For the 86th time Navy and Notre Dame will battle it out on the gridiron but this year’s clash has a unique flavour to it with the game taking place in Dublin.
The match, dubbed “The Emerald Isle Classic,” will be the second time that the schools have played in Ireland following a comfortable Notre Dame victory sixteen years ago.
Throughout their rivalry Notre Dame has comprehensively outclassed the Midshipmen and lost only 12 times. But given that more much of this time The Irish have been a dominant program in college football it is hardly surprising. Recent years however have seen the once great Irish fall on harder times and struggle to stay and relevant in the competitive environment of college football.
While the game has evolved Notre Dame has been left behind. Poor coaching choices and a general inability to compete with the best of the SEC and Big 12 in terms of recruitment of high school players has made it impossible for Notre Dame to look to add to its 11 national titles.
The most recent of these titles came 24 years ago and with the Irish having failed to reach a BCS Bowl, the biggest end of season games, for four years it is unlikely that Brian Kelly’s team will be in contention at the end of the year.
While Notre Dame’s rivalry with Navy is one of the longest running in the sport it has been historically one sided with The Irish having won 43 consecutive meetings until five years ago. In that game Navy needed triple overtime to claim a famous win and since then Navy has had the upper hand and have won three of the last five meetings.
The gulf in class between the schools has been narrowed considerably in the last few years but ultimately with Notre Dame able to recruit stronger and more talented players it is very difficult for the Mids to compete for a prolonged period of time. This difficulty was clearly shown last year with Notre Dame running out a comfortable 56-14 winner.
History of the rivalry
Notre Dame and Navy started their heated rivalry as a result of the Second World War. With war raging in Europe finding a revenue stream was crucial for the University and Notre Dame offered their facilities to the armed forces, as they had done in WWI, in a bid to allow students to combine their training for military service with their schooling.
However while some other armed forces did not accept the offer of using the facilities Navy did agree to the terms and the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps was founded with approximately 150 students.
The links between the Academy and the university quickly grew with Navy having resident halls, offices and class rooms within the campus and an ever increasing number of Cadets using the facilities.
By 1943 there was almost 3000 members in the Naval Reserve Corps in South Bend with the men scattered throughout the various schools of the campus on academic scholerships while also receiving their required Naval training.
It has often been reported the value that Navy offered to Notre Dame at this time with former university presiden, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, famously saing in 1992 that, “Navy came in and kept us afloat until the war was over.”
As a sign of gratitude Hesburgh said that the famous Notre Dame football team would always have a game on their schedule for Navy as long as the Midshipmen wanted to play.
Challenges of playing in Dublin
For both teams the task of playing this game in Dublin was immense. Both teams have been practicing at first light in the US for the last week to acclimatise themselves to the time difference and flew in early Thursday morning from the States before holding a light practice at the stadium.
Both sets of players and coaches were keen to stress that whatever the difficulty it was a privilege to play the game in Ireland.
“We feel very privileged and very blessed to be here along with Notre Dame. There’s not too many teams that get this kind of opportunity,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “But other than that, we’ve got to remember we’re playing a very good football team, so we’d better get ready.”
The business of playing the game has been overlooked by a lot of local media who are focusing their attention on the perspective of the tourism boom brought to Dublin and Ireland but it is important to remember that this game will have huge implications on the rest of the season for both teams.
In college football the teams play 12 games and their final record is crucial in their slotting at the end of season bowl games. One win or loss can be the difference between playing in a huge pay day at a BCS game or, as Notre Dame have found in recent years, a much lower profile game that nets the school only a fraction of the windfall.
As a result it was hardly surprising that both coaches and players have stressed the importance of focusing on the game.
For Notre Dame the match has special meaning given their Irish moniker and coach Brian Kelly wanted to talk about this following Thursday’s practice session:
“Obviously the Notre Dame brand is pretty strong out here, so although we’re away from the United States we feel pretty comfortable here,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who traces his Irish roots to great-grandfather Eugene.
Dublin ready for a unique event
While there was little sense of anticipation for the game outside of Ireland’s American Football community for much of the leadup the atmosphere that has swept the nation’s capital since fans started to arrive has seen an amazing interest in the game.
Tickets are like gold dust and with Midshipmen in uniform walking throughout the city and both sets of fans providing a distinctive flavour to the city the vast majority of locals have looked to become involved in one way or another.
Whether it was attending a high school pep rally in the St. Stephen’s Green or Notre Dame’s rally at the Point Theatre it seems that everyone in Dublin wants to be involved.
By and large the only time that American Football receives attention in Ireland is for the Super Bowl but there is a genuine sense of excitement and anticipation for this game.
In a city that regularly hosts crucial rugby and soccer internationals it has been a long time since one game has taken the city by storm.
Whether the match is a classic or not is irrelevant given just how important it could be in providing a genuine foothold in the sports’ market within Ireland. With the general ticket allocation having sold out within an hour of going on sale it is clear that this unique match will be enjoyed by a nation keen to get an insight into what makes the Navy and Notre Dame rivalry so unique.