Notre Dame-Navy: Welcoming Back the Old School

Peter GreerCorrespondent INovember 12, 2008

You might say that this matchup defines the term old school.

When Notre Dame and the Naval Academy meet in Baltimore this Saturday for the 82nd consecutive year, watch the teams relate in pre- and post-game. No trash-talking. No shoving in the tunnels. You might say this game turns boys into men, if only for one Saturday.

ESPN's overproduced pre-game montages paint football games as life-and-death struggles between bitter foes. However, the Notre Dame-Navy series provides a breath of fresh air from this status quo. Ironic that it involves a team composed of our country's future military men.

Despite the fact that Notre Dame dominates the series wins-losses-wise, it hasn't failed to produce exciting finishes that keep fans on the edge of their seats.

The series had already been going on for 14 years when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing many college-age men into the service. Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy himself went into the Navy. A small, Catholic, all-male school at the time, Notre Dame was on the brink of shutting down due to their lowered enrollment.

The Navy came to its aid, establishing a training facility on the Notre Dame campus, thus keeping the University afloat. The series went 3-1-1 in Notre Dame's favor during the war, and from 1946-63, the Irish held a 13-5 advantage before embarking on their NCAA-record string of 43 consecutive victories over one opponent.

Yet throughout the years, the schools have never considered a stoppage in the series.

Things have changed in college football since then, but this rivalry contains plenty of elements from the past.

The basic elements of Notre Dame's uniform have been unchanged for the past 50-some years, save in the tenures of Dan Devine and Joe Kuharich. Navy runs the ball exponentially more than it throws. Neither team belongs to a conference. There are countless other traditions which both have maintained.

Many have failed to grasp the true spirit of this game, simply because it is arguably the only one of its kind. It is not the bitter, life-and-death grudge match that we're used to. Many contests in recent years have not failed to excite.

In 1997, a Navy receiver was pushed out of bounds at the one-yard line on the last play of the game, and the Irish escaped 21-17. Also memorable is the 2002 game, when Navy maintained an eight-point advantage for most of the fourth quarter, only to have Notre Dame score twice in the final four minutes, including a 68-yard catch-and-run by Omar Jenkins for the winning points.

And of course, there is last season's triple overtime affair that gave Navy its first series win since 1963.

Even so, there's something intangible which sets the Navy-Notre Dame games apart.

In 2005, Charlie Weis shifted our focus to where it's rarely, if ever, been before: respect for a vanquished opponent. His Fighting Irish team stood with the Navy players during their alma mater, paying tribute not only to what Navy has done for Notre Dame, but also for America. Since these young men will be fighting for justice in the not-so-distant future, this is only right.

It might be too late to bring college football as a whole back to this level of mutual respect, but for this one November Saturday, sit back, watch, and enjoy. Treasure every moment of this game, whether or not it is competitive all the way through. You might even come away with a newfound appreciation for college football's history.

In any case, this will probably be the most respect you will ever see in a competitive setting.

This is what remains of the old school, where tradition never graduates and it's never too late to sign up for classes. We could all afford to spend some time there.