A recurring theme in the often bitter, more-off-than-on Michigan-Notre Dame college football rivalry is this.
When one school pulls the plug on the series, the jilted other stews. Then burns. Once soaked in bitterness it ridicules the other — even for decades on end.
And it’s happening again.
The only thing unique about the coming Michigan-Notre Dame series hiatus — which begins following Saturday’s primetime matchup at Notre Dame, Ind. (7:30 p.m. EDT, NBC) — is that for the first time the plug-puller isn’t Michigan.
It’s Notre Dame.
Two years ago, about an hour before the host Fighting Irish and Wolverines squared off at Notre Dame Stadium, ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed his Michigan counterpart, Dave Brandon, an envelope. Didn’t seem like a big deal to Brandon, so he just pocketed it.
The next day, on the three-hour drive back to Ann Arbor, Brandon opened the envelope to find a letter from Swarbrick, informing him that Notre Dame was exercising the out-trigger in their football contract, meaning only three more games were to be played — specifically, the night before’s 2012 game (won 13-6 by Notre Dame), last year’s 41-30 win by Michigan in Ann Arbor, and this Saturday night’s game.
The schools in 2007 had announced an extension to play through 2031 but Brandon discovered upon becoming Michigan’s AD in 2010 that the deal never was consummated in a signed document. For starters, in a contract dated May 16, 2011, the schools agreed on seven dates through 2017.
Only one of those games had been played when Swarbrick handed Brandon The Envelope.
“While this move is a necessary precaution as we begin the process of meeting our new (five-game annual) scheduling commitment to the ACC,” Swarbrick wrote in the letter to Brandon, a copy of which Sun Media has obtained, “please know that Notre Dame very much values its relationship with Michigan, and we look forward to working with you to ensure that our great football rivalry can continue.”
Brandon was miffed. First, to have been informed in that manner. Second, to not have been consulted about it. And third, to have been informed mere minutes before the 2012 game, which allowed Notre Dame to conclude the modern series with an extra home game, as relations were renewed at Notre Dame Stadium in 1978 after a 35-year series layoff.
Brandon did not hide his disappointment publicly in the days following The Envelope’s handoff.
“We value our annual rivalry with Notre Dame but will have to see what the future holds for any continuation of the series,” Brandon said at the time. “This cancellation presents new scheduling opportunities for our program and provides a chance to create some new rivalries.”
Brandon since then has gone further, saying the Notre Dame series won’t resume any time soon, if ever. He already has inked home-and-homes and one-off games against other national powers — such as Oklahoma, Arkansas and Florida — to fill the early-season voids created by the loss of the hotly contested, highly anticipated Notre Dame games.
For marquee non-conference opponents, Michigan is scheduled out now until the middle of next decade. That’s a direct result of the stewing and burning.
The return ridiculing began in May 2013, when Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke told a lunch crowd that Notre Dame was “chickening out” of the series, because the Fighting Irish aren’t interrupting their annual series with their other Big Ten conference rivals: Michigan State (just now a power) and ever-struggling Purdue.
Seconds after time ran out in Michigan’s primetime win over Notre Dame a year ago, The Chicken Dance blared over the Michigan Stadium PA — to the laughter, enjoyment and clap-clap-clap-claps of more than 100,000 Wolverine fans.
The irony of Michigan’s poutiness is as thick as the cornstalks in all those farm fields wedged between South Bend and Ann Arbor.
Here’s why, as I detailed in Natural Enemies, my history book on this series that first came out in 1994 and last was published by Taylor Trade in 2007.
Michigan was Notre Dame’s very first football opponent, in November 1887 — 16 years before the first Yankees-Bosox baseball game, five years before the Stanley Cup first was hoisted and four years before basketball was even invented.
As their fight song would later boast, the Wolverines were “champions of the West” (i.e, Midwest). They literally taught football to a group of eager ND students, whose idea of the sport to that point had been a hundred players to a side, struggling to kick or throw a ball over the other’s fence.
For the next 30 years Notre Dame aspired to be everything that mighty Michigan already was in Western college athletics, particularly football.
But like a pesky little brother who insists on hanging out with his older brother and his buds, Michigan kept telling Notre Dame to go away.
“Will Ann Arbor dare to meet Notre Dame this fall?” Notre Dame’s Scholastic student newspaper whined in 1889. “She crows loudly over (lowly) Albion, but keeps a discreet silence as to our eleven, and perhaps does not want to hear from ND.”
The truth was Michigan could not have cared less about ND, then a Catholic school for boys, teens and young men alike with no athletic prowess to speak of.
After the 1902 game Michigan charged Notre Dame players with slugging, and one with repeatedly swiping at the ball as Michigan’s centre snapped it. Michigan broke off relations again, for six years.
It was at the resumption game in 1908 that two Notre Dame students decided to write the school’s world famous fight song: The Notre Dame Victory March. Michigan’s marching band had blared its own famous fight song that day — one that band-music icon John Philip Sousa called the greatest of all college marches, The Victors — and the ND students thought their school ought to have its own.
In 1909 Notre Dame finally beat Michigan, in its ninth attempt. At halftime, newspaper writers and photographers had overheard a Notre Dame player plead with his teammates, “You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick!” The next day the Detroit Free Press labelled victorious Notre Dame as the “Fighting Irishmen,” and a nickname was born.
The Wolverines scheduled a rematch for 1910, under Michigan eligibility rules. But when Notre Dame vowed to play a pair of athletic tramps whose eligibility, UM claimed, had long since lapsed, Michigan authorities cancelled the game — and the series for decades.
It wasn’t until 1940 that Michigan — specifically, long-time football paragon Fielding H. Yost — got over it. A mellowed Yost scheduled a home-and-home with Notre Dame for 1942-43, which the teams split.
In the interim, Yost had engaged in one of the sport’s bitterest (albeit mostly private) off-field coaching feuds, with Notre Dame’s legendary Knute Rockne.
Yost (left, in accompanying photo) charged that Rockne (right) sought competitive shelter at Notre Dame, where scheduling and intra-mural development rules were laxer than in the Big Ten. Yost also argued that Rockne’s devastating shift offence was illegal, and successful only because friendly game officials Rockne lined up egregiously refused to rein it in.
Rockne counter-charged that Yost was a “hillbilly” whose West Virginia upbringing made him “very narrow on religion,” and whose athletic jealousy of Rockne’s and his Catholic school’s success blinded him as much as it outraged him.
Rockne lampooned Yost and his anti-Notre Dame stance at every opportunity.
Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931, but by then he had got Notre Dame Stadium built — a deliberate virtual copy of Michigan Stadium, which had been constructed three years earlier.
The schools’ icy feud resumed after World War II, this time carried out by Michigan coach and athletic director Fritz Crisler and his Notre Dame counterpart, Frank Leahy.
To Leahy, a devout Catholic (left in accompanying photo, snapped after the 1942 game), every lap run and touchdown scored by his maniacally prepared players was a sacrament to the Virgin Mary. That attitude aided him immensely in recruiting, as virtually every prep Catholic football star in America was urged to choose Notre Dame.
This offended Crisler (right) to his agnostic soul. In 1944 he resumed Yost’s old football boycott of Notre Dame, only unlike his predecessor Crisler never budged from it. He retired in 1968 as opposed to Notre Dame as ever.
Leahy’s brother Gene twice angrily wrote Crisler about it, charging that if the Michigan leader “had a spark of sportsmanship” in him he’d schedule Notre Dame, adding:
“YOU have not had the GUTS to play Notre Dame since 1943, when they humiliated your DREAM TEAM, and have resorted to every foul trick within your reach to discredit them ever since.”
Crisler’s athletic-director successor, Don Canham, immediately reached out to Notre Dame, in his attempts to fill then massively undersold Michigan Stadium. Notre Dame enthusiastically agreed to resume football relations once the schools could work out the dates.
To that point in time, Michigan always had been the school that had ended the series, Notre Dame always the one asking to resume it.
Since the friendly resumption in 1978, some of college football’s most memorable modern moments have occurred in Michigan-Notre Dame games. (See sidebar.)
After the stirring 1994 game, and just before one of the occasional, mutual mini-breaks in the modern series, Tim Layden wrote in yet another Sports Illustrated coverstory on a Wolverine-Irish clash that “we will be lost these next two autumns — will we not? — as Notre Dame and Michigan interrupt this series … None of (these schools’ replacement) games will teach us what Notre Dame-Michigan has taught us over the years.”
Alas, the series never regained the momentum it had at that point — when both teams were national powers, beginning every year in the thick of the national-championship race, and almost always battling to some unlikely dramatic ending.
Only the latter has continued.
“It’s amazing how many games have gone down to the last play of the game,” former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr told me in 2003. “The greatest thing about the Notre Dame-Michigan game is it’s played early, so neither team is going to play their best game of the year.
“But they’re never going to play any harder. So it’s led to some unbelievable games.”
Which brings us to the last game.
If Notre Dame wins, the modern series will have been a wash: each team will have won 15 times. (They tied 17-17 in 1992, after Holtz infamously let the last minute run out with ND in possession deep in its own end.)
If Michigan wins, the Wolverines will have added to their early-series dominance by going 16-14-1 since 1978, for an overall rivalry lead of 25-16-1.
Either way, heading into Saturday’s finale Notre Dame’s all-time winning percentage is 73.32% — tops in college football history.
Michigan’s is 73.27%, second by a hair.
Thus, fittingly, the victor of Saturday’s game not only will have bragging rights for years, maybe even decades, but can rightly claim to be the most successful team in the history of the sport.
Think the winner will rub it in to the loser? You better believe it.
Memorable modern moments …
* 1980: Harry Oliver’s last-play, 51-yard field goal that eked over the cross bar after a brisk facing wind suddenly died, as announcers and Notre Dame Stadium went bananas.
* 1989: Raghib Ismail’s two kickoff-return TDs that propelled No. 1 Notre Dame to victory at No. 2 Michigan, Lou Holtz’s third win in a row over UM coach Bo Schembechler.
* 1991: Desmond Howard’s famous, flat-out diving catch for a touchdown on a long, fourth-and-inches throw, to seal Michigan’s first series win in five years.
* 1993: Holtz getting a victory ride at Michigan Stadium after his heavy-underdog Irish ripped up the No. 3 Wolverines.
* 1994: Michigan’s counter to Harry Oliver: a 42-yard field goal from Remy Hamilton to steal victory, after a great touchdown pass from super-frosh Ron Powlus only 40 seconds earlier appeared to have wrapped up another stirring Notre Dame comeback.
* 2010 and 2011: Pass-and-run Wolverine marvel Denard Robinson rushing for a game-winning TD in the final seconds of the 2010 game, then a year later completing two passes covering the last 75 yards on the game’s final two scrimmage plays, to give Michigan the unlikeliest series win of all.
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Modern-era photos snapped by my amazing brother, Jason Kryk