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Irish, Orange football programs have strong Yankee connections

scottteaser-215x160Knute Rockne and George Gipp must be spinning in their graves after viewing the hodge-podge football uniforms Notre Dame will don Saturday for their nationally televised game against Syracuse in the new Yankee Stadium.

I get it that the Irish wanted to pay homage to their pinstriped hosts, the New York Yankees, but the designer who came up with this mish-mash is being laughed off the fashion runway. The white pinstriped pants combined with the navy blue jersey with the pinstriped sleeves are an abomination. Judging from internet response, the verdict is three jeers for old Notre Dame. Thank goodness, the Irish will be retiring these threads after just one game. Just go back to your gold helmets and pants with the white, green or navy blue jerseys. It’s a classic combo, one of the best in sports.

While I don’t like this recent trend of college football teams selling their souls to the Under Armours and Nikes of the world by breaking out new and bizarre uniforms seemingly every game, I do like the fact third-ranked Notre Dame and 12th-ranked Syracuse will be squaring off in Yankee Stadium because both schools have strong ties to the Big Apple and the Bronx Bombers. In fact, the Orange played the first college football at the original stadium that was across the street from the new one, back in 1923, beating Pitt, 3-0, in front of 30,000. And the old House That Ruth Built was the place Rockne delivered the most famous motivational speech in sports history.

The legendary coach’s oft-referenced oratory occurred during halftime of a Nov. 10, 1928 game against top-ranked Army. Rockne’s team was trailing, 6-0, and in an effort to fire up his players, he invoked the memory of Gipp, who had been Notre Dame’s greatest football hero to that point, and who had died eight years earlier. In a story Rockne is believed to have fabricated, he talked about meeting with Gipp on his deathbed.

The star player supposedly told his coach: “Someday, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell ‘em to go out there with everything they’ve got, and win just one for the Gipper.”

Apocryphal or not, the tale was inspiring. The Irish players stormed out of the locker room normally occupied by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other other iconic Yankees and upset the Cadets, 12-6. The moment was immortalized in the 1940 movie, “Knute Rockne, All-American,” in which Ronald Reagan played Gipp. Reagan was so closely associated with the role that even after he became the 40th President of the United States, friends often referred to him as The Gipper. (By the way, there was a Rochester connection to that film, with my late friend and famed toastmaster Jerry Flynn playing an extra.)

Syracuse fans can only hope that Orange coach Dino Babers, who’s proved to be quite the motivational speaker himself, can work similar magic against an Irish team that’s a 9 ½-point favorite.

Notre Dame and SU have large followings in New York City, and clearly have enjoyed playing at the famed baseball parks, with the Irish posting a 17-6-3 record in the South Bronx, and the Orange going 6-1. The only time they played each other there was a Thanksgiving game on Nov. 28, 1963, less than a week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. SU prevailed, 14-7, one of three victories in eight meetings with the Irish.

SU’s connection with the Bronx Bombers can be seen each time someone views the Yankees’ famed Uncle Sam hat-on-the-bat baseball emblem. It just might be the most recognizable sports logo in the world, and it was designed in 1946 by Syracuse alum Lon Keller. Known as the “Norman Rockwell of sports,” Keller was commissioned by then-Yankees co-owner Larry MacPhail to create a logo to strengthen the team’s advertising opportunities after World War II.

Keller had been hired because of his reputation for designing hundreds of major college football program covers as well as his work with World Series programs. After a few tries, he came up with the design that included the Yankees script, with the “k” depicting a baseball bat. Keller also would design the New York Mets logo that features the Big Apple skyline in the background.

Sadly, Syracuse dropped varsity baseball in 1972. But one of its former players played a pivotal role in the Yankees last five World Series titles. Billy Connors never fulfilled the Major League promise he had shown as a pitcher while guiding the 1961 Orange baseball team to its only appearance in the College World Series. After a pedestrian career (0-2 won-lost record, 7.53 earned run average) in 26 games with the Chicago Cubs and Mets, Connors went on to enjoy enormous success as a three-time Yankees pitching coach and confidant of late owner George Steinbrenner.

Nicknamed the “Pitching Whisperer,” Connors served as the team’s president of player personnel from 1996-2012, and was credited with helping Yankees Hall-of-Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera develop the cutter that enabled him to record more saves than any reliever in baseball history. He also contributed to the success of several other pitchers, including Andy Petitte, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Doc Gooden and CC Sabathia.

Connors was part of a pinstriped tradition that continues Saturday with a much-anticipated college football game in the new Yankee Stadium. Here’s hoping the football is as good as the fashion is ugly, and we’re treated to a game that wears it well.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

One comment

  1. Interesting article. Thank you Scott.

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