One hundred years ago an experienced Notre Dame team traveled to Ann Arbor under a national spotlight due to both teams' strong performances thus far that season. Chicago Tribune news writers attended as well as Walter Camp, Yale's legendary coach, and other Eastern football experts.
The 1909 Notre Dame-Michigan Game
Though Michigan had won two national championships and five conference championships in the decade, Wolverine coach Fielding Yost expected a struggle: "We've got to work as we have never worked before. Notre Dame is coming up here Saturday with a bunch of men that have had more football experience than any of the players on our team. They are almighty strong. Saturday's contest will be as hard as either the Pennsylvania or Minnesota games."
Notre Dame dominated first half play against one of Yost's greatest teams and led 5-3. Despite their coach's halftime exhortations---"Git ‘em low, I tell you. Git ‘em low! Fight, fight, FIGHT!"---Notre Dame won 11-3 for their first victory against Michigan, igniting national sports news and an uneasy rivalry.
The Detroit Free Press headline read: "'U. of M. Outplayed and Beaten By the Notre Dame Eleven' -- 'Shorty Longman's Fighting Irishmen Humble the Wolverines to Tune of 11 to 3'." This headline is often credited with the origin of Notre Dame's team name.
Yost, a West Virginian, was crushed following the loss. "What makes me so dag-goned mad is that we might have won the game. Those are the worst kind of games to lose. They leave a worm in a man's heart to gnaw and gnaw. Oh, I don't know. I'm sick and tired of the whole business; it certainly is discouraging. Although we were outplayed we should have won. I take my hat off to the Irishmen."
Notre Dame outscored its first seven opponents 236-14 with five shutouts, but ended with a 0-0 tie against Marquette. At that time in college football's history, champions were crowned in the East and the West. After Michigan eliminated undefeated Minnesota 15-6, Yost was singing a different song. "They will have to do some juggling to make the Indiana bunch champions of the West. Let them fight it out in the newspapers, y'know. We are satisfied. The games that counted, Michigan won."
Michigan proclaimed themselves West champions once again (picture above) and then cancelled the Notre Dame game on the eve of the game in Ann Arbor the following year.
Fritz Crisler and Frank Leahy
The Wolverines did not play Notre Dame for another thirty-three years until two games scheduled during the lean years of World War II. Michigan won 32-20 in 1942 in South Bend and lost 35-12 in Ann Arbor in 1943.
George Ceithaml, captain of Michigan's 1942 team, victorious over ND 32-20 and later an assistant coach at Michigan wrote his old coach Fritz Cristler, "Conference champions come and go, but beating Notre Dame stays forever."
Coach Frank Leahy recalled, "In 1944 I asked Fritz Crisler directly if we could resume the series. He looked me straight in the eyes and said that Michigan was willing to meet Notre Dame any place, any time and any Saturday. I believed him. I repeatedly asked him for a date that we could meet and he never could make room on his schedule for Notre Dame."
When asked by reporters about a Michigan-Notre Dame series in 1947, the normally quiet, reserved Leahy shot back, "I just wish we had the opportunity to beat Michigan. We'd be happy to play them any time, on any Saturday, during any fall."
In the 1940s Michigan coach Fritz Crisler attempted to organize Big Ten schools to boycott ND. Michigan State and Purdue both told Notre Dame they were proud and delighted to have the Irish on their schedules.
Michigan would not play Notre Dame again for another thirty-five years.
Michigan Players and Coaches
Bo Schembechler once spat, “To hell with Notre Dame.” Much as he tried, Bo could not downplay the rivalry. "When you are setting your goals at the beginning of the season, Notre Dame always pops into the picture." Bo also railed against the winds of history, "We don't need Notre Dame. They need us more than we need them." Ultimately, Schembechler was 4-6 versus Notre Dame all-time.
In fact, of Wolverine coaches in modern times, only Lloyd Carr has a winning record (5-4-1) against the Irish. Carr felt, "In the history of college football, in my judgment the biggest game you could ever have for the national championship would be Michigan and Notre Dame."
Michigan football also players feel strongly about the Notre Dame game.
QB Elvis Grbac, when asked in 1991 if Michigan were to go 1-11 which team would he want the one victory to come against without hesitation answered, "Notre Dame."
Mike Hart ('07) knew the score, "You can't be considered a great back until you perform against Notre Dame."
"I think of Notre Dame 365 days of the year." ---Greg Skrepanek, OT, 1990
"We at Michigan want to say, 'We're the greatest college football team ever and we're the ones who taught you guys football. When it comes to these two schools, you should just throw the rankings out the window. Everybody knows what's at stake." ---Jamie Morris, 1986
"When we lose to Notre Dame, it is so disheartening. It leaves a bitter taste you can't seem to get out of your mouth." ---Tony Henderson, DT, 1994
Gerald Ford (UM '33) said of the rivalry, "It's good for Michigan, it's good for Notre Dame and it's good for college football."
This week, Rich Rodriquez sounded much like Fielding Yost did a century ago: "We're going to get challenged by a quarterback that is playing as well as you can possibly play. He's [a] very strong armed, accurate, smart guy. He can take advantage of some situations. He throws a deep ball extremely well and he's got some guys that can catch it in Tate and Floyd. He has got two in the best of the country at wide out. Their tight end is an NFL guy, an outstanding player. I really like their tailback. I remember Armando Allen coming out of high school. I thought he was one of the top guys in the country coming out… They've got a lot of talent and they're playing and executing at a nice [level], ever since the bowl game. You can see that the bowl game gave them confidence. They carried it over last week against Nevada and I'm sure that they are going to have a lot of confidence coming in here."
Throw out the rankings, the statistics, your logical choices and the Irish's 15-12-1 record against Michigan in this century of play. The Irish are headed to Ann Arbor once again to play before 100,000 Wolverine fans who may feel as Bo did. In this rivalry, the worst emotions of Othello rule us: "Now by heaven, my blood begins my safer guides to rule, and passion, having my best judgment collied, assays to lead the way."
Wins over Michigan have always taken heart, passion and everything players and coaches can muster.
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