By Jim Lefebvre
When Notre Dame and Navy meet for the 89th time Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium, there will be a special recognition of the unique relationship between the two schools.
Both are now outfitted by UnderArmour, which has designed special wear for this game. Here is how the company describes it:
“For the first time in college football, two opponents take the field with the exact same Under Armour baselayer, gloves and cleats to pay homage to the storied history and brotherhood between their two schools. The baselayer features both Universities’ alma maters on the sleeves and glove palms with the words “respect, honor, tradition” as a reminder of their connection to each other. Both sidelines and coaches also will wear the same sideline gear as a sign of mutual admiration.”
Over the years, most fans of the two prestigious institutions have learned about the role the Navy played in keeping Notre Dame afloat, so to speak, during World War II. Notre Dame was down to fewer than 1,000 students – and faced the possibility of closing its doors – when the Navy accepted an invitation to use the campus for an officer training base. Thus, Notre Dame became a buzzing center of activity for the duration of the war, and never looked back.
As a result, Notre Dame made a pledge that, as long as it wanted, Navy would have a place on the ND football schedule. The two teams have played every year since Knute Rockne initiated the series in 1927 – the longest, uninterrupted intersectional rivalry in college football. It is a mark of pride for the Midshipmen, and a recruiting bonus vs. Army, that they know they will meet Notre Dame every year.
More recently, mutual respect between the schools has been exhibited in each team standing at attention while the other’s alma mater is played immediately after the game.
These signs of respect and honor are also manifested in the trophy attached to the game. It is unlike any other trophy in college football. Rather than the winner taking possession for the next year, the Rip Miller Trophy consists of two parts, each of which is returned to its home campus until the next game is played. Then the two are brought together to honor the two schools when they play. Rather than game results, the Rip Miller Trophy lists each team’s captains down through the years, as it honors leadership, sportsmanship, and respect.
We were honored to make a presentation on the life of Rip Miller when the trophy was unveiled in a banquet in Baltimore in 2011. Miller, from the football hotbed of Canton, Ohio, came to Notre Dame in 1921 and became one of the Seven Mules, the line in front of the Four Horsemen, capturing the school’s first national championship in 1924. Later, he spent nearly a half-century serving the U.S. Naval Academy, as coach and athletic administrator. He was head football coach the first time Navy defeated Notre Dame, in 1931. Athletic fields at Annapolis are named in his honor.
And, we are happy to report, Rip Miller’s widow, Esther Miller, is going strong as she approaches her 109th birthday next month. Long a fixture a Navy games, Mrs. Miller now watches them on TV. “I remember making a lot of trips to Notre Dame for the (Navy-ND) games,” she told us this week. “Coach was always very proud of his association with both schools.”
This is the first time that the game is being played with one of the two schools a member of a conference, as Navy has shed its independent status to join the American Athletic Conference.
“I’m not sure what Coach would think about that,” Es Miller said. “He was very big on the idea that Navy should play teams all across the country.”
Now, Navy will continue to do that with its non-conference schedule, including the Notre Dame game. Rather than a traditional location like Baltimore, Washington or Philadelphia, next year’s Notre Dame-Navy contest is scheduled for Jacksonville, Fla.
Wherever the game is played in future years, count on it being a game of honor, respect and tradition.