• Phil Houk

The Blue Gold Game: a 92 Year Tradition Continues

Is Jack Coan the guy at QB? Who will catch the football this season? How will the Irish rebuild the offensive line? What tricks might new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman have up his sleeve?

For 92 years spring football at Notre Dame has culminated with a public exhibition of what was learned by the team in the spring, and a glimpse of what to expect in the fall.

Last year that history was interrupted and permanently affixed a Covid induced asterisk to the year 2020. But this year the game returns, all though it will be in front of a live audience limited to parents, faculty, staff and students in the Stadium.

The tradition started in 1929 when Knute Rockne, ever the showman, 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 concept continued until 1937, when under Coach Elmer Leyden many former players returned to honor former player and Coach Johnny O’Brian. o’Brian 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 match 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. This 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 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. He lined up alongside greats such as Johnny Lattner, Leon Hart and Frank Tripuka. The varsity prevailed that day 34-7.

Future Senator, Ted Kennedy who had played football at Harvard, participated in the 1953 Spring game.

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 65-67, the varsity ran up large 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 intra squad scrimmage known as the Blue Gold Game in 1968. Different formulas have been used since to keep score and for the allocation of players between the two squads. But the tradition of legions of faithful Fighting Irish Football fans on an early spring day looking for a glimpse of what is to come in the Fall, has persevered.

The 2021 Blue Gold game will kickoff at 12:30 PM, Saturday May 1. TV coverage will be on Peacock the NBC owned streaming service. Access to the game is free, but requires the creation of an account and the downloading of the Peacock app, details are available here.

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