landing spot. will be interesting to see how he does.
I wrote this after my favorite Notre Dame trip, 2006, though, 1978 comes close.
I plan on going for the finale (?) in 2014.
TRAVELS WITH ERIN
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2006
Up at 6:30 with my 15 year old high school sophomore, Erin, to catch the bus to South Bend for the BIG game on Separation Saturday.
She packs her lucky clothing, but forgets the digital camera. Fortunately, they dispense the tickets on the bus, so I won't be able to lose them.
We are to meet the bus at UM Dearborn, it leaves at 8:00. Per plan, we stop at Einsteins for bagels, and have a cooler with chopped up pineapple, water, gatorade, and brownies from Mom for Erin.
I buy papers to read on the bus. Have my laptop with me to do some work and maybe watch “Hidalgo” a DVD we have which I have not seen.
Still not light, Erin not quite perky, so I drive.
Donna calls to advise she heard on the radio that I-94 is closed at the Jeffries, so her directions must be amended.
Arrive about 7:45, drive around until we see a bus, park, try to enter and are told UM buses in a different lot.
Clock ticking, but another appropriately attired driver asks us directions, so we figure they won't leave without us.
Whoah, four buses. We have no instructions on which number bus is ours. Rejected by captain one, I have to go all the way to the back to find the captain of bus two, who has our names on his list.
Back for Erin, we take the seats all the way in the back, in front of the bathroom, which face each other. The buses are stopping in Ann Arbor to pick up more people, so we may lose our extra area there.
Leave after eight, of course, massive fog. Plan A was for Erin to drive us, so glad we took the bus trip.
Only four or six more hop on at Domino's Farms, so we keep our four seats.
I tell Erin we will see lots of sandhill cranes, remembering the 1998 trip from Lake Bentley to Notre Dame. That was with Janell, but we lost, along with losing in 98 in Columbus and the Spartan Bob timekeeper game, so she does not make road trips anymore.
The fog persists, and we are not on I-94 due to construction, and see not one crane.
Though the announcement was that we would stop only for the driver's personal comfort, the caravan stops at a large rest area with restuarants and a coffee place, and all are allowed to exit.
The announcement also included the statement that it was the first time the driver had navigated anything longer than four feet.
I buy a cappucino as long day looms. Woman in front of me buying candy in spite of her confessed sugar problems. Many patrons express delight at the prospect of real rest rooms.
In between Erin naps, I muse that there would be plenty of time to leave Ann Arbor after next week's Wisconsin game, noon kick off, and get to East Lansing well before eight o'clock kick off against Notre Dame. Erin instantly gives me a big hug and endorses what she takes to be an invitation.
Upon further reflection, driving back around midnight through hordes of inebriated Spartans does not sound nice. If we stay overnight, Sunday will be half over before we get back.
Erin says I shouldn't have mentioned it unless we were going for sure.
Stop and go at a construction bottleneck in Indiana, short stretch.
Fog has lifted and it is clear.
All of the passengers are quite calm. No choruses of the Victors or chants of Let's Go Blue!
I share another thought with Erin. I am not attending a seminar which is the weekend of the game at Indiana, maybe we could go to that. This is greeted with the same enthusiasm as my commitment to bring her on this trip.
In South Bend, we are joined by the fifth bus, which left Friday.
Trip leader Roger has arranged for State trooper escort for all five buses. This accounts for the stares of most pedestrians we pass.
I tell Erin, this is the friendliest place we will visit with the Wolverine team.
She says, “You mean I won't be sworn at, thrown up at, or told my team's quarterback stinks after we win?” These recall incidents from 2004 Columbus trip, and last year's Madison and East Lansing sojourns.
I say no, the fans are passionate but polite.
12:30 we disembark, 30 minutes behind schedule.
It takes the usual ten minutes for Erin to don the layers of lucky clothes and accessories she has worn to the games forever.
Had she accompanied Hillary to the peak of Mt. Everest, he would have told her to remove a few layers.
I am much more comfortable in shorts and UM club T-shirt.
