clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The history of Northwestern-Notre Dame

A look back at the incredible history of this once-proud rivalry.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The 1995 Northwestern vs. Notre Dame game will receive most of the attention this week and rightfully so. But there are also a lot of noteworthy events between the two schools that preceded their most recent matchup. This series of posts will touch on a few things in hopes that fans of all ages will learn something new and appreciate the significance of this rivalry, both in terms of what happened and what could have been. It is not intended to be comprehensive.

Much of what is written can be sourced to Larry LaTourette's book Northwestern Wildcat Football, which is mandatory for every Northwestern fan, and Thanks to @LPWildcat and Northwestern Archives for the images and video.



Knute Rockne, a New Rivalry Trophy, and a Meeting to Decide the 1930 National Championship

Overall, the series has not been kind to Northwestern. In the forty seven meetings between the two schools, Notre Dame has won thirty seven times to Northwestern's eight. There has also been a pair of ties. Beneath that record, however, lay buried some fascinating history with significant national implications.

The series began with a 9-0 Irish victory in Evanston in 1889. As LaTourette wrote in his book, NU "met Notre dame for the first time on a muddy Deering Meadow field. The 200 spectators set an attendance record for Northwestern and became a nuisance during the game, as fans milled about on the field. The Notre Dame fullback caught the opening kickoff and promptly kicked it back to NU. The game was brutal - several Northwestern players were injured, and one Notre Dame player received a broken jaw."

(The 1889 squad looked exactly how you imagined.)

Their second meeting came ten years later with Notre Dame defeating Northwestern 12-0 in South Bend. Northwestern's first victory over the Irish occurred in their third meeting on October 12, 1901, when the Purple came away with a 2-0 home win. They would play to a scoreless tie in 1903 and not face each other again until 1920. Notre Dame won all five meetings between 1920 and 1929 and the series would turn into a rivalry in 1930. But before that happened, Northwestern conducted a coaching search that nearly changed the fate of both schools.

Northwestern had a coaching vacancy following the 1921 season. Charles Bachman, a former Great Lakes teammate of both Bears legendary coach George Halas and Evanston native, former Wildcat, and College Football Hall of Fame inductee Paddy Driscoll, coached the team for one season in 1919. Northwestern went with Elmer McDevitt, a lawyer from Minnesota, as its next coach. He led the Wildcats in 1920 and again in 1921, a year in which Northwestern won just a single game, before leaving. As Larry LaTourette wrote, NU then "took the unprecedented step of hiring a year-round full-time head coach for football. Prior to 1922 Northwestern's coaches had been faculty members or seasonal, part-time employees."


(Here's how old Northwestern-Notre Dame programs looked.)

Notre Dame finished with a 10-1 record in 1921 and head coach Knute Rockne, who held the job since 1918, wanted to convert that success into a larger paycheck. According to, Northwestern may have been a pawn in Rockne's raise. Regardless of whether Rockne's interest in the Northwestern vacancy was genuine, the two parties entered negotiations which Northwestern believed were about to result in a new head coach.

While Rockne was in New York, a member of the New York Herald found out about the negotiations, talked to Rockne, and wrote a letter to Northwestern president Walter Dill Scott outlining what he had learned. Scott responded to the reporter by stating that Rockne was in the market for a house in Evanston (side note: this appears to be a common theme among coaching search rumors throughout the history of the sport) and about to accept the job. Before Rockne and Northwestern's next scheduled meeting, however, Rockne re-signed with Notre Dame under a new contract.

After losing out on Rockne, Northwestern hired Glenn Thistlethwaite, who coached the team from 1922-1926 before leaving for Wisconsin.

Rockne made a big impact on the series with the introduction of the shillelagh trophy, more than two decades before Notre Dame would play USC (1952) and Purdue (1957) for similar trophies. The 1930 debut of the shillelagh preceded the debut of the Fire Bell, the first of several trophies awarded to the winner between Northwestern and Illinois, by eleven years. The shillelagh was given to Rockne by the president of the Irish Free State in 1930 and quickly introduced as the trophy to be played for by Notre Dame and Northwestern. Rockne hoped that the games against Northwestern would help them gain a greater presence in Chicago, a city that had historically had a large focus on the University of Chicago and Northwestern.

(Northwestern's 1930 team.)

The two schools were undefeated when they played on the final week of the season. Northwestern had just clinched a share of their third Big Ten championship the week before against Wisconsin and the outcome of this game would likely decide the national championship. Following their win over Wisconsin the previous week, Northwestern canceled classes that Monday afternoon as the school celebrated and prepared for what is still one of the biggest games in school history. According to LaTourette, midfield seats were going for as much as $110. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator, $110 in 1930 had a buying power equivalent of $1,567.87 in 2014. Northwestern also brought out a live wildcat, which remained caged on the sideline during the game. Notre Dame won 14-0, though it was closer than the final indicates, and clinched their second consecutive national championship.

