clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Notre Dame Men’s Basketball Has One True, Obvious Rival

Let’s clarify once and for all who’s the true arch-nemesis for Notre Dame men’s basketball

Duke v Kansas Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

As SB Nation’s Rivalry Week extravaganza has expanded into its second week of prominence (more like Rivalry WEEKS, amiright???), I figured it was time for me to leap headlong into the fray and quickly chime in on a really good basketball rivalry article (and comment section discussion) that my esteemed colleague Matt Greene produced for us last week.

In his article, Matt attempts to tackle the very difficult question of whether the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team has any true rivals these days. He looked into some historical rivals like UCLA and Depaul and Marquette, as well as some more current potential rivals from Big East/ACC play like Syracuse and Louisville.

However, by the end of the piece, it was clear there wasn’t necessarily any great option — either the rivalries had faded over the years, or the potential rivalry candidates had another rival school that would always top Notre Dame in the hate/importance-of-beating-them rankings.

Louisville won the poll as the closest thing to a rival for ND men’s hoops right now, but we all know Kentucky will forever be more of a rival for the Cardinals than the Irish, despite the Irish having played 15 overtime periods against Louisville over the past 15 years and the two being separated by just 34 points over the 21 games they played during that time.

So, with no clear-cut opposing basketball program to call a rival, where should Irish fans direct their laser-focused hate during hoops season?

I’m hear to answer that question with a resounding, clear-cut, satisfying response.

Notre Dame’s undisputed, unequivocal, most-hated rival in men’s basketball is clearly and EXTREMELY obviously...


Baylor v Syracuse Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Let me explain, with the following 7 reasons.

1. Notre Dame has to face them multiple times per year, every year

Over the course of Notre Dame men’s basketball’s 124-year, 117-season history, the Irish have played games with refs 2,947* times.

*Note: this number is based on’s data plus an article Notre Dame recently put out about forgotten seasons.

2,947 games is FAR AND AWAY the most the Irish have played with any hated opponent. Based solely on volume of match-ups, the next-closest rivals are the Marquette Golden Eagles and the DePaul Blue Demons, whom the Irish have faced a measly 118 and 106 times, respectively, according to the men’s basketball record book.**

**Quick note — teams that would otherwise all be potential picks for ND’s biggest hoops rival, but don’t qualify due to not enough games played, include the following:

  • Blue bloods such as: Polish Seminary (ND 2-0 against them), Buffalo Germans (0-2), Indiana Dental (1-0), Chicago Clybornes (0-1), Fort Wayne Knights of Columbus (0-1), Akron Firestones (0-1), Alaska Anchorage (0-1), Huntington American Legion (0-1), Dayton Turners (1-1), Detroit Royals (0-1), FAL (Mexico City) (1-0), Hull House (1-0)
  • This very specific team we all remember: All-Collegians (1-0)
  • These geographical features: Bunker Hill (1-0), Chanute Field (1-0), Great Lakes (6-4), Kellogg Field (1-0)
  • Various athletic clubs from various cities: Birmingham (2-0), Detroit (1-1), Marion (3-0), Nashville (1-0), Rochester (1-0), South Bend (4-1), Syracuse Pasttime (0-1), Tiffin (0-1)
  • Even various-er YMCAs: Central YMCA (1-1), Detroit YMCA (1-1), Indianapolis YMCA (2-0), Kalamazoo YMCA (1-0), Mobile YMCA (2-0), Montgomery YMCA (1-0), Morrison YMCA (1-0), New Orleans YMCA (1-0), Peoria YMCA (1-0), South Bend YMCA (2-2)
  • Military companies/regiments/artilleries/armour institutes: Chicago First Regiment (0-1), Fairfield Company M (1-0), Grove City Company M (1-0), Illinois National Guard Company H (1-0), Muscatine Company C (0-1), Armour Institute (14-0), Battery Artillery (2-0)
  • Some sleepaway camps(?): Camp Atterbury (1-0), Camp Grant (0-1)
  • Religious aspirational peers: Christian Brothers (2-0), St. Viator (4-0), Villa Madonna (1-0)
  • ?????: Oregon (Dallas) (1-0)

Notre Dame leads the series with the refs 1,904 to 1,043 (1,042 losses and 1 tie, which I think we would all characterize as a victory for the refs, who probably found that shit hilarious) despite having a much deeper roster/rotation than the referees just about every time.

