Once upon a time, before the Internet, the Bowl Championship Series and the zone blitz, Navy's football team routinely beat Notre Dame. From 1956 to 1963, the Midshipmen defeated the Fighting Irish in five of eight games, with their final victory, 35-14 on Nov. 2, 1963, propelling Navy quarterback Roger Staubach to win the Heisman Trophy.
Twenty days after that victory in South Bend, Ind., President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Then came Vietnam and Ara Parseghian. Remarkably, more than four decades later, Navy is still waiting to beat Notre Dame again as the teams prepare to play tomorrow at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The Fighting Irish have won 40 games in a row over the Midshipmen, an NCAA record for the most consecutive victories against one opponent.
"I just wouldn't have dreamed it would be 40 years later and that's the only win we've still got," Staubach said in a telephone interview this week.
During the past 40 games, there have been plenty of close calls, questionable calls and, more times than not, scores that weren't even close. Of Notre Dame's 40 victories, the Irish won 29 by 18 points or more. The biggest blowout? The Fighting Irish won 56-7 in Philadelphia in 1970. The closest game? Notre Dame won 18-17 in Giants Stadium in 1984 on a controversial 44-yard field goal by John Carney with 14 seconds remaining.
Notre Dame's winning streak has survived nine presidents, Watergate, Iran-Contra and even Gerry Faust. The Midshipmen have lost in 10 stadiums during the drought, including Croke Park in Dublin.
"It's unbelievable," said former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who was 11-0 against Navy and won all the games by 15 points or more. "I know the year before I went to Notre Dame [in 1986], Navy missed a field goal late that would have ended the streak, and Navy has had some chances lately. It will happen."
It almost happened for Navy in each of its past two meetings with the Fighting Irish. Last year in South Bend, Notre Dame's D.J. Fitzpatrick kicked a 40-yard field goal as time expired to give the Irish a 27-24 victory. Two years ago at Ravens Stadium in Baltimore, the Midshipmen led 23-15 in the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame rallied for a 30-23 victory on quarterback Carlyle Holiday's 67-yard touchdown pass with 2 minutes 8 seconds remaining.
Because of those scores, and Navy's 5-0 start (it's the first time since 1978 and only the third time during the drought that the Midshipmen enter the Notre Dame game unbeaten), many believe this will be the weekend that 40 years of futility ends. Navy Coach Paul Johnson was 6 when the Midshipmen last beat Notre Dame; Fighting Irish Coach Tyrone Willingham was 9.
"It's useless" to talk to Navy's players about the long drought, Johnson said. "None of these kids were born then. I'll take credit for two of them, but that's it. I don't want any credit for the rest. . . . It doesn't matter. I bet if you go back and look, they've been favored in all of them, probably by double digits in most of them, so it's not like it's been two teams that have been pick-'em every year and they've managed to win every game."
Johnson said his players shouldn't feel pressure to beat Notre Dame. After all, no Navy team has done it during the previous four decades.
"People talk about the last 40 years, but the all-time series record is [lopsided], so it's not like [Navy was] killing them before the 40," Johnson said. "There's a reason. We don't have anybody on our team that Notre Dame recruited. I don't know if we have anybody on our team that Notre Dame sent a letter to. They're supposed to win."
Willingham, whose team has already had one of its long winning streaks stopped this season -- Purdue won at Notre Dame Stadium, 41-16 on Oct. 2, a first for the Boilermakers in 30 years -- said his team can't focus on keeping the winning streak over Navy alive.
"Those games don't have anything to do with this game," Willingham said. "We're going to play a Navy team that is a very good football team. It's an undefeated football team. They've earned the right to be where they are. That's the team we will face. We've got to be prepared to play that team and play very well."
But Notre Dame defensive end Justin Tuck, a senior from Kellyton, Ala., said he doesn't want to be on the team that finally loses to Navy. "You don't want to be known as the team that relinquished the streak," he said.
Holtz said that during his tenure at Notre Dame, from 1986 to 1996, the university's administration approached Navy about ending the series. The schools have played every season since 1927, with Notre Dame leading the series, 67-9-1. But Navy said it wanted to continue playing the Fighting Irish, who have long felt a sense of debt to Navy, because the academy taught some of its programs on the Notre Dame campus during World War II, helping Notre Dame stay afloat financially.
"The streak had lasted so long that Notre Dame talked to Navy about not playing any more," Holtz said. "But Navy said, 'No, we want to keep playing.' That's the thing you loved about playing Navy. Navy has always played Notre Dame hard. In my 11 years at Notre Dame, I never left a game against Navy without having great respect for the Midshipmen."
Steve Belichick, the father of New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and a Navy assistant coach and scout for 33 years, still remembers when the Midshipmen beat Notre Dame routinely. When he arrived at the academy from the University of North Carolina in 1956, the Midshipmen had enjoyed five consecutive winning seasons under Coach Eddie Erdelatz, but hadn't beaten Notre Dame in 12 years.
During preseason camp before the 1956 season, Belichick told Erdelatz and the other Navy assistants that the Midshipmen were going to beat the Fighting Irish, who were coming off an 8-2 season in 1955, including a 21-7 win over Navy. Erdelatz told Belichick to write his prediction on paper and put it inside a black wooden box sitting on the coach's desk. Navy beat Notre Dame, 33-7, in Baltimore on Nov. 3, 1956, and then beat the Irish in four of the next seven seasons. The last victory during Staubach's junior season came against Irish interim coach Hugh Devore, who was Notre Dame's third coach in six seasons.
"After 1963, all hell broke loose," Belichick said. "We weren't very competitive and they beat the hell out of us. Once the Vietnam War came on, things went downhill from there. It wasn't all Vietnam. We had some coaching changes where the recruiting wasn't very good, and we made some mistakes on coaches."
Notre Dame hired Parseghian from Northwestern in 1964, and Navy hasn't won since. Parseghian, who led the Irish to the 1973 national championship, went 11-0 against the Midshipmen. Dan Devine, who won the 1977 national title at Notre Dame, was 6-0 against Navy. Even Gerry Faust, the high school coach from Cincinnati who had a mediocre 30-26-1 record in five seasons at Notre Dame, was undefeated against Navy.
"Goodness, it's just one of those strange things that have happened," said Parseghian, 81, who lives in Granger, Ind. "There have been so many close games, even when I was at Notre Dame. It's just one of those strange streaks."
Notre Dame, along with superior talent and depth, also has had plenty of luck in keeping the streak alive. Carney's kick in 1984 came after the 25-second play clock expired, but an official said he couldn't see the play clock ("Who in their right mind would put a play clock in an NFL stadium where the official couldn't see it?" Belichick asks).
More recently, the Midshipmen completed a "Hail Mary" pass on the final play of the 1997 game. The ball bounced off Navy receiver LeBron Butts' hands and was caught by slotback Patrick McGrew. He raced for the end zone, but Irish defensive back Allen Rossum knocked McGrew out at the 2-yard line, preserving Notre Dame's 21-17 victory.
In 1999, Navy led 24-21, with 90 seconds remaining and Notre Dame faced fourth and 10 at Navy's 37-yard line. Irish quarterback Jarious Jackson threw a pass to receiver Bobby Brown, who appeared to pick up only nine yards. But Notre Dame was given a more than favorable spot, and a first down, and the Irish scored the game-winning touchdown six plays later in their 28-24 victory.
"I don't know when it's going to happen," said Belichick, who still lives in Annapolis. "The last two years they had a chance to beat them. Whether it will ever happen, who knows? It's been a long, long time."
Belichick, 85, just hopes it happens soon.
"One of these years, I guess it will happen," he said. "I just hope I'm around to see it."