To old-timers, the mention of Navy-Notre Dame football still has an eloquent ring even though the Midshipmen have not emerged victorious for nearly three decades.
Undoubtedly, the luster of this meeting has begun to fade, but to the coaches and players, it's still an important game.
So, tomorrow at noon at the Meadowlands, the Irish and the Midshipmen go at it for the 66th time, with Notre Dame holding a 55-9-1 edge.
It is the nation's longest continuous intersectional rivalry, which began with a handshake in 1927 when Navy assistant coach Edgar E. "Rip" Miller, formally one of Notre Dame's famed "seven mules," brought coach Bill Ingram together with legendary coach Knute Rockne to begin the rivalry.
I was present as a youngster in old Baltimore Stadium when Navy defeated Notre Dame for the first time in 1933, 7-0, and I still have a piece of the goal post to show for it. The Mids were led by Hall of Famer Fred "Buzz" Bories and Stade D. Cutter. Rockne arrived on the sidelines that day by ambulance and coached in a wheelchair.
And in 1963, I saw Navy, led by Tom Lynch, Roger Staubach, Fred Marlin and John Soi, defeat the Irish for the last time, 35-14.
Navy came close in 1984 with All-American Napoleon McCallum's running, Bill Byrne's passing and Todd Solomon's place-kicking, but lost, 18-17. In 1990, the Mids scored more points (32) against the top-ranked Irish than any of their oppo
nents that season.
The question is continually asked why Navy would want to continue such an uneven series when even Army pulled out years ago.
Tradition, pride and a big pay day are some answers, but above all has been the desire of the Navy players to challenge one of the nation's best. Navy has no plans to drop Notre Dame from its schedule.
As the average football fan looks for some reason to give the Mids a chance tomorrow, leave it to Irish coach Lou Holtz to fan interest in the game by saying, "Every time we've played Navy in Baltimore or at the Meadowlands, we've had to fight for our lives. I don't know what Navy's going to do, but they'll come up with something."
Spoken like a coach whose second- and third-stringers received more practice time this week.
Navy coach George Chaump spoke of the "huge challenge this week" and the need to "regroup and get ready for a real good ballgame." Certainly an understatement, as 0-6 Navy faces 10th-ranked Notre Dame with a 5-1-1 record, two Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Rick Mirer and fullback Jerome Bettis, and All-America candidates Reggie Brooks at running back and Demetrius DuBose at linebacker.
Navy's frustration continued last week as the Mids dropped another homecoming game, this time to Delaware, even though they had more first downs (22-13), more rushing yards (293-232) and an edge in time of possession (33:28-26:22).
Despite the 37-21 defeat, there continued to be some bright spots. Javier Zuluaga, Chris Hart and Dave Shaw played outstanding defense. For the first time since 1983, two backs (Jason Van Matre and Duke Ingraham) rushed for more than 100 yards.
The difference between the two teams was Delaware's versatile wing-T offense, which kept the Navy defense off-balance all afternoon. Blue Hens quarterback Bill Vergantino ran and passed and was aided by the bruising rushing efforts of Darl Brown.
That along with Navy turnovers and a number of botched-up pass coverages kept Navy playing catch-up most of the game.
Van Matre cannot carry this team alone, and he will not be able to survive the kind of brutal beating he took last week. Unquestionably an outstanding Division I-A ball carrier, his passing has been sporadic at best. A passer must be found to go with Van Matre's running for Navy to present a balanced offensive attack.