeling at USC… It’s such an honor to have either of these jobs, head coach at USC or Notre Dame, it’s an honor to be in the position. Nothing better can happen to you than to be involved in this great series.”

Former USC athletic director Jess Hill summed up the USC approach to this game:

“The Notre Dame series has proven to be very outstanding in every respect, because our philosophy has been in scheduling, that you play the best in the country and when you play Notre Dame—you are playing the best… There’s no disgrace in ever losing to Notre Dame, but there’s a great deal to be gained by defeating Notre Dame.

I sincerely hope that the USC–Notre Dame series will continue forever, and I think it will.

It has been a privilege and pleasure for me as a coach and athletic director to have the opportunity of meeting the wonderful people from Notre Dame. They are dedicated to excellence.” (Source:


Well, we’re up against it now, boys. In the last seven years, those great USC teams have averaged more than 40 points a game against us, while we’ve scored more than two touchdowns only twice. They have more talent, more confidence, and ooze success.

We have only each other, standing toe-to-toe against such an onslaught as brothers. Games are not won by statistics or clippings, but by your heart and teamwork—something you can expect from them, something you will need to match and exceed.

Today you will fight on this field for Notre Dame. Perhaps some day, someone will come up to you and say, “I saw you give your all. You were a hell of a player.”

When you see old age, you and your grandchildren will celebrate this day, this game, this rivalry above all others and whisper of what you have done, together.

The day you have worked for is here. Today you become part of of a proud history. We are ND.

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