One of the only exceptions was in 1902, when the Irish apparently had 6 players total on their team, making Time Traveling head coach Mike Brey extremely happy about the tight rotation.

No matter how much deeper ND is compared to the refs, though, it’s pretty clear that the Irish’s storied history is littered with moments involving games with refs — hell, you probably can’t name a classic Irish hoops moment that didn’t involve those guys.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Hartford Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Helms Foundation retroactive national titles in 1927 and 1936 that the Irish have? The refs were there.

The 1974 streak-breaker against the Bill Walton-led UCLA Bruins? The refs were there too.

The 1978 run to the Final Four and the 1979 Elite Eight? They were there then, too.

And the back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2016? Guess who was involved.

The refs have always been there, and always will be — it’s no wonder the rivalry has escalated to this point.

Baylor v Syracuse Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

2. Notre Dame constantly has run-ins with these guys, dating back to the earliest days of Irish hoops

Of course, playing in a bunch of games with an opponent isn’t enough to make someone a rival. The Irish have played the Northwestern Wildcats 88 times over the years and are separated from each other by just a 2-hour drive***, but with ND leading that series 64-23-1 and the Wildcats having made one NCAA Tournament in their 116 years of existence, it’s really not something you could call a “rivalry.”

*** OR 4.5 hours by bus/train, 10 hours by bicycle, or 34 hours on foot — I looked all this up on, if you want to fact-check me.

Instead, for something to be considered a rivalry, you need a past of bad blood, heated incidents, and generally unpleasant run-ins while the two sides are at least fairly competitive. And BOY do the Fighting Irish have a checkered past with referees.

New Mexico State v Auburn Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

You can trace the incidents all the way back to the end of the 1897 season, according to Alan Wasielewski, Associate Athletics Communications Director for Men’s Basketball (and also Rowing).

The Irish were 2-0 in their maiden voyage, having outscored Fort Wayne YMCA 47 to 18 in two victories over that upstart squad. They then reached out to Chicago Central YMCA, looking to sniff the rarefied air of that ever-elusive, undefeated, 3-0 basketball season.

Heading into the game, Notre Dame’s weekly student newspaper, The Scholastic, had this to say about the exciting upcoming season finale:

“The team from Chicago has a clean record of victories won from the best clubs in the Windy City. Notre Dame knows a trick or two in basket-ball, and has lost no games. Query: When two irresistible forces meet what is the result? Why-er-a-why, an excellent game of basket-ball between Central YMCA of Chicago and the Notre Dame Varsity.”

“Why-er-a-why” is an incredible phrase and I’m definitely stealing it.

Anyway, just one week later, The Scholastic, quite objectively, reported the results of the contest:

“The Varsity undoubtedly would have won had the officials been impartial; but the two Chicago umpires wanted their men to win, and they seemed to do all in their power to help their team to victory.”

Gonzaga v South Dakota State Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Apparently, of the three officials involved in this game, the two who were responsible for calling the fouls were literally just guys from the Central YMCA team.****

**** Those two were the “umpires.” Meanwhile, the “referee” — responsible for keeping score, putting the ball in play, and ruling on the ball being in/out of bounds — was ND head coach Frank Hering. Sounds like the Irish deserved to lose, if they literally controlled the ball and the scoreboard and still managed to get cheated out of a win...but I digress.

Lots of foul calls on the Irish down the stretch, along with very few called on Central YMCA, led to Central YMCA taking control of the game late via free throws. The Irish, discouraged and having never lost before, threw a fun little tantrum and refused to keep playing until one of the “umpires” was a Notre Dame guy.

Central YMCA would only agree to THAT if one of their guys could then be the “referee.” No one budged, and thus the game ended early as a 3-point win for Central YMCA.

