Natural Enemies: Fighting Irish and Wolverines

Michael CollinsAnalyst ISeptember 7, 2008

This week, families are split, good neighbors fall out, and 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.”   


Notre Dame and Michigan play football this week. 


I once found myself in Michigan during the Michigan-Notre Dame game, hearing thunderous ovations, during a relative’s wedding reception dancing, as a Wolverine lead was announced. 


Later I found myself deserted on an emotional island amidst the mingled joy of a wonderful wedding and a Michigan victory.  Something limbic, something guttural and a thirst for blood takes over during Notre Dame-Michigan week. 


How Coaches and Players Feel 

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.” 


Mike Hart knew the score, “You can’t be considered a great back until you perform against Notre Dame.”   Bo railed against the winds of history, “We don’t need Notre Dame.  They need us more than we need them.”   Bo was 4-6 against Notre Dame. 


A drunken Michigan grad, ESPN’s Dana Jacobson, said at a roast last year with Charlie Weis present, “Fuck Notre Dame.”  Weis, the football historian, remarked this spring in a Notre Dame group, “To Hell with Michigan.”


Lloyd Carr, who was 5-4 against Notre Dame, recently reminisced, “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.”


This summer, Notre Dame and Michigan signed a 20-year contract extension to play until 2031. Bo rolled over in his grave.


Frank Leahy's frustration

Frank Leahy may have smiled.   In 1947, in the midst of three national championships for Notre Dame (but with Michigan as co-national champ that year) Leahy was asked by a reporter how badly Michigan would beat Notre Dame.


Michigan had been boycotting Notre Dame due to anti-Catholic sentiments of Michigan's coach, Fielding Yost (in Rockne’s day) through Michigan's then-current coach, Fritz Crisler.


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.” 


Except for two games during World War II, Michigan avoided national powerhouse Notre Dame until 1978 when Notre Dame’s offer of “any time, any Saturday, any fall” was accepted.


Differing viewpoints

Michigan alumni point out that they taught the Irish to play football, are the only school with a winning record over Notre Dame (20-14-1), that Michigan has more wins and a better all-time winning percentage than ND. 


Irish fans thank them for the pointers, say the student has surpassed the teacher with more national championships, especially after 1910, and that seven of the Michigan wins came in the late 1800s or early 1900s when a touchdown was four points and a conversion was two points. 


The real record for modern-era football is 13-12-1, Notre Dame.  The Irish point out they are the only team to have a winning record over Michigan over the last 50 years.  Three different Notre Dame coaches won national championships, while Bo never came close. 


The last thirty years 

Michigan-Notre Dame games are usually nail-biters.  Of the twenty-four games since 1978, fourteen have been decided by seven points or less, seven of those by three points or less. 


Three times, one team has come into the game ranked No. 1 and Notre Dame has won two of the three.  Six times both have be ranked in the Top Ten.  Only five times have neither team been ranked in the top 25.  Except for Notre Dame’s streak of four games in a row from 1987-90, no team has won more than two in a row in the series.  


There usually is blood and special individual performances.  Reggie Brooks was knocked unconscious at the goal line in 1992 after juking past current Irish defensive coordinator, Corwin Brown.  


Five games were decided by scores in the last minute, and many more last second wins were prevented.  Bob Crable won the 1979 game over No. 5 Michigan by launching himself over Michigan offensive linemen to block a field goal. 


Michigan secured a victory in 1991 with “The Catch,” as Desmond Howard laid out for a touchdown on a surprise pass on fourth-and-one.  In “The Rocket Game” in 1989, Rocket Ismail silenced over 100,000 fans in the Big House with two electrifying returns for touchdowns when No. 1 Notre Dame faced No.  2 Michigan.  No one had had a kickoff return touchdown in thirty-two years. 


In 1999, trailing 22-19, Tom Brady marched Michigan 60 yards down the field, crowned by an Anthony Thomas touchdown to win the game.


In 2005, in Weis’s second game at ND, the Irish again came into the Big House, where they had not won since 1993.  Brady Quinn’s offense controlled the game while the defense made both an interception and a fumble recovery on their goal line to upset the No. 5 Wolverines, 17-10, despite a furious Wolverine comeback.


Brady had lost a bet with his former teacher, Weis, for the loser to wear the opponent’s cap in public.  Brady would not wear the ND cap showing the insignia. 


Passion rules even former Michigan players who coached for Notre Dame.  In a pregame pep talk in 1993, former Wolverine player, Irish Assistant Coach, Mike Trgyvac galvanized Irish players. 


“I was never so emotionally charged for a game,” said linebacker Pete Bercich. According to Lou Holtz, “Knute Rockne’s speech is now No. 2 on the all-time list.”



Notre Dame defeated Michigan for the first time in 1909, 11-3. Former Michigan player, Frank “Shorty” Longman still lived in Ann Arbor despite being labeled by the Detroit News as “bereft of his senses” for coaching the Irish. 


After Michigan cancelled the following year’s game and would not reschedule, Shorty could be seen walking his pet bulldog around Ann Arbor advertising the score of the Irish win.  Some of us may be able to relate. 


Family Ties 

Our friend and family ties honor us to root for each other throughout the rest of the year.  I came to realize why the wedding was scheduled on the Michigan-ND weekend – the bride and groom were graduates of Michigan State.


They would return from their honeymoon by the next week.  My Notre Dame cover was blown the next day in the midst of conversation about what a great game it had been for the Wolverines. 


When I told all that “you know, it’s just a game” in comparison to life events like weddings, all looked at me as if I was bereft of my senses.   Weddings come and go.  This is Michigan-Notre Dame. 


So for one week, mothers, watch your children a little closer.  The devil walks among us promising victories in exchange for our first-born child.  We are mightily tempted.  “My blood begins my safer guides to rule.”     


Further Reading:  John Kryk's Natural Enemies - Major College Football's Oldest, Fiercest Rivalry

One hundred Years of Notre Dame Football - Gene Schoor

NDNation, NDOldTown, Notre Dame and Michigan - A History



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