You'd think the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry would be a natural: Strong feelings, near in distance, competing for the same players, families with students in both schools, the top two schools in winning percentage, and mutual admiration for each other's achievements on and off the field.
Mike Hart felt, "You can't be considered a great back until you perform against Notre Dame."
Lloyd Carr, who was 5-4 against Notre Dame, said, "Any player who gets an opportunity to play in that game whether it be at Michigan or Notre Dame or any guy that gets to coach in those games, when he walks out there, there's a realization of how lucky he is."
Early Michigan coaches did not feel the same way.
Fielding Yost, who brought six national championships to Michigan, abruptly canceled the 1910 game on its eve in South Bend—Michigan would not come to Notre Dame for another 32 years.
Yost, a proud, highly competitive man, had been crushed following Michigan's loss in 1909 in Ann Arbor to the Irish.
"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."
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.
By the end of the season, Yost proclaimed the Wolverines as "champions of the West."
Yost not only refused to further play the Irish after 1910, but he worked unsuccessfully with his Big Ten partners to boycott Notre Dame. As Notre Dame sought admission into the Big Ten, Yost also prevented their membership. Yost successfully worked to get a rule that would slow down Rockne's shifts.
Knute Rockne was on the freshman team at Notre Dame in 1910.
He worked to renew the rivalry as the Irish emerged as a national powerhouse under his coaching. Frustrated in attempts to join the Big Ten, Rockne adopted a strategy to play anyone, anywhere, at any time.
An independent Notre Dame was born with coast to coast rivalries from USC to Navy.
By the 1940s, Yost, Michigan's Athletic Director since 1921, was rethinking his attitude towards Notre Dame. Fritz Crisler had brought Michigan football back to prominence in the Big Ten. The University of Chicago dropped out of the Big Ten, leaving open dates.
A home and home series was scheduled for 1942 and 1943. In South Bend in 1942, the Wolverines upset the Fighting Irish, 32-20. George Ceithaml, captain of Michigan's victorious 1942 team, wrote to his coach Fritz Cristler, "Conference champions come and go, but beating Notre Dame stays forever."
Notre Dame returned the favor in 1943, upsetting Michigan, 35-12, on their way to another national championship.
Fritz Crisler and Frank Leahy
How great would it have been for college football for Michigan and Notre Dame to play each other in the 40s? Notre Dame won four national championships in that decade while Michigan won two, plus four Big Ten championships.
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 Crisler, too, 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.
After 1943, Michigan would not play Notre Dame again until 1978.
"To Hell With Notre Dame"
Bo was great friends with Lou Holtz from when they coached together at Ohio State. He had grown up a huge fan of Frank Leahy's Notre Dame teams.
"We don't need Notre Dame," Bo said. "They need us more than we need them."
Bo preferred to focus on the Big Ten championship, but the early non-conference game against the Irish always loomed big in his eyes and those of his players: "When you are setting your goals at the beginning of the season, Notre Dame always pops into the picture."
In the final tally, Schembechler finished 4-6 against Notre Dame. He was 11-8-2 against Ohio State.
QB Elvis Grbac, when asked if Michigan were to go 1-11 which team would he want the one victory to come against, answered without hesitation: "Notre Dame."
Grbac may have been influenced by the impact of the 1989 loss the No. 2 Wolverines suffered in Ann Arbor to the No. 1 Irish. Rocket Ismail returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, negating a furious comeback by the freshman Grbac, who came in relief in the second half. Schembechler retired at the end of the season.
Or the next year, 1990, when Grbac's pass in the end zone was intercepted by Michael Stonebreaker and again on Michigan's final drive by Reggie Brooks to preserve a win.
"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," said DT Tony Henderson in 1994. The statement is eerily similar to Fielding Yost's statement after the 1909 loss.
Three years before he died, Bo Schembechler reportedly said that if he was still athletic director, he wouldn't schedule the Irish even "if they got down on their hands and knees and begged....To hell with Notre Dame."
Natural Rivals, Natural Enemies
In 1968, Don Canham, Michigan's Athletic Director, and Moose Krause, Notre Dame's AD worked out an agreement for a series of games beginning in 1978. When Fr. Ned Joyce was notified, he recalled:
"We'd been butting our heads up against a wall. We didn't have any hard feelings. I always felt it was a personal thing between Crisler and Leahy, but we're not going to hold it against the institution...It was such a natural to play Michigan, and we like to play the best. That's been our policy."
The home and home contract revolutionized college football scheduling. The home team would get all the receipts with a small guarantee for expenses. "Up until that contract, everybody just shared the gate," Canham said. Michigan, with its 101,001 capacity stadium, could bring itself out of the red. "It was a financial decision," said Canham.
Regardless, Canham, Krause, and Joyce formed friendships over the coming years that cemented the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry.
Since 1978, the games have seen both teams ranked in 20 of the 28 games played, including six games where both teams were ranked in the top 10; only twice has a Michigan-Notre Dame game not had one of the teams ranked.
Fifteen of those 26 games have been decided by seven points or less, often coming down to the last play. Notre Dame leads the series 13-12-1 since 1978.
Everyone has their favorite Notre Dame-Michigan game: Bob Crable's blocked field goal in 1979, Harry Oliver's FG in 1980, the Rocket Game in 1989, or Desmond Howard's "The Catch" in 1991. Plus there were all the great games in this decade: 2002, 2004, 2005, and the nailbiter last year.
This past summer and in 1999, Notre Dame has had opportunities to join the Big Ten, but affirmed its independence in football.
What would Rockne and Leahy have thought?
In the midst of the Big Ten expanding to nine conference games, there has been some talk of boycotting Notre Dame. The ND-Michigan contract for games through 2031 was never signed.
Though both teams have fallen of late, this rivalry is one of college football's most natural and most heated. Let's hope fans in the future don't look back and wonder what if Notre Dame and Michigan had played each other.
Any contests that can bring the kind of feelings that Lloyd Carr has expressed should be continued. We all need our blood stirred to these depths annually.
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."
Even if it divides families once a year.
From the FanTake Blog: One Foot Down
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