Some of the veteran travelers are unloading grills and other tailgate gear from the storage area under the seats. We have tickets to the official alumni tailgate, which has already started, and is on the other side of the stadium from where we parked. The plan is to walk past the stadium to the south, then wander north through the campus, then east to the tailgate.
Fellow students have told Erin she must tour the lovely campus. We do, and it is.
Our progress is blocked by a line of people on each side of the east-west sidewalk. As we approach, I see it is the Notre Dame team, dressed in coat and tie, walking to the stadium.
Erin is disappointed to find out, reading the paper the next day, that Steve Yzerman was somehwere close to us observing the ritual.
We come upon a large fountain spewing green water. It has four sets of Stonehenge like rocks, one facing each direction, the water spurting up over the height of the formation, landing in a pool.
The rectangular pool is only about three inches deep around the edge, extending a couple of feet into the pool.
Numerous pro Notre Dame slogans and exhortations have been scrawled by finger out of the green algae growth.
This is not acceptable to Erin. She searches for a clear spot, and inscribes a “Go Blue!” in large letters. She takes a picture with her cell phone camera.
Next up, the famous Golden Dome. In the brilliant sunlight, it is almost too bright to look at directly.
We move to the east and pick up the main north-south road, verified by asking a friendly parking lot attendant. I am using a map that came with the bus itinerary.
Wondering if we will be able to spot the tailgate sight, I see a mammoth tent, surrounded by huge UM flags, about a quarter mile away across groomed fields. Some kids are playing soccer.
I bought online, so we pick up the tickets and head inside.
Free peanuts abound, the cash bar is just inside the opening, large screen TVs with the green and white weenies playing at Pitt in every corner.
After finding seats, we return toward the front and buy tickets for food, which is good.
There is a raffle for various prizes, which we do not win.
The last is a Lloyd Carr autographed football.
It is won by a full figured man. Erin thinks, I feel sorry for whoever has to sit next to him.
After the UM cheerleaders fire us up, the party is over.
Just outside the tent, Liberty Mutual insurance has a table with a wheel of fortune style spinner for various prizes, beads, megaphones, pom poms.
Of course, permission is granted for Erin to spin. It hits pom poms. Four of them already adorn various parts of her already. The man suggests megaphones, she gleefully takes two.
He then states they do not want to take anything home, and giver her pom-poms too.
Someone else already gave us maize and blue beads.
It is an hour before kick off, I think, not familiar with NBC time, as actual kick off ends up being 3:45.
We traverse south on the main road. A group of a dozen or so youthful Irish supporters start a chant on seeing Erin.
And so on.
Something that would make any father proud.
Erin is delighted at those who ask what year she is in at UM.
We do hear some cross words from inebriated Irish, all but one appear to be students.
As we get to the stadium, Erin spots a stand for Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Donna had said she had a date with Ben and Jerry Saturday night, while we would be bussing back.
I have Erin take a cell phone picture and send it to Donna.
I guess the wrong direction to our ticket gate, so we walk all the way around the stadium.
When they expanded, they built concourses at each end, on the outside of the old stadium.
Not having had the tickets in hand until boarding the bus, we did not have the chance to look up the location on the internet. Row 26, so I told Erin we should not be too high. I said visiting team seats are always in the end zone or corner, but we did not care.
After climbing to our seats, we find ourselves in the top row. This is great, because the sun is behind us, and we are among the maybe 50 seats in the stadium that are in the shade.
It is hot!
I am on Erin's right. As she looks to her left, there is the winner of the Lloyd Carr football.
Next to me is the woman who bought candy at the rest stop.
She sets it on top of the concrete behind us. Sometime during the first quarter, she accidentally knocks it over the top.
No problem, she says, I can buy more.
The announcer states the winner of the game will have the all time best winning percentage in college football. This fact has been repeated to me, oh, at least twice a day all week by Erin.
They are honoring Heisman winners this year. Johnny Lujack's likeness graces the tickets, and he is there in person for the coin toss.
On the ride back, I point out to Erin that she has now seen the 1943 (?) Heisman winner on his home field, so her college football connection stretches far back.
These late kickoffs are brutal. We are so anxious by the time the game begins.
