Most Navy and Notre Dame fans know the story. World War II took a huge toll on colleges and universities across the country as men of college age were called into service. Notre Dame was no exception, and the school faced a financial crisis because of it. The military had a completely different problem; the war had created a demand for officers that existing commissioning sources were unable to meet. Several service schools began to appear on college campuses and military installations; some, like Iowa Pre-Flight and Bainbridge Naval Training Center, even made a splash on the college football scene. Father Hugh O'Donnell, acting president of Notre Dame at the time, saw the military's need as a solution to Notre Dame's financial woes. He offered the school's facilities to the Army, but was turned down. The Navy-- particularly Chester Nimitz-- was far more receptive, and a Naval training center was established at Notre Dame in 1941. During the war, 12,000 Naval officers were trained in South Bend. The influx of Navy trainees saved the school.
Notre Dame awarded Nimitz, who had become Chief of Naval Operations, an honorary degree in 1946. At the ceremony, Nimitz spoke of his gratitude for the service that Notre Dame provided to the Navy, and for the officers that served under him in the Pacific fleet:
"Father O'Donnell, you sent forth to me, as to other naval commands on every ocean and continent, men who had become imbued with more than the mechanical knowledge of warfare. Somehow, in the crowded hours of their preparation for the grim business of war, they had absorbed not only Notre Dame's traditional fighting spirit, but the spiritual strength, too, that this University imparts to all, regardless of creed, who come under its influence."
Nimitz wasn't alone in his expression of gratitude. In thanks for what the Navy did for the school, Notre Dame saves a place on its football schedule for Navy-- Nimitz's alma mater-- each year.
College football has changed a lot since 1946. Once-sacred rivalries such as Oklahoma-Nebraska and Pitt-Penn State haven't stood the test of time, falling victim to a shifting conference landscape driven by television money. But Notre Dame still honors its 60 year-old promise. Adherence to a decades-old vow is far from "disingenuous," as Rohe chooses to describe the Notre Dame administration. It is, in fact, the most genuine form of loyalty that there is in college football. And don't think that Notre Dame's loyalty isn't tested, either. The Irish are under constant criticism for playing Navy. John Feinstein describes Notre Dame as a bully for scheduling what he feels is an overwhelmed Navy team each year. In a BCS world where so much emphasis is placed on strength of schedule, there are many in the media who ridicule Notre Dame for not dropping Navy. The biggest names in college football want to schedule Notre Dame; the Irish could surely make more money by replacing Navy with a higher-profile opponent. Yet Notre Dame never hesitates to renew the series, recently extending it to 2016. Notre Dame does not turn its back on the promise it made.
The truth is that Navy needs this game far more than Notre Dame does. Playing Notre Dame is a financial windfall for the Naval Academy Athletic Association. The TV revenue, plus ticket sales in venues twice the size of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, account for a large part of NAAA's operating budget. The "million dollar guarantee" between the two schools means that even when Notre Dame is the home team, Navy receives a substantial portion of the gate receipts at Notre Dame Stadium. Having this reliable revenue stream means several things. It allows NAAA to fund 30 different varsity teams, giving midshipmen more opportunities to fulfill the physical mission of the Academy. Just as important, it allows Navy to remain independent. Teams join conferences in large part because they can't survive without the shared revenue. Navy doesn't need that shared revenue to stay above water because it makes money off of playing Army and Notre Dame. Navy's own football success of late has a lot to do with its independence, as our scheduling flexibility allows us to keep things manageable. Playing Notre Dame also pays dividends in recruiting, as players like knowing that they'll get 4 shots to play on college football's biggest stage during their Navy career. It would be hard to achieve any kind of success at Navy without Notre Dame.
The most disturbing part of Rohe's piece is his description of Notre Dame fans as arrogant. We are all familiar with the bandwagon "subway alumni." That group, like those of any school, can certainly be a mixed bag. My experiences in South Bend, however, are nothing like what Rohe described. I had the privilege of making two trips to Notre Dame Stadium while I was a midshipman, and in those two trips I was treated like a king. Notre Dame embraces its naval heritage, and still boasts the largest NROTC unit in the country. Notre Dame's NROTC unit has always served as a wonderful host for mids who make the trip. The real treat, though, is walking around before and after a game. The uniform I wore was a ticket to every tailgater in the parking lot. I cannot count how many times I was invited by an old Irish alum who'd put his arm around me, put a hamburger in my hand, and tell stories about Navy games past and what those games meant to him. When the Superintendent announced the crackdown on movement orders at the beginning of the season, I was relieved that the one exception was Notre Dame. Every mid should have the opportunity to experience what my classmates and I did.
Rohe, if he had taken the time to understand Notre Dame fans, would know that Prop 48 admissions were a sore spot for many. And however bogus they might have been, one would think that Navy's own steroid allegations and legal issues in the much more recent past would have forced Rohe to give pause before firing that shotgun in his glass house. As for "bastardizing" traditions-- I don't even know what that means.
I apologize if I come off as confrontational. That isn't really my intent. Rohe's attitude is the prevailing one among many college football fans. In all honesty, I am by no means a fan of Notre Dame football either. I thought Lou Holtz liked to run up the score, and I find Charlie Weis to be as arrogant as they come. However, I don't let my opinion of the football team overshadow the importance of the relationship between Notre Dame and the Naval Academy, nor do I ignore the honor and integrity with which Notre Dame has carried out that relationship. Those two values are at the heart of everything that the Naval Academy stands for, and I am proud to have my alma mater associate itself with another institution that clearly feels the same way. And that is really what is at the heart of this rivalry. While the World War II tale is the most famous story behind Navy-Notre Dame, the series actually began in 1927. The following passage, written by Notre Dame president Rev. Matthew Walsh, appeared in that program:
"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 games with the Navy and with the Army is not so important as that 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."
There might be some who hate Notre Dame, but their numbers do not include any Navy fan that understands the big picture. I actually wish we would play in more than just football. Navy and Notre Dame are adversaries for one day out of the year. For the other 364 days, they are partners.