Perfect season, spoiled. Way to go, refs.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Salt Lake City Photo by Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

From then on, the Irish have always butted heads with the refs. We could sit here and list the incidents over the years for paragraphs on-end, considering just in the Brey era we’ve seen incidents like:

  • The Jerian Grant lane violation in 2012 (the refs making the objectively right call there lost the game for ND, which pisses me off)
  • The refs calling an objectively correct blocking foul on Demetrius Jackson in 2015 to give Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison the game-winning free throws to keep the Irish out of the Final Four (a disgrace to the game, those refs)
  • Demetrius Jackson getting revenge on the refs in 2016 with multiple steals that didn’t get whistled as fouls during the final minute against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 (hell yeah, STICK IT TO ‘EM DJ)
  • Mike Brey and his crew getting absolutely HOSED by the refs last winter against Florida State, leading to this absolutely glorious Mike Brey presser that earned him a $20k fine from the ACC, and a renewed undying and unconditional amount of love from me

To sum it up here, I think we all as Notre Dame men’s hoops fans can agree that the Irish are extremely unique in always getting the short end of the stick when it comes to favorable calls from referees, as our team doesn’t get the same calls that all its opponents get, and thus our team is constantly at an unfair disadvantage.

You’d never hear any other fan bases say something like that, because they can’t.

3. The refs are easy to hate because they pay their players

Not only did the refs DEFINITELY cheat Notre Dame out of the 1897 National Championship, but nowadays they’re blatantly and shamelessly paying their guys, while Mike Brey continues to run a clean program, playing by the rules and refusing to get involved in the shady, AAU-driven, shoe company-sponsored back-alley dealings that so many other programs are involved in to bring in talent.

The refs are slimy enough to beat the Irish at all costs, though, and provide their dudes with what amounts to some nice little stipends when all the dust settles.

What a disgrace.

Michigan v Wofford Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

4. Notre Dame is v. good at not fouling and refs HATE that

Referees LOVE calling fouls. It’s like air to those people.

Some refs will even make up ridiculous reasons just to be able to dole out punishments via personal or technical fouls:

So, how do you think the referees view a team like Notre Dame, who manages to foul less than literally anyone in the country?

I’ve put together a little data table to run you through the Mike Brey era and how refs have viewed the foul output:

ND Basketball’s Fouls per Game by Year

Season National Rank, Personal Fouls per Game Personal Fouls per Game How Mad the Refs Were Because They Didn't Get to Call Fouls on Notre Dame
Season National Rank, Personal Fouls per Game Personal Fouls per Game How Mad the Refs Were Because They Didn't Get to Call Fouls on Notre Dame
2019/2020 1 12.4 Filled with murdeorus vitriol
2018/2019 1 13.8 Blind with rage
2017/2018 1 13.1 Fantastically furious
2016/2017 3 14.8 Pissed as hell
2015/2016 1 15.1 Ready to fight
2014/2015 6 14.2 Exceedingly angry
2013/2014 15 16.2 The opposite of happy
2012/2013 6 14.1 Very, very mad
2011/2012 2 13.8 Undeniably irate
2010/2011 8 15.1 As vexed as can be
2009/2010 12 15.1 Irredeemably irritated
2008/2009 11 15.3 Extremely exasperated
2007/2008 9 15 Incredibly irked
2005/2006 36 16.4 Slightly resentful
2004/2005 7 15.1 Perturbed and provoked
2003/2004 4 14.8 Phenomenally peeved
2002/2003 15 16.2 Considerably cross
2001/2002 21 16.5 Increasingly aggrieved
2000/2001 14 16.7 Generally galled

Thus, it’s NO WONDER why there’s so much bad blood here. The Irish like to play a nice, clean brand of basketball, and refs HATE that.

5. Notre Dame takes really good care of the ball ON PURPOSE (because it bores the refs)

The Irish, of course, go above and beyond just playing a family-friendly game in terms of how they attempt to piss off their hated rivals.

Most teams enjoy a healthy amount of turnovers every game, keeping things interesting for the refs throughout each contest. Turnovers naturally provide a fresh twist and a sudden change in momentum and a chance for the referees to step in and make their presence known by signaling that it’s the other team’s ball now. Turnovers are their time to shine.