The Burgess interception for a TD certainly bodes well.
Then the Henne interception. My heart sinks.
Erin points out Henne made the tackle, on the four right in front of us.
Turns out to be one more category in which he bests Quinn.
Then we score 27 unanswered points. Without allowing them a first down in the entire quarter.
Most likely, a once in a lifetime experience.
Amidst the Michigan throng, sheer ecstasy. Cannot recall so many hugs from Erin.
The TV timeouts seem endless.
We let them march down the field to score just before the half.
Twenty point lead. I recall them catching State last year after being down 21 in the fourth quarter. Though I picked UM to win, (in overtime) I am not over confident.
Best T-shirt, solid blue, maize letters on the front "RESTORING THE GLORY SINCE 1993".
I grab frozen lemonades and water for us at halftime.
Apparently, Erin could not pick up the game on the radio. I think she would only listen to the UM broadcast.
However, thanks to cell phones, she is calling her sister for comments on reviewed plays, as there is no screen at ND stadium.
One fan stands up and yells that a call our way will not be reversed. At least according to his father-in-law, who always tells the truth.
Someone (?) yells out, “What does he say about you?” but he does not respond.
Too bad we don't have a go to receiver, I tell my fellow Wolverines after Super Mario hauls in TD number three.
After some noise during the short time the game was tied at 7, the home fans turn mute.
After half time adjustments from offensive genius Charlie Weiss, we hold them without a first down for the entire third quarter.
Fans head for the exits.
We soak up every second. Erin takes a picture of the scoreboard on the way out.
About 50 male UM students have formed a mob, jumping on each other and yelling. Their mood infects the crowd.
The acoustics walking down the concourse are incredible.
“It's great, to be, a Michigan Wolverine!” repeated again and again. Let's Go Blue!”
At the flat area at each turn, there is another group jumping, chanting, exhorting. Everyone is high fiving everyone all the way down.
Other than the euphoria after winning the national championship at the 1998 Rose Bowl, I have seen nothing like it.
I made sure to watch the beginning game of the renewed rivalry in 1978. The contracts had been signed years earlier. I think 1943 had been the last time UM and ND met on the field.
We won that game, but lost when I returned in 1980, and 82, as well as the 98 game.
28 years. Must be wrong.
We walk toward the buses. I think. We could see them from our seats looking back over the parking lots.
After several false alarms, I fortunately see another UM club member who points the way.
Passengers are noisier than before. Our box lunch is handed to us as we board. It is good.
I listen to post game call in show on the radio.
“Do you think this will affect Brady Quinn's Heisman chances?”
Geez, these guys are as smart as Buckeyes.
One delight after another.
At the rest stop on the way home, there is a rush to the facilities. A decked out Notre Dame fan, seated next to his decked out Notre Dame son, is waiving people away.
I think he is mad because of the outcome, he says the rest rooms are the other way, everyone is coming this way by mistake.
I say I thought he was mad, he said, no, we are nicer than Ohio fans, half of whom, like their team, are headed for prison. “And I'm from Ohio.”
Erin explains a difference she has witnessed.
“When I went to my seat in Columus, dressed like this, the usher said to me, “When someone gives you a hard time, let me know.”
“Today, when I went by the usher, he said “Welcome to Notre Dame, we're glad you're here.”
We exchanged more pleasantries, bought something to drink, and resumed our trek.
Erin slept, I watched "Hidalgo" until the laptop battery died.
Other than the DVD mishap, all went well.
Voice vote selected "The 40 Year Old Virgin" to be shown on the screens scattered throughout. Erin said she had already seen it. Was not my choice, but not a lot to do on a dark bus.
After the character tells about his Tijuana trip to see the human horse interplay, the screen goes black. Seems there was a 12 year old somewhere in front of us. Must not have been around when the vote was taken.
I was then able to pick up Florida-Tennessee on the radio, if I held it by the window.
Well after midnight, pulled into Dearborn, loaded the car and made it home after 1:00 am.
According to the game program, which I read on the ride back, Notre Dame's football player graduation rate last year was second only to the Naval Academy.
