This time it's Notre Dame, not Michigan, backing out of one of football's oldest rivalries

Sep 5, 2014


Michigan and Notre Dame have the longest running duel among major college powers, and one of the best. But that seems to be coming to an end this Saturday – and with a twist: For the first time, it’s Notre Dame that’s backing out.

The rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame goes back to 1887, when a band of boys from Michigan took a train to South Bend and literally taught their counterparts how to play the game.  

Afterward, Notre Dame served the Wolverines a nice, hot meal.  Then the Notre Dame president, Reverend Thomas Walsh, told the Wolverines a "cordial reception would always await them at Notre Dame."

That day started the longest running rivalry among major college powers – and one of the most popular.

It inspired Notre Dame’s famous fight song in 1908, its “Fighting Irish” nickname the next year, and more thrilling games than just about any rivalry in the country.

And it’s going to end Saturday.    

Perhaps we should be more surprised that it’s lasted this long.

The overriding sentiment in this on-again, off-again relationship has been not cordiality, but mistrust – and that goes back more than a century, too.  

John Kryk, author of the definitive book on the series, Natural Enemies, points out that most of the breaks in this series started with Michigan accusing Notre Dame of skullduggery – whether it be dirty play, ineligible players, or simply not being trustworthy.  And that’s why the Wolverines pulled out of the series after their games in 1901, 1909 and 1943.  

It took former Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham and Notre Dame’s Edmund Joyce a solid decade of negotiations to resurrect the rivalry, in 1978. Since then, the two teams have played each other 31 of the last 37 years.  

Because they play each other so early in the season, the players are fresh, but not yet sharp.  So the games are usually a little sloppy, but very hard fought, and seem to come down to the last play as often as not.

Even when the teams are down, the rivalry isn’t. It always sells out, attracts big TV ratings, and often claims the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Since the rivalry resumed in 1978, Michigan has won 15 of those games, Notre Dame 14, and they’ve tied once.

Going into Saturday’s rematch, Notre Dame can boast the best winning percentage in the history of college football, 73.32 percent.  Michigan is five one-hundredths behind, at 73.27.  

Whoever wins tomorrow will take the lead – and will be remembered as the rivalry’s last winner for at least a decade.  

These two athletic directors might deserve each other - but their players and fans deserve better.

“When one school pulls the plug on the series,” Kryk writes, “the jilted other [school] stews. Then burns. Once soaked in bitterness it ridicules the other -- even for decades on end.  And it’s happening again.

“The only thing unique about this hiatus is that for the first time the plug-puller wasn’t Michigan.  It was Notre Dame.”

Two years ago, just an hour before kick off, Notre Dame’s athletic director handed Michigan’s athletic director a letter, legally ending one of the greatest rivalries in sports three years before the contract even ran out.  Notre Dame’s decision, and the way it was handled, revealed just how thin the relationship is between these two directors.  

After Michigan beat Notre Dame in Ann Arbor last year, Michigan’s PA system blasted “The Chicken Dance.”  The relationship between these two proud programs is not likely to improve until other people are in charge.

These two athletic directors might deserve each other – but their players and fans deserve better.

Did any players or fans from either side want this rivalry to end? How many recruits were sold on playing in one of the greatest rivalries in college football? How many fans consider it one of the highlights of the season?

When it comes to big money college football, the players and the fans don’t seem to count for much.