Northwestern finished the 1930 season tied atop the Big Ten standings with Michigan, who tied a pre-Big Ten Michigan State earlier in the year, and finished with an 8-0-1 record. Alabama, like Notre Dame, finished with a perfect record after their Rose Bowl victory against Washington State. They currently claim a share of the national championship.

Alumni from both the Northwestern and Notre Dame programs would play each other on Thanksgiving Day at Soldier Field as the opening act for a Great Depression relief charity game. The snowy game ended in a scoreless tie.

The trophy was featured in the series until the mid-1970s, when it became a forgotten relic of a once flourishing rivalry. Rockne died in a plane crash in March 1931.


The Start to a Memorable 1931 Season and the Shocking Letdown to the Original "The Game of the Century"

Northwestern started the 1931 season with a win in their first ever game against Nebraska. They then faced Notre Dame, who had lost their coach in the tragic plane crash the previous spring. The game was held at Soldier Field and, in large part due to the rain, finished in a scoreless tie.

Nearly all of the 65,000 fans in attendance stayed the entire game, according to Tribune writer Harvey Woodruff: "Those 65,000 spectators sat through intermittent downpours and drizzles for two and one-half hours. Few of them left the tense scene before the finish. Picture any other class of sport followers enduring such discomforts for a game which from a technical view could not possibly be good football, but which carried such import to each and every individual participating."

While a draw may not seem like a great result, Notre Dame had won their previous twenty games, which included perfect seasons in 1929 and 1930, and the tie ended a six game losing streak against Notre Dame that dated back to 1920. It also put Northwestern on a path for a very special season. They went on to defeat UCLA, Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and Iowa to finish their originally scheduled season, giving them a record of 7-0-1 and hopes of both a share of the national championship and a possible Rose Bowl appearance.

Prior to that game against Iowa, however, a Great Depression relief charity game had been scheduled at Soldier Field against Purdue for Thanksgiving weekend. Northwestern ended up losing the game 7-0 after a late interception and subsequent touchdown. The Wildcat who threw that interception, George Potter, injured his ankle the night before the game in the team's Chicago hotel after he and nine teammates had their elevator fall from the sixth floor to the lobby. Northwestern ended up sharing the conference title with Purdue and Michigan.

(The 1931 team in their classic home uniforms.)

When Northwestern traveled to South Bend on November 9, 1935 under new head coach Lynn Waldorf, they did so with just a single victory over Notre Dame in the program's history. NU had not won since the 1901 game and Notre Dame led the series 11-1-2, winning the previous three meetings. Dick Hanley's departure at the end of the 1934 season opened the door for Waldorf, who coached the 1934 season with Kansas State and won the school's first conference championship. His year would start with a 14-0 victory over DePaul before losing to Purdue at home in the first night game in Big Ten history and then both Ohio State and Minnesota. His first conference win came against Illinois, a 10-3 home victory, that probably lifted the mood of the team before heading south to face Notre Dame the following week.

It's worth noting that the night game against Purdue came about because Northwestern Athletic Director Tug Wilson wanted to avoid a conflict with the Cubs vs. Tigers World Series game being played at Wrigley that afternoon. Northwestern installed temporary lighting affixed to telephone poles surrounding Dyche Stadium.

While Northwestern took care of a struggling Illinois team in Evanston, Notre Dame was in the process of earning an historic 18-13 victory at Ohio State. The game was hyped as the original "The Game of the Century" and was the first matchup between the two programs. Notre Dame overcame a 13-0 deficit after three quarters and scored the game-winning touchdown with just 32 seconds left in front of a record crowd at Ohio Stadium.

Notre Dame returned home with a perfect 6-0 record and three games standing between them and a perfect season. Their remaining schedule consisted of Northwestern, what would be a two-loss Army team in the Bronx, and back home against a bad USC Trojans squad. Expectations must have been high given the team's momentum and that remaining schedule, but the dream was dashed when Northwestern pulled off a 14-7 road upset. You can view the game below, including the fumble (21:54), go-ahead touchdown (22:58), and interception in the end zone (24:53) that decided the game.

Back in Evanston, an estimated 3,500 students and fans reacted to the win by flooding Fountain Square and blocking traffic. Later that evening, 1,000 fans traveled in cars and buses, with the help of police motorcycle escorts, to the Illinois Central station where they welcomed the team home. Northwestern would finish their season with a win over Wisconsin and a scoreless tie against Iowa. Notre Dame tied Army the following week and beat USC, finishing 7-1-1.

Largely as a result of that win over Notre Dame, Waldorf was named the first American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year, an award later won by Gary Barnett in 1995, and appeared on a Wheaties box.


A National Title Denied, Notre Dame's First Unranked Season, and Northwestern's Return to the Top

Northwestern may have ruined the national title hopes of Notre Dame in 1935, but the Irish returned the favor on the final week of the 1936 season. Northwestern had beaten Michigan to improve to 7-0 and were one win away from a perfect season. They had also broken Minnesota's twenty eight game unbeaten streak on Halloween, giving them the top ranking in the AP poll in just the third week of its existence. They held onto that ranking until the final game, a 26-6 road loss at Notre Dame.

Somewhat inexplicably, Northwestern would finish seventh in the AP poll, well behind crowned national champion Minnesota, who had fallen to Northwestern earlier in the season. Notre Dame finished eighth.

Both teams were ranked when they met in Evanston on the final week of the 1940 season. Waldorf's tenth ranked Wildcats were coming off a 20-13 loss at sixth ranked Michigan. It was their second defeat of the season as they had also lost 13-12 at home to fourth ranked Minnesota two weeks prior. Notre Dame, ranked fourteenth in the country, had fallen to 6-1 on the season the week before as a result of a stunning 7-0 home upset at the hands of Iowa. Northwestern beat the Irish 20-0, only their second shutout victory of the series and first since 1901.

You can watch about 60 seconds of stock footage from that game featuring Wildcat star Bill DeCorrevont and Don Clawson in this YouTube clip.

Northwestern moved up to seventh in the AP poll following the win, though they finished eighth after the final poll was released in early December. Notre Dame would finish the year unranked for the first time since the AP Poll was introduced in 1936.


(Evanston used to be a party when NU won.)

Notre Dame was at the center of Northwestern's only other appearance atop the AP poll. The Wildcats went into their late October 1962 matchup with a perfect record and ranked third in the country after an 18-14 road win at Ohio State. Celebrations ensued and anticipation remained high all week for the homecoming game against Notre Dame. NU had won the previous three games against Notre Dame and looked to retain the Shillelagh.  The shillelagh was very much in focus, as you can see on the front page of the Tribune's sports section the day before the game.

NU dealt Notre Dame their most lopsided loss of the series, a 35-6 final, in front of a Dyche Stadium/Ryan Field record crowd of 55,752.

The statement victory moved Northwestern from third to first in the AP Poll for the first time since before NU's loss to Notre Dame in 1936. Northwestern defeated Indiana on the road the following week, but suffered blowout losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State before defeating Miami to finish 7-2 and unranked. They have not been ranked number one in the country since.

The 1962 game was also the last time Ara Parseghian coached Northwestern against Notre Dame, winning all four of the rivalry games for NU from 1959-1962. Prior to the 1959 season, Northwestern had not faced Notre Dame since their game in 1948, a year in which a two loss Wildcat team beat Cal in the Rose Bowl. Parseghian left for the Notre Dame job following a 5-4 season at NU in 1963. Notre Dame would win the next fourteen games in the series, nine of which were coached by Parseghian, before Northwestern's 1995 upset. Parseghian led Notre Dame to national championships in 1966 and 1973.

(Ara Parseghian coaching the Wildcats to a victory in South Bend.)

The two schools did not meet following their game in 1976 until 1992, the start of a four game series that effectively forced Northwestern to sell home games in 1992 and 1994 to Notre Dame to be played at Soldier Field. You can read more about the finances of that game here. At the time, it was the only way Northwestern could schedule Notre Dame.


Northwestern and Notre Dame are currently scheduled to play in Evanston on November 3, 2018. Despite fan speculation that Notre Dame may cancel the return trip, there has been nothing to date which validates that fear. On October 21, Notre Dame released their ACC schedule for 2015-2019, which does not include a game for that November 3rd date. If something does happen with this game, it appears that it would not be related to an unavoidable scheduling conflict.

It's also worth noting that the week following Notre Dame's trip to Evanston will feature their first regular season game against Florida State since this season. Regardless of whether you believe in the concept of trap games, the media focus, as well as that of their fans, will probably be on the rematch in South Bend.

As for more games against Notre Dame, it may largely depend on the relationship between Jim Philips and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick. Neither will be around forever and without that link, it's hard to see them playing again soon. Notre Dame has little to nothing to gain by playing Northwestern and a loss would hurt their head-to-head recruiting efforts. Their presence in Chicago is far different than what it was when the original shillelagh trophy was introduced in 1930.