That is the kind of school I want to keep playing.
UM 47, ND 21. Great!
Spending the entire day, from 6:30 am to one the next morning, with your 15 year old daughter, priceless.
Best thing about Thursday is Thursday evening football.
Stanford needs the win to prove the USC victory was not a fluke, and Washington needs a win in an attempt to stay relevant.
Something to ponder during the bye week. If not this season then certainly next season, Jeremy Gallon is probably M's best option as a third down back. Gallon is so so smooth on the football field with the ball in his hands; I'd love to see more of it.
Gallon got his first two carries of the season against ND and the guy has serious running skills. I suspect Gallon has superior balance and vision, to go along with his toughness, quickness and good hands. Get this man the ball more!
I would like to see M experiment with Gallon in the backfield with Denard, with a receiving corp of Gardner, Roundtree, Funchess, and maybe even Dileo. I love me some Vincent Smith, but think Gallon is a superior runner and receiver.
The tidal wave of major conference expansion and re-alignment is complete. The “Big Five” conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 – have reached equilibrium. None are likely to grow within the next ten years.
The have nots will continue to jockey for position. The so-called mid-major conferences (the Big East, Sun Belt, C-USA, MAC, and Mountain West) are on the outside looking in. They are destined to remain there for many years to come. You will see additional shifts into or between these conferences, as each hopes to gate-crash the forthcoming playoff.
Every mid-major school hopes that it can be the next Utah or TCU, both of which punched their ticket up to the Big Five in the last round of realignment. It isn’t going to be easy. For crucial structural reasons, it will be extremely difficult for any of the have nots to make a persuasive case for admission to the Big Five.
Many fans make the glib assumption that the conferences that are still at 10 or 12 teams (the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12) will need to get up to 14 or 15 teams, as the ACC and SEC have done. This is not so. These conferences are all in a position of strength. Any change needs to be extremely compelling, and it is difficult to come up with plausible scenarios where that would be the case.
The Four Axioms of Conference Re-alignment
To understand this, you need to know the four axioms of Conference Re-Alignment
They work in the following ways:
- Money. No school willingly changes conferences to make less money. No conference accepts a school if its existing members will lose money.
- Football. No school moves willingly to a weaker football conference. No conference accepts a school that is below the league average in football.
- Academics. No school moves willingly to an academically weaker conference. No conference accepts a school that is drastically weaker academically than the rest of the league.
- Geography. The less sense a move makes geographically, the weaker the contracting parties.
There is no wiggle room in the first two rules. No one makes moves that lose money, and no one makes moves unless they are good for football. To those two axioms I cannot think of any modern exceptions.
The third rule has a bit of wiggle room. The Big Ten added Nebraska, which is slightly weaker academically than any other Big Ten school, but not drastically weaker. Nebraska is still a better “worst” school than the bottom of any other Big Five league, even the relatively strong Pac-12 and ACC. But there are limits to how low the Big Ten will go. On academic grounds alone, if for no other reason, you’ll never see a Cincinnati or a Louisville in the Big Ten.
Conferences occasionally accept schools with academics below the league average, but schools never voluntarily take an academic step down. In every modern move, the destination conference was better academically than the conference the school came from. This is a factor seldom considered by fans, who are only thinking about the football field. Conference moves are approved by school presidents, who are professors first and sports fans second.
The geography axiom has the most wiggle room of all, and it’s correlated with weakness. When the contracting parties are weak, they’re more likely to accept moves that make little or no geographic sense, if the other three axioms are satisfied. The Big 12, as the only net loser in the re-alignment derby, needed to find a tenth member, and with its options dwindling, took West Virginia, the best football school available. They rejected Louisville, which is geographically closer to the Big 12 footprint, but worse at football. West Virginia wanted to escape the collapsing Big East, and was willing to accept worse geography in order to do so.
The ACC accepted Notre Dame, their first member not on or near the Atlantic coast. But as the weakest of the Big Five leagues, the ACC needed to improve its football product, and Notre Dame needed access to the post-season. Here too, it was only because the parties were weak that they accepted a geographically nonsensical arrangement. (Notre Dame, it must be noted, was already in a geographically odd conference, the Big East; for them, the ACC has all upside. For many other reasons, the ACC was a better fit for Notre Dame than the Big Ten.)
