Boston College-Notre Dame: History Behind The Holy War

Frank Leahy was the object of the first big Notre Dame-Boston College battle.

It’s been a season in the doldrums for Boston College, the Eagles brought a 3-7 record into the season’s second to last game. There won’t be a bowl game this Christmas season, but BC traveled to South Bend for Saturday’s game and put up a fight against Notre Dame. Let’s look at the background of what’s become known as the “Holy War”, where the nation’s only two Catholic institutions with FBS football programs square off.

The series itself is of recent vintage, with its first game in 1975, but the animosity goes all the way back to 1941. Frank Leahy was the object of contention. The former Notre Dame player had gone into coaching and been an assistant at Fordham, where he was Vince Lombardi’s position coach. Leahy’s first chance at a head coaching opportunity came in Chestnut Hill and he made the most of it, going 20-2 over two seasons, including a perfect season in 1940 capped off by Sugar Bowl triumph over Tennessee and its legendary head man General Robert Neyland (for whom the Vols’ stadium is today named). BC was voted a share of the national championship and Leahy was a man in demand.

Notre Dame came calling for Knute Rockne’s former player, but Leahy had just signed a contract and Boston College refused to let him out of it. Leahy was desperate to return to his alma mater and pulled out all the stops. He even sought intervention of Boston mayor Maurice Tobin to plead his case with BC officials. Eventually he settled in a more devious tactics. Leahy held a press conference in which he told everyone that Boston College had granted him his release and wished him well. It was a complete lie, but in the face of the media firestorm that ensured, the school capitulated and Leahy went to South Bend. In future decades Notre Dame would get a deserved reputation as a school that honored contracts (a reputation since forfeited over the last ten years or so), but when it comes to keeping one’s word, has anyone been more fervent than BC, from Leahy to Jeff Jagodzinski?

The rivalry came out of the administration offices and onto the football field for 1975, but Boston College was light years behind Notre Dame at that time and the irish won 17-3 in a game played in Foxboro. The next meeting didn’t come until after the 1983 season and it took a special circumstance to bring it about. These were the Doug Flutie years and the Eagles had a ticket to the Liberty Bowl. At the time Notre Dame had a policy of not going to minor bowl games (one that still invoke every now and then), but  third-year coach Gerry Faust was struggling. A genuinely good man who was just in over his head, hired straight out of the high school ranks, Faust had the support of the university and higher-ups and they wanted to give him a chance to get into a bowl. The Irish accepted the bid to Memphis and won an exciting 19-18 game. ND also won a 1987 game after Lou Holtz had taken over, by a 32-25 score and extended their series lead to 3-0.

1993 was the year that changed this rivalry forever, but to understand it properly we have to go back to 1992. Boston College was having a big year and in the hunt for a major bowl invitation. Tom Coughlin was building a reputation as an up-and-coming coach and Glenn Foley was a hot young quarterback. It all came crashing down in a 54-7 drubbing at South Bend. What stuck in BC’s craw was not just the score, but that Holtz ran a fake punt after the game was out of end. The Eagles returned to the hallowed grounds of the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus one year later with even bigger stakes on the line.

It was Notre Dame’s final  game of the regular season and ranked #1 they were poised to wrap up an Orange Bowl bid and would be solid favorites to win the national championship. One week earlier the Irish had upset Florida State 31-24 in that year’s “Game of the Century.”  Since becoming a commentator on ESPN, Holtz has often lamented the difficulty of final home games, because of the ceremonies for the seniors and the emotions of the moment causing a loss of focus. Whatever the reason was, Foley and the Eagles came out guns blazing and were ahead by a stunning 38-17 margin in the fourth quarter. Then in just as stunning as fashion, the Irish came storming right back. They scored two touchdowns and added a two-point conversion. And in the closing minute, ND took the lead 39-38.

David Gordon's knuckleball kick changed the course of this rivalry in 1993.

Boston College got a huge break with a roughing penalty on the ensuing kickoff and Foley used the extra 15 yards to quickly maneuver the Eagles into field goal range. David Gordon trotted onto the field. The kick came wobbling off his foot, so much so that it looked like a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. But it knuckled through the goal post and BC had a stunning upset. They went on to a New Year’s Day bowl win over Virginia and finished #11 in the country. Notre Dame settled for a Cotton Bowl win and final #2 ranking.

If 1993 was the turning point, then ’94 was the eye-opener. One thrilling moment wasn’t going to build a sustained rivalry unless Boston College could establish parity. And against a struggling Notre Dame team the Eagles did just that, rolling to a 30-11 win and providing indisputable confirmation that a true Holy War had begun.

There have been other great moments  since. Boston College went to Notre Dame and faced an unbeaten Irish squad in 2002 and again came out with a win. Notre Dame won a big game in 1998 on a goal-line stand. BC’s defense was in lockdown mode against Charlie Weis and the Irish back in 2008 in a 17-0 win. That win evened the series at nine games apiece, although ND has bounced back to win the latter two.

With Brian Kelly having infused some new life into the Notre Dame program and Boston College seemingly adrift right now under Frank Spaziani, the Eagles are a solid underdog on Saturday. Whatever happens  in this game though, is less important than BC getting its own program back on the right foot. It took a long time for the Eagles to first establish parity with Notre Dame and then surpass them. They can’t give all that hard-won ground in the Holy War back now.

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