The History of the Subway Alumni

The Subway Alumni are Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans who never attended or graduate from the school, but their loyalty to ND runs deep. They are the unofficial heartbeat of Notre Dame.

The NYC subway lines inspired the nickname when the city’s residents began using them to reach early Notre Dame football games. Over time, the Irish Catholic population gravitated towards the burgeoning Midwestern school.

In 1991, Notre Dame’s televised home games on NBC bolstered the Subway Alumni numbers, securing their growth for nine subsequent decades. Despite originating in New York City, the fan group has since permeated Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and beyond. Today, the Subway Alumni network is an uncountable throng of fans whose legacies span multiple generations. Their passion and fidelity to the Fighting Irish are as real and loyal as any alumni to any school in America.

Subway Alumni Origin Story

Jesse Harper, Notre Dame’s football coach in 1913, spearheaded the team’s expansion beyond the Midwest, scheduling games with powerhouse teams like Texas, Penn State, and Army. A remarkable victory ensued on November 1, 1913, when Charles “Gus” Dorais and Knute Rockne led Notre Dame to a stunning win over the Black Knights at West Point, scoring 35-13.

Five years later, Notre Dame, then known as the Ramblers, appointed Knute Rockne as Head Coach. Over 13 seasons, Rockne’s impact on ND became legendary, accruing three National Championships and an impressive 105-12-5 record.

The 1919 game at West Point saw over 5,000 spectators, including hundreds of Notre Dame supporters and future Subway Alumni. This diverse group was composed of former players, alumni, students, and spectators from New York.

Notre Dame vs. Army at the Polo Grounds, 1924

The “Fighting Irish” Tradition

The term “Fighting Irish,” popularized by Notre Dame alumnus Francis Wallace in the 1920s, became the official Notre Dame nickname under University President Rev. Matthew Walsh, C.S.C., in 1927. Notre Dame’s victory over Army attracted nationwide attention, igniting a common bond among thousands of Irish Catholics across the country, many of whom had never set foot on a college campus. This newfound passion birthed the school’s Subway Alumni.

One particularly noteworthy aspect of the 1921 season was ND’s participation in three games within eight days. After defeating Army on November 5, the team stayed in New York, training at the Bear Mountain Inn near West Point. Days later, they trounced Rutgers 48-0 at the Polo Grounds on Election Day. Despite the tight game schedule, Rockne agreed to play Rutgers to spotlight ND in New York’s newspapers and expand its Subway Alumni base.

By 1923, Cullum Field at West Point couldn’t accommodate the crowds drawn by the Notre Dame-Army rivalry, necessitating a move to New York. The series of games played there saw a steady increase in spectators, indicating a growing Subway Alumni.

One year later, Grantland Rice immortalized four Notre Dame players with an iconic epithet in the New York Herald Tribune. He likened them to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And the legend of The Four Horseman of Notre Dame was born!

Jack Buckler scores for Army against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 2, 1933. The Cadets were undefeated heading into the game, but lost 13-12 when the Irish blocked an Army punt in the final minute and recovered the ball in the end zone.Credit...Associated Press

Subway Alumni & ND Alumni Association

The Subway Alumni, originating in the early days of Notre Dame football’s rise to national prominence, became synonymous with the sport. This dedicated fan group expanded from New York City to Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and other cities worldwide.

The University of Notre Dame Alumni Association has clubs across the globe, many consisting of Subway Alumni. In Italy they are known locally as ‘catacomb alumni’ since the establishment of a Notre Dame Club there in 1944. And the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania club comprises 92% Subway Alumni.

In 1975, Notre Dame recognized the significance of this unique fan base by creating the Subway Alumni Association, a development program designed to transfer interest in Irish football to the University as a whole. This initiative reached 3,600 members in its first year but was discontinued after a year due to financial considerations. Despite its short-lived nature, the experiment underscored the importance of the Subway Alumni in the University’s history.

Their enduring loyalty is a testament to the powerful influence of Notre Dame football and the Fighting Irish spirit that resonates so strongly with these devoted fans.