For nearly a century, games involving Notre Dame have stood atop the list of the greatest crowds ever to witness a game of American football.
This Saturday, there will likely be a new champion in that category. Tennessee and Virginia Tech are set to play at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in a game expected to draw close to 150,000 fans.
The current “official” record for greatest attendance at an American football game, college or pro, is the 115,109 who took in Michigan’s 41-30 defeat of the Irish on Sept. 7, 2013, at Michigan Stadium. Second on the list is the game two years earlier, on Sept. 10, 2011, when, in the same venue, 114,804 watched the Wolverines clip the Irish, 35-31.
If you go back to the Knute Rockne era, you’ll find games with even larger attendance numbers. Notre Dame and Southern Cal began their historic series with a meeting at the LA Coliseum on Dec. 6, 1926, before a mere 75,000. The Irish won, 13-12.
The next fall, the Nov. 26 matchup at Soldier Field in Chicago promised to be one of the most anticipated sports events in American history. A huge throng assembled on the Chicago lakefront, and an estimated 120,000 fans crowded into the stadium; the turnstile system was overrun, and stopped counting just a shade under 100,000. Said the Notre Dame business manager, “I believe that the Chicago ‘boys in the know’ took us ‘country boys’ for a ride. Many friends of those working the gates were passed in. Also, Rock invited all of the Big 10 teams (who had finished play a week earlier) to come as his guests.” Whatever the actual number, they saw an epic 7-6 Irish victory.
The120,000 figure was reached again in 1928 at Soldier Field vs. Navy, with just over 103,000 paying. In 1930, Rockne’s final season, the number of freeloaders was decreased, as 103,310 paid among a total estimated throng of 110,000 in rain and snow, to see another classic 7-6 Notre Dame win.
For the full story on these and many other amazing events of the era, check out Jim Lefebvre’s comprehensive biography, Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne.