Friday, September 5, 2014

The Michigan-Notre Dame Football Rivalry Ends Tomorrow: Go Blue

A great rivalry between two comparable teams ends tomorrow. The University of Michigan and Notre Dame combine academic excellence, athletic success, and tradition as well as any American university. They have a nationwide following, illustrated by Notre Dame’s subway alumni. Michigan and Notre Dame have been playing football since 1887. Michigan leads the series 24-16-1, having won 3 of the past 4. The teams are 9-9-1 in South Bend. Ann Arbor is 130 miles from South Bend, but the two most successful college football teams often don’t know how to get from one to the other. Michigan-Ohio State is often considered the greatest college rivalry. It’s bitter, no-holds-bar ferocity, but the schools and teams have great respect for each other. Michigan-Michigan State is a great rivalry with Little Brother achieving preeminence in recent years. Michigan-Notre Dame is different. Too much hatred exists between the programs, going back a century when Michigan’s great coach Fielding Yost thought Notre Dame was cheating (7 year seniors). He vowed to never play Notre Dame again, and barred the Fighting Irish from membership in the predecessor to the Big Ten Conference. The two football programs went their own way, racking up victories and national titles, oblivious to each other – 130 miles apart. Each school claims 11 national titles, but Notre Dame has more in the post World War II era. Neither would have won as many titles or games if they had to play each other every year. Notre Dame has 7 Heisman winners and Michigan 3. Coaches with the names of Fiedling Yost, Fritz Crisler, Bo Schembecher, Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, and Lou Holtz graced the schools. The Victors and the Notre Dame Fight Song are two of the three greatest college fight songs. They met a few times during World War II, but then, but that was it for 3½ decades. Don Canham, Michigan’s Athletic Director, and Moose Krause, Notre Dame’s AD, were good friends and agreed in 1968 to resume the series. A contract was signed in 1969. Scheduling conflicts precluded playing every year and delayed resumption of the games until 1978. The Michigan-Notre Dame game became an instant rivalry. It was a natural. The game often served as a bellwether for the season. It was the most watched regular season college football game last year. The record since the resumption is 15-14-1, with Michigan in the lead. Regardless of the record, the games have usually been close, often decided in the last two minutes, and exciting. Both teams have struggled in the past decade, but even Rick Rodriguez’s Wolverines won 2 out of 3 over Notre Dame, as have Brady Hoke’s. The Michigan-Notre Dame contract had a three game cancellation clause in it. Notre Dame’s AD, Jack Swahbrick, delivered a letter to Michigan’s AD, David Brandon, before the September 25, 2012 kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium. AD Brandon opened it after the game, and saw that Notre dame was giving its three game notice to cancel the series. The last game therefore will be played tomorrow in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. The notice was legal, but tacky. One assumes that neither Father Hesburgh nor Father Joyce would have sanctioned such a notice. Notre Dame further poisoned the well on Thursday. It announced a two game home and home with Ohio State in 2022 and 2023. One unknown is that five Notre Dame players, including starters, are currently on suspension. Academic improprieties are in issue. I am cynical enough to not be surprised to see reinstatements before Saturday’s kickoff. Notre Dame also reduced the 116 year rivalry with Michigan State, but retained the annual game with Purdue. The Spartans have won 10 of the past 17 games. One has the impression, as Michigan’s Coach Brady Hoke said, Notre Dame is chickening out. The Big House loudspeakers at the end of Michigan’s 41-30 win last year blared out The Chicken Dance. The regular season rivalry is over. Perhaps in a playoff game, but it won’t be the same. The Michigan Wolverines and Notre Dame Fighting Irish will go back to much of the 20th Century. They will ignore each other. Go blue, and I usually would not out this phrase in writing: POTFI!

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