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Irish Insider: ND-GT series history is rich in tradition

Kate Gales | Friday, September 1, 2006

When the nation’s great college football rivalries are discussed, the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech series is seldom mentioned.

It doesn’t have glamour and prestige that Notre Dame-USC possesses. The Yellow Jackets do not have the same significance in Notre Dame history as the Navy Midshipmen. And there is little emphasis on all-time winning percentages, a title always at stake when the Notre Dame plays Michigan.

And while Notre Dame has dominated Georgia Tech in the past, possessing a 26-5-1 record, the rivalry extends well beyond who wins on Saturday.

First of all, the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech series gave college football one of its greatest stories – Rudy. It also saw a game where the Yellow Jackets won without completing a pass. It witnessed the rededication of Notre Dame Stadium in 1997 decades after Knute Rockne walked the sidelines.

And it’s an important piece of American social history, as well as two of college football’s most storied powerhouses.

Looking back, Notre Dame wasn’t a world-renowned university in the early 20th century. But it took its sports seriously.

“Out of that athletic culture came good football teams – before Rockne [was a coach] and when Rockne was a player,” said Murray Sperber, author of “Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football.”

The social culture surrounding the fledgling university, however, was less conducive to its success. It was “an era with tremendous amounts of prejudice” against Catholics, Sperber said.

In the early twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan planned an attack on the University and the Big 10 refused to allow Notre Dame to become a member institution.

“That was the world that Rockne and Notre Dame had to operate in,” Sperber said. “They turned it to their advantage because not many Big 10 schools would play them … [and] they had to travel great distances for opponents.”

Notre Dame’s first game against Georgia Tech, a 13-3 win, took place in 1922.

“Going to Georgia Tech that first time in 1922 was very important,” Sperber said. “Rockne wanted big paydays. … People criticized Rockne for [scheduling this game] because Notre Dame might lose.”

There are more than social implications to the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech series, however. When Rcokne scheduled the Yellow Jackets, it was a clash of titans within the college game.

“One of the reasons [this series] is significant is because Georgia Tech was such a huge power in college football from fairly early on,” said Professor John Soares, who teaches a course in American sports history at Notre Dame. “One factor is that Notre Dame obviously has its strong history in football, and Georgia Tech has it as well.”

Georgia Tech hired only its fourth football coach in 1967. Two of its previous coaches were John Heisman, for whom the sport’s most prestigious award was named, and Bobby Dodd, for whom college football’s Coach of the Year award is named.

In the 1970s, Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine and Georgia Tech head coach Pepper Rodgers – old rivals from Missouri and Kansas, respectively – brought new blood to the series.

In 1976, the Yellow Jackets beat the Irish despite attempting only one pass, an incompletion. The Irish were stunned by the wishbone, but made up for it the following year, winning 69-14 en route to a national championship.

The rivalry grew in 1978 as angry Georgia Tech fans pelted the Notre Dame sidelines with bottles during the game, to the point where Devine was concerned about team safety.

They also threw fish in a reference to the derogatory term for Catholics “mackerel snappers,” said Sperber. But the anti-Catholicism of the 1970s was nothing compared to what Rockne faced in the 1920s, when the Klan attempted to march on the university.

“Any game against Georgia Tech was particularly charged with all this extra meaning,” Sperber said, noting that the staunchly anti-Catholic Klan was based in Atlanta.

But all of this happened before today’s students were born. The college-aged Irish fans making the trek from South Bend to Atlanta this weekend might not appreciate the strong academic tradition of Georgia Tech.

Perhaps their strongest Georgia Tech memories come from the movie “Rudy.” The climatic scene is set at the 1975 Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game, a 24-3 win where Daniel Ruettiger recorded a sack in the waning minutes.

Some might have been present for the stadium rededication in 1997, a 17-13 win over the Yellow Jackets that marked Bob Davie’s debut.

“It has been a while since Georgia Tech has been consistently at the top of the rankings year in and year out,” Soares said.

Tech’s last national title was in 1990, two years after Notre Dame’s 1988 title.

However, although their modern teams don’t have the cachet of Southern California or Lousiana State, there will be tradition at stake on both sides Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“They tend to win more than they lose and go to bowl games,” Soares said. “But I think a lot of fans don’t appreciate how rich their tradition is.”