The Intriguing History of Why Notre Dame Plays Navy Every Season

By Matt Heinz
Notre Dame Navy
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Many of today’s younger college football fans or those without proper knowledge of the history of the sport often ask, “if Notre Dame claims to play a tough schedule every year, then why do they insist on playing Navy annually?” The series started in 1927 when Navy was a national powerhouse, but the reason the schools still play today has more to do with Adolf Hitler and Pearl Harbor than it does to do with the football field.

When America entered the war at the beginning of 1942, the number of students attending Notre Dame reached record lows. The spring semester of 1943 featured only 2,623 students at Notre Dame. This was due to the military draft that sent thousands of young men to train for combat in Europe and the Pacific Ocean.

Facing a lack of money from a lack of tuition coming in, Navy saved the University of Notre Dame. In July of 1943, Navy established a Navy College Training Program on Notre Dame’s campus which helped the University survive during WWII.

According to the University of Notre Dame’s website: “By July 1, 1943, the Navy added 1,851 trainees to the campus. A contract between The United States of America and University of Notre Dame Du Lac called for a commitment of $487,711 for equipment, facility alterations, a drill hall and administrative expenses. Notre Dame received $9,000 each month for heat, light and repairs and the maintenance of a recreational drill field and athletic facilities.”

Former President of Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh said during a 2004 interview: “All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students,” Hesburgh said during a conversation on campus this fall. “Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy.”

Without Navy’s help Notre Dame may not have survived the WWII years and the school’s legacy might look completely different today. The reason college football is so much better than the NFL in my opinion is the tradition and the history involved in the sport. It doesn’t matter who the players are on any given year; Notre Dame facing Navy means something to a lot of people in America.

Hesburgh had the following to add about the series: “If there’s any relationship that we have in athletics that has really held up over the years, it’s the Navy,” he said. “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.”

While many want Notre Dame to improve their strength of schedule by playing tougher opponents than the Naval Academy, I believe that this tradition is not meant to be broken. Let the Catholics and Cadets play every year for the rest of time.

Matt Heinz is a college football writer for Follow him on Twitter @MattHeinz_Rant

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