Navy and Notre Dame both have lots of rivals. The Midshipmen will never have one as big as Army, and their series with Air Force is a blood feud. Notre Dame has enjoyed rivalries of varying degree with USC, Michigan, Miami, Stanford, Pitt, and others.
But the rivalry between the Mids and Irish has endured as one of each team’s most serious.
The schools will meet Saturday for the 92nd season in a row, as the Irish try to run their series record to 76-13-1 (counting a couple of vacated wins). It’s the longest continuous rivalry in the country between teams from different regions.
Their rivalry doesn’t make immediate sense on the surface. Notre Dame occupies a much higher perch in the sport’s hierarchy and has dominated the series. They’re a 10-hour drive apart. But the schools have a deep shared history.
The games started in 1927, when the Irish won 19-6 in Baltimore. But World War II gave the series staying power.
Notre Dame lost a lot of its students to the war effort. It was still an all-male school, and its enrollment declined, reportedly to fewer than 3,000.
The Navy picked South Bend as the site for a V-12 Navy College Training Program — basically the ROTC for Midshipmen — and sent a bunch of students and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campus. Notre Dame needed that money.
“All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students," former Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh said in 2004. “Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy.”
During the Vietnam War, some colleges cracked down on or abolished their ROTC programs altogether. Notre Dame didn’t, which was a return of the favor to Navy:
“We said they’re going to stay on campus,” Hesburgh said. "This is their home, too. They’re here, and they’re welcome and they’re going to stay here.
“If there’s any relationship that we have in athletics that has really held up over the years, it’s the Navy," Hesburgh added then. “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.”
Notre Dame was inclined to like Navy even before that, though. From the first game in the history of the series:
In the 1927 Navy/Notre Dame game program, Rev. Mathew Walsh, President of the University of Notre Dame wrote:
“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.”
The schools are true friends — not in the way that lots of rivals have grudging respect for each other, but because that they’ve helped each other in times of vulnerability.
Notre Dame has drubbed Navy historically, but it’s been tighter lately.
A 43-game Irish winning streak ended dramatically in 2007.
“It made us feel like we had a chance, because I think before that, I don’t know if we truly believed that we could beat them,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told SB Nation. "Because when you lose to somebody 43 times, you're like, ‘OK, we can't beat these guys.' But when we finally did, you know what, it's still gonna be hard, but there's a chance."
Navy is 3-6 in the nine games since 2007. The Mids won last year’s game, when Notre Dame had six possessions in 60 minutes.
Service academy recruiting is as hard as recruiting gets due to strict admission requirements and military regulations. Navy benefits from the exposure of playing Notre Dame, and winning makes it even better.
"The Notre Dame game is always a huge game for us," Niumatalolo said. "It's a great recruiting tool for us, ‘cause Notre Dame is still an iconic school.”
And historical logistics gave the rivalry a chance to take root.
They’re two of the oldest programs in the country. Navy started playing football in 1879, and Notre Dame started in 1887. Even with 30 years of runway before they played for the first time, they’ve played every year for nine decades.
They were also the two longest-running independent programs in the country, by a mile. Notre Dame still doesn’t have a conference, and Navy didn’t have one until it joined the AAC in 2015. That meant the teams’ schedules weren’t 75 percent committed to other schools, and Notre Dame could keep carving out space for Navy on a schedule that’s included a bunch of national powers every year.
Conference realignment has murdered plenty of rivalries (RIP Texas-Texas A&M, Missouri-Kansas, and Pitt-West Virginia, just to name a few), but the Mids and Irish have been free to hang out all these years. They’ve taken advantage of that chance.