Welcome to a Brief History of Stanford-Notre Dame. The final game of the regular season is upon us and since it’s an odd year that means that the Stanford Cardinal are hosting the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Today I’ll be taking a look back at the history of this interesting and rather unique Stanford rivalry game.
The University of Notre Dame began playing football all the way back in 1887, having famously been taught the sport by players from the University of Michigan. The Notre Dame football program began life at a very small scale, playing regional opponents of a similar stature. By the 1910’s, the Notre Dame team became a regional power, and their win over Army in 1913 put the team on the map.
The first meeting between Notre Dame and Stanford was in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Both teams had just leapt into the forefront of the college football world during the 1924 season and were led by two of the greatest coaches the sport has ever produced. Knute Rockne was in his seventh season in South Bend and had coached Notre Dame through an undefeated season. Stanford was led by Pop Warner, who had just moved out West from the University of Pittsburgh following a very successful tenure there. Warner similarly led Stanford to an undefeated season, though a tie against Cal blemished their perfect record.
The story goes that Notre Dame wanted to use the Rose Bowl as an annual game in Los Angeles to increase their money and exposure as well as provide a yearly game for their West Coast fans. Stanford and Cal vetoed this proposition, saying that Notre Dame’s academic standards were not high enough to permit this arrangement. Nevertheless, Notre Dame was invited to play in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Stanford accepted the invite as the PCC champion only when it became clear how lucrative the game would be and that USC had reached out to take their place.
The game itself has become immortalized in Rose Bowl history as a meeting between all-time greats. Rockne’s Notre Dame squad featured the legendary Four Horsemen of Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Leyden. Pop Warner had an ace in his sleeve in star fullback Ernie Nevers. Nevers was considered the player of his generation and was the backbone of Stanford’s offense. In the Rose Bowl game itself, Stanford dominated, and Nevers outgained the entire Four Horsemen by himself, but a whopping eight turnovers led to a 27-10 Notre Dame victory. The win would crown Notre Dame’s first ever national championship season. Stanford would have to wait two more years for their first Rose Bowl win and national title.
Notre Dame’s win in the 1925 Rose Bowl launched the Fighting Irish among the college football elite. The Irish have arguably been the most successful team in the sport from 1924 to 1988 (ND’s most recent national championship season). Stanford’s luck hasn’t been quite the same. They’ve had highs and lows throughout the decades and have never won a national championship since Warner’s title in 1926.
Stanford and Notre Dame next met in 1942. The Indians were playing a road game in South Bend and were led by Marchmont Schwartz, who had been a star running back under Knute Rockne in 1929 and 1930. The Irish were led by Frank Leahy, who was about to become Notre Dame’s second legendary coach after Rockne, and reestablish the Irish as the premier team in the country. ND pounded Stanford 27-0 and the teams wouldn’t meet for another two decades.
The Indians and the Fighting Irish finally inked a proper home and home series for the 1963 and 1964 seasons. Unfortunately, neither program had much talent to display in that first season. A bad Stanford team beat an equally bad Notre Dame squad 24-14 at Stanford Stadium to give the Indians their first win in the series. The Fighting Irish hired Ara Parseghian to coach ND in 1964, and that year’s Notre Dame team whipped Stanford 28-6 in South Bend. The game was still not considered a rivalry and would be shelved for over 20 years.
The Notre Dame-Stanford game finally became a yearly affair in 1988. The home and home pattern was set where the Cardinal would travel to South Bend in October on even years and host at Stanford Stadium after the Big Game on odd years, mirroring the arrangement the Irish have with USC. 1988 was a banner year for Notre Dame, the Irish would kick off a campaign that saw them win their most recent championship with an undefeated campaign. Stanford had less success, and a bad Cardinal team was driven out of South Bend in a 42-14 beatdown.
During the 1989 season, the Legends Trophy was introduced by the Notre Dame Club of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Trophy features an Irish crystal bowl that sits on a base made out of California Redwood which records the scores of every meeting between the teams. It is the traveling trophy of the series and has helped make the rivalry a special event for players and fans.
Stanford got its first win in the modern series in 1990. In a shocking upset, the undefeated and #1 ranked Irish lost at home to the 1-3 Cardinal by a 31-36 score. Stanford won in South Bend again in 1992, as the #18 Cardinal again upset undefeated Notre Dame. It was the Irish’s only loss that season and ended their hopes for a national championship. The Fighting Irish won the 1993 and 1994 meetings and the series would go on a brief hiatus before being resumed in 1997, it has been played annually ever since.
Stanford initially had a good deal of success in the resumed rivalry, winning three of their first five meetings against Notre Dame. The Irish, who had struggled in the late 1990’s, decided to fix their problems by hiring Cardinal head coach Tyrone Willingham. Willingham’s departure was a huge blow to Stanford’s program, and even though Willingham didn’t work out in South Bend, the Irish would continue dominate the series.
Notre Dame won eight games in a row over Stanford from 2002 to 2008, some by just a touchdown, others in blowout fashion. The Cardinal finally ended the streak in 2009 in a 45-38 home victory. The loss was the final nail in the coffin for Irish head coach Charlie Weis, who was replaced by Brian Kelly. Kelly would resuscitate the Notre Dame program which had been playing well below expectations for most of the 2000’s. This rise back to prominence mirrored Stanford’s own growth during the Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw tenures at The Farm.
In the past decade, the Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry has become a much more important series. In addition to being a celebrated yearly matchup, one or both teams usually enters the game ranked, and frequently BCS or Playoff hopes have been on the line.
In 2010, Stanford won their first game in South Bend since 1992 with a 37-14 victory en route to their first Orange Bowl appearance in school history. In 2011, both teams entered the game ranked for the first time since ’92, and a 28-14 Cardinal victory gave Stanford it’s only three-game winning streak in the history of the rivalry. Notre Dame’s controversial overtime win over the Cardinal in 2012 preserved the Irish’s unbeaten season and handed Stanford one of only two losses on the year. Notre Dame defeated the Cardinal in similarly bitter fashion in 2014. Stanford’s last second victory in 2015 prevented the Fighting Irish from making the College Football Playoff. The Cardinal have won the most recent game 17-10 in South Bend.
Since overcoming the Irish in 2009, the Cardinal have won six of the last eight meetings, but Notre Dame leads the all-time series 19-12.