Silver Anniversary: Army vs. BC in Dublin
Oct. 4, 2013
By Reid Oslin
Twenty-five years ago, the long-running and almost always-exciting Boston College-Army football rivalry took on a decided Irish brogue.
Not only was the November 19, 1988 game played on a pristine rugby pitch in Dublin, Ireland, it served as the introduction of the All-American game of major college football to Europe – both to the delight of the Irish citizenry and to the thousands of Americans who flocked to the Emerald Isle to both catch the game and enjoy a generous pour of Irish hospitality.
The Eagles won that year’s contest by a 38-24 score in a back-and-forth game that featured potent offensive attacks by both teams. But to the 45,000 fans who packed Lansdowne Road Stadium in Dublin, the day’s matchup was a thrilling showcase of the speed, power and grace of this great American game, as well as the pageantry and delight of college bands, cheerleaders and fans.
This weekend, former BC head coach Jack Bicknell and members of the Eagles’ 1988 team return to campus for a Silver Anniversary reunion of the “Emerald Isle Classic.” Between Saturday’s first and second quarter, former players and coaches from both Boston College and West Point will be introduced in a special recognition ceremony.
The Ireland game was the brain-child of former BC football player Jim O’Brien ’60, who was involved with an Irish basketball team in the mid-1980’s. O’Brien was visiting Dublin in 1986 when an NFL game being broadcast by the UK’s BBC network appeared on a television screen in a local pub. “The subject of having an American football game in Dublin came up while we were watching,” says O’Brien, “and the thought stuck with me.”
The next morning, O’Brien walked out of his hotel on the northern side of the capital city and saw Lansdowne Road Stadium, home of the Irish Rugby Football Union, across the roadway. “It was not unlike a lot of college football stadiums,” O’Brien recalls, “and it had perfect dimensions for a football game. It came into my head right then that this was going to happen.”
O’Brien’s idea was well-received by IRFU officials who noted that such a big-time sporting event would be a perfect fit in Dublin’s Millennium celebration to be held in 1988.
“I had gone to BC and played football there, so I went back to Boston to see [athletics director] Bill Flynn,” O’Brien says. “I asked him what he thought about playing as game in Dublin in two years. He threw up some objections, but I noticed a smile on his face and a little twinkle in his eye.
“Bill looked at his future schedules and said, ‘Maybe Army would be interested.’ He picked up the phone and called Carl Ulrich, the AD at West Point. Carl didn’t say ‘no’ and promised to look into it. Both ADs visited Dublin and saw the stadium, and the next thing you know, we had a gentleman’s agreement to play the game,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien lined up corporate sponsors and ESPN agreed to televise the game live back to the United States – with a 7 a.m. kickoff time for East coast fans. Former Boston sports anchor Roger Twibell and expert analyst Lee Corso called the game for the TV audience.
“At first, we didn’t have any idea how many people might go to the game,” admits O’Brien. “I suspected that it would be quite a few because of the great Irish heritage here in Boston. The trips were structured in such a way that some people would go into the west of Ireland through Shannon airport and spend time in that area and then come into Dublin the night before the game.
“Other trips were structured in just the reverse, where people came to Dublin first for the game and then finished up in the west. Our travel company [Brian Moore International Travel] did a great job.”
In all more than 10,000 fans signed up for the official tours and many more went on their own. Army personnel from all over Europe travelled to Ireland to see the West Point football team. O’Brien says that the football tourists broke all spending records in Ireland that year and pumped an estimated $50 million into the Irish economy.
The week leading up to the game was a true cultural exchange for both players and their Irish hosts. In addition to a gala party hosted by U.S. Ambassador Margaret Heckler (a former Massachusetts Congresswoman) that featured live entertainment by the famed Irish band, The Chieftains, there were parades featuring the Boston College Band and West Point Cadets, and open team practice sessions on picturesque St. Stephen’s Green in the heart of Dublin, where locals could get an up-close look at the power and finesse of the big American “footballers.”
“For once, linemen were glorified more than the quarterbacks, running backs and other skill guys,” laughs Mark Murphy ’89, a co-captain of the BC team that season. “The Irish didn’t know much about football and were simply astounded by our size. Everywhere we went, people asked up to lift up their daughters, wives and kids.
“They also kept asking us our weight,” continues Murphy. “We had no idea how many ‘stone’ we weighed, but when they told us the translation – 14 pounds equals one stone as I remember – we would do some simple math and they would throw a conniption: ‘Good God! Twenty stone!’”
Murphy and fellow BC lineman Jim Kwitchoff, both of whom stood over 6-feet-6 inches tall and tipped the scales at 280+ pounds, were guests on Gay Byrne’s national television show in Ireland – the Irish equivalent of America’s Jay Leno. “Byrne could not have been taller than 5-foot-4,” recalls Murphy. “Kwitch was speaking to me right over Gay’s head.
“I’m one of eight kids,” Murphy continued, “and my Dad sprung for the whole family to fly over. They happened to be in a Dublin bar when the Byrne show came on, and there I was on TV. The Irish guys in the pub kept asking my Dad, ‘That’s your lad? He could swallow Gay Byrne and not even belch!’ My Dad still gets a kick out of that.”
The game started with even more fanfare, as an Army parachutist dropped into the stadium to deliver the game ball to the officials.
Murphy recalls that the new Irish fans were not yet into the fine points of this complicated and rough American game. “They were getting a big kick out of relatively mundane things – they would cheer when we broke the huddle, punt the ball or kick extra points,” he says. “After the game it was pandemonium as Irish kids stormed onto the field and started taking all of our pads, gloves, tape and whatever. One guy even tried to take my helmet.”
Game officials presented the Boston College team with a beautifully handcrafted Waterford Crystal trophy cut in the shape of an American football. “Paddy Madigan, president of the IRFU, owned a string of pubs, and asked if he could put the trophy on display in one of them,” recalls O’Brien with a smile. “When I went to pick it up, I noticed that there was a big crack in it. It was turning different colors and was certainly not the bright clear crystal that it was when we gave it to them to display.
“Of course, we don’t have the trophy anymore,” he says wistfully. “Waterford claimed that they couldn’t remake it because they didn’t have the mold for it any longer. It was a one-of-a-kind thing.”
[Editor’s note: a smaller replica of the original crystal trophy stands in the Yawkey Center Football Museum on the BC campus. There are no cracks in it (yet).]
O’Brien looks back on the experience and says he would do it all over again if he could. “If you have to be known for something in your life,” O’Brien says, “it might as well be for something where everyone had a good time.
“In the end, I really didn’t make any money on the game, so I can’t say that it made me rich. But it certainly enriched my life.”