For years spring football at Notre Dame has culminated with a public exhibition of what was learned by the team during spring practice, and a glimpse of what to expect in the fall. It also has served as the backdrop for the unveiling of “the shirt”, sales of which over the last 30 years have raised over $12 million for charity. This year that history has been interrupted. On March 12 the Blue-Gold game was cancelled, and a permanent asterisk on the year 2020 has been pasted in the Notre Dame record books, courtesy of the coronavirus.
Spring football 2020 at Notre Dame lasted exactly one practice and the unveiling of “the shirt” will take place online. A quirk in the history of an event that has over many years wound its way into the fabric of the lives of Notre Dame football fans.
Ever the showman, in 1929 Knute Rockne was looking for a way to promote his team and to make the end of spring football practice a bit more interesting for his players. He hit on the idea of conducting a scrimmage between his returning players against the outgoing seniors who would be soon graduating, along with a few other recent grads. The first spring game was conducted that year.
The concept continued until 1937 when under Coach Elmer Leyden many former players returned to campus to honor former player and Coach Johnny O’Brian who had tragically died in an auto accident on March 12, 1937. The game took on the moniker “the old timers’ game”, and that spring in a contest that included participation by the Four Horseman and many others, the varsity defeated the “old timers” 7-6.
Beginning in 1947 the Notre Dame Alumni Club of St. Joseph Valley took over sponsorship of the game, and since that year all proceeds from the game go to fund ND scholarships for South Bend area students. The scholarship program continues to the present time.
In 1953 a most unlikely of participants, lined up for a few series on defense for the old-timers. Future U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy was visiting South Bend the weekend of the game. Kennedy, who lettered in football at Harvard and whose family was acquainted with head Coach Frank Leahy, accepted Leahy’s invitation to play. Kennedy lined up on defense alongside greats such as Heisman winners Johnny Lattner and Leon Hart. The varsity prevailed that day 34-7.
Ara Parseghian was not a big fan of the format because he felt it did not present ideal competition for his team. In fact, in the three games played from 1965-67, the varsity ran up huge margins and was not scored upon. The last “old-timers” game was played in 1967, and was actually carried on TV nationally by ABC, opposite the Kentucky Derby. The Varsity won that day by a score of 39-0. In the 37-year history of the “old-timers’ format the varsity won 30 times.
The game took on the present format of inter squad scrimmage known as the Blue-Gold Game in 1968. Different formulas have been used to keep score and for the allocation of players between the two squads.
Notre Dame Stadium will be sadly silent this Saturday. ND fans will have to live with Blue-Gold memories of impressive performances in the 2019 game by Ian Book, Chase Claypool and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah among others. Last year Book was 16-21 for 220 yards and accounted for 3 total TDs, Claypool caught 4 passes good for 92 yards and Koramoah had 7 tackles. Glimpses of what indeed did develop during the 2019 season.
So, no Blue-Gold game this year, but the tradition of thousands of faithful Fighting Irish Football fans showing up in South Bend on an early spring day looking for a glimpse of what is to come in the Fall, will undoubtedly persevere.