Michigan vs. Notre Dame Gridiron Feud Dates Back to 1909

Joel GreerCorrespondent ISeptember 25, 2012

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 22:  Quarterback Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines is tackled by cornerback Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 22, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What has been nothing but an exciting college football rivalry in recent years, has also been one of the ugliest feuds since the early 1900s.

The rivalry—which is now on hiatus until at least 2020—started innocently enough back in 1887, when a group of Michigan players ventured to South Bend in hopes of teaching the sport to Notre Dame.

Little did they know, the two schools would play only 40 times while bickering as much off the field as on (Michigan leads the series 23-16-1).

Regardless, the two programs are among the winningest in college football. Michigan boasts the most wins (897), while Texas is second (861) and Notre Dame third (857).

The latest controversy began Saturday when Notre Dame legally opted out of three contracted games from 2015 through 2017. The two teams earlier agreed to drop the 2018 and 2019 contests.

The Associated Press reported that Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon received the news from a letter handed to him an hour prior to game time by Jack Swarbrick, his counterpart at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame recently left the Big East to play in the ACC in all sports except football and hockey.  In order to make the move, however, Notre Dame must play five football games within the ACC. It's already known that the Irish will keep Stanford, USC and Navy on the schedule, so that leaves just three games to schedule.

One wonders if Swarbrick's letter was in fact an answer to Michigan ending the series in 1910 and again after 1943. Or if it was just a shot at the Big Ten conference, where Notre Dame was rejected for many years. They returned the favor by saying no thanks to a Big Ten invitation as late as 1999.


The series began on a rather friendly note, at least while Michigan was winning. The Wolverines won the first eight games in the series, before Notre Dame turned the tables in 1909. Both teams were unhappy with each others sportsmanship. Michigan, because of an Irish player's fair-catch signal and the use of ineligible players—Notre Dame, because of Yost's post game attitude:

After the 11-3 defeat, Yost reportedly described it as an exhibition game that the Wolverines approached "caring little whether we won or lost," according to Shake Down the Thunder, the 1993 history of Notre Dame football written by Murray Sperber.

Because of the attempted use of ineligible Notre Dame players again in 1910, Michigan cancelled the game at the last minute, in addition to preventing Notre Dame from joining the Big Ten in later years.

The series eventually resumed again in 1942 but was cancelled again following the 1943 contest. Michigan coach Fritz Crisler was the alleged culprit this time. 

It wasn't until new Michigan athletic director Don Canham arrived on the scene in 1968 that the rivalry would be renewed again. Canham, who saw attendance at Michigan Stadium fall to an average of 65,000, figured adding Notre Dame would not only help ticket sales, it would provide some great football.

And he was precisely correct. The modern rivalry has produced some thrilling moments. Who can forget Rocket Ismail’s two straight kickoff returns for touchdowns in the 1989 Notre Dame victory? Or, a pair of games where kickers decided the issue? Michigan's faithful suffered a crushing 19-17 defeat when Mike Gillette missed as time ran out in 1988, but was rewarded when Remy Hamilton connected from 42 yards in 1994.

Perhaps the Irish fans figured Michigan had their number for good, when the Wolverines eked out wins on their final possession in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

But Notre Dame's win last Saturday night may become a hollow one, for this time it was the Irish who ended what has become quite a rivalry.

"The decision to cancel games in 2015-17 was Notre Dame's and not ours," Brandon wrote for mgoblue.com. "We value our annual rivalry with Notre Dame but will have to see what the future holds for any continuation of the series. This cancellation presents new scheduling opportunities for our program and provides a chance to create some new rivalries."