Brey and his squad, though? Well, they have different plans for those asshole officials:

ND’s Turnovers per Game by Year

Season National Rank, Turnovers per Game Turnovers per Game How Mad the Refs Were Because They Were Bored Because Notre Dame Wouldn't Turn It Over
Season National Rank, Turnovers per Game Turnovers per Game How Mad the Refs Were Because They Were Bored Because Notre Dame Wouldn't Turn It Over
2019/2020 3 9.8 Particularly pissed
2018/2019 4 9.3 Pretty damn piqued
2017/2018 7 9.9 Ridiculously resentful
2016/2017 2 9.5 Simply seething
2015/2016 10 9.9 Obviously annoyed
2014/2015 5 9.4 Imperceptibly incensed
2013/2014 27 10.3 Convincingly crabby
2012/2013 33 11.2 Bent out of shape
2011/2012 3 9.9 Frightfully fuming
2010/2011 12 10.4 Unambiguously aggravated
2009/2010 8 10.1 Hot under the collar
2008/2009 1 9.4 Outrageously outraged
2007/2008 79 12.9 Not very, this was more fun!
2006/2007 66 12.9 Moderately pleasant, actually
2005/2006 22 12 Reasonably riled
2004/2005 12 11.5 Hopping mad
2003/2004 4 10 Livid.
2002/2003 57 13 Feeling alright
2001/2002 47 13.3 Displeased but under control
2000/2001 101 14.5 Not mad, pretty glad

That’s right, our beloved Irish are ON RECORD as saying that they ACTIVELY try to take care of the ball and limit turnovers, and that HAS to be strictly to piss off their most despised opponents, the referees. Otherwise, why wouldn’t all the other teams in the country do the same?

That’s bad blood if I’ve ever seen it, folks. Wow.

6. Everyone Hates Ted Valentine

I do not need to explain this one any further.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

7. Because every other historically-great hoops program has an established opponent as a rival, Notre Dame gets to claim referees as theirs

Last but most certainly not least, I feel the need to point out that ND has a unique reason to earn the title of the refs’ #1 rival and to claim them as their own.

Every other historically-great hoops program has one or more other schools they would call their top rival(s), and so even if those other schools wanted to say that they hate the refs as much as the Irish do, it’s simply not true — their hate is too diluted by hating other schools, and thus Notre Dame clearly is able to focus the most animosity toward the officials and really provide that hateful rivalry the referees crave.

Butler v Virginia Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I mean, just think of the most historically-great, blue-blood programs and their top rivals that they certainly hate more than the refs. These rivalries of course mean the most to them:

  • Duke and North Carolina
  • Kentucky and Louisville
  • Kansas and Kansas State, or Kansas and Missouri
  • Indiana and Purdue
  • Syracuse and Georgetown
  • Michigan State and Michigan
  • Ohio State and Michigan
  • Everyone and Michigan
  • UCLA and Being Ordered to Stop Hanging Around Sam Gilbert
  • Villanova and The Concept That Eventually Jay Wright Will Have to Age
  • Virginia and The Institution of the Shot Clock, Which Keeps Them From Winning Games 2-0 Like They Truly Want
  • Texas and Ever Doing Anything Of Note Despite Having 5-Star Recruits All the Time
  • Polish Seminary and Indiana Dental
  • Etc.

It’s just so clear that no one has the capacity to hate these guys like the Irish do.

ND is uniquely equipped to devote their entire hearts, minds, and bodies toward detesting these dudes. This is their #1 rival, and it goes both ways, considering the refs would NEVER choose as their #1 rival another school who has a more important rival elsewhere.


I could probably come up with 1,000 other reasons here, but that would make for an even longer article, and writing way too much about inane topics is definitely not the writing style I’ve established for myself.*****

***** Narrator: “It is.”

The point, though, is quite clear — the Irish’s #1 rival in men’s hoops isn’t Marquette or DePaul or Louisville or anyone else. Instead, it’s the squad who’s been messing around with the Irish’s chances of winning since ND basketball’s literal inception — a crew so shady and annoying and offended by the way Notre Dame plays that it can’t help but hate the Irish right back, doing everything it can to keep them from winning it all.

JAN 7 1962, JAN 29 1962, MAR 13 1965, MAR 14 1965, MAR 2 1973, MAR 4 1973; Ben Dreith Wins Rockne Aw Photo By Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images

I want to hear from you, the reader, though — what are your biggest reasons you absolutely agree with me and believe the refs are clearly Notre Dame men’s basketball’s #1 rival (I will be reporting any dissent as spam, so please support my argument)?

Let’s hear uncertain times like these, it’s always good to find a common enemy we can unite together to hate, and although there are a lot of options out there for that right now, let’s all agree that the referees are certainly one we can all align on absolutely trashing in the comments section of a sports website.



Pat Rick