Of course, the Gang of Five (i.e., mid-major) leagues have long ignored geography. The Big East is now the Big Everywhere. Conference USA wisely took a name attached to no fixed domicile. That they’re two of the weakest parties in FBS football hardly needs further explanation.
Applying the Axioms to the Big Five Leagues
With these axioms in mind, it is clear that the Big Five are done expanding. Let’s consider the three relevant cases:
- Teams moving up from “mid-major” status to the Big Five
- Continued exodus from the Big East
- Re-alignment within the Big Five
Teams moving up to the Big Five. In the previous round of re-alignment, only two schools managed to do this, and both were special cases. TCU joined the Big 12, but TCU was a former member of the Big 12’s predecessor, the Southwest Conference. Furthermore, the Big 12 had an urgent need to get back to ten teams, after losing Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, and before that Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.
After accepting Colorado, the Pac-12 needed a twelfth school, so that it could add a conference championship game. Plans to absorb several Big 12 schools fell through, leaving Utah as the only logical twelfth team available. Now that the Pac-12 has a conference championship game, the hurdle for any 13th or 14th school will be much harder to clear. The only Big Five leagues that have gone to 14 football schools had very compelling reasons for doing so—the ACC to bolster a weak football product, the SEC to get access to the Texas recruiting market.
No remaining “mid-major” is even remotely suitable for admission to the Big Five. All are academically weak (by Big Five standards), lack significant football traditions, or come from small markets that would not bring much TV revenue with them. Most are more than one of the above.
Continued Exodus from the Big East. The Big East was considered a peer league of the Big Five for many years, before the mass exodus that saw Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame, all leaving for the ACC, and West Virginia for the Big 12.
Of the Big East’s original football-playing members, only Rutgers remains. Everyone in the country knows that Rutgers would leave the Big East in a heartbeat. Therefore, the lack of an invitation from the major conferences is telling. No conference commissioner believes that Rutgers can deliver the New York/New Jersey television market. (I live in that area, and I can assure you that no one talks about Rutgers football.) Without a television audience or a large football fan base, there is simply no reason for any conference to take Rutgers.
All of the Big East’s remaining football members are arrivistes—former mid-majors who hoped the Big East was their ticket to the Big Time, only to realize that as they arrived, the league was taking a hard fall. None of them have the combination of a large market, a strong football tradition, and strong academics that the Big Five are looking for.
Realignment within the Big Five.This is the most complex case to consider. Let’s begin with some background. Except for the Big 12 and its predecessor, the Southwest Conference, no Big Five league has lost a member since South Carolina left the ACC in 1971. These leagues are incredibly stable.
The Big 12 was the one unstable major conference, due to fundamental mistakes when it was assembled in 1996 and poor management afterward. As now constituted, the Big 12 is what the Big Ten used to be, and to an even greater degree: a Big Two (Texas and Oklahoma), and a Little Eight. None of the Little Eight are useful to the remaining Big Five leagues, and the Big Two like having a sandbox they can dominate. Nothing will happen in the Big 12 unless Texas and Oklahoma want it. Both schools know that there is no other league where they would have that kind of power. Any potential new member would know that the rest of the league plays second fiddle to those two schools.
Among the Big Five leagues, only the Big 12 is leaving money on the table by remaining at ten teams, and depriving themselves of a conference championship game. As such, the Big 12 is the only Big Five league with an obvious reason to expand. Any other league, such as the Big Ten, would need a school, or more likely a pair of schools, which that brings sufficient revenue on their own, a condition that is hard to satisfy.
Texas and Oklahoma (the Big Two) strongly prefer the Big 12 to remain at 10 teams. The original Big 12 had a divisional split, but the South Division (in which both Big Two teams resided) was usually much stronger than the north, which had only Nebraska as a perennial power. In the 15 years that a championship game was played, Texas or Oklahoma represented the South 13 times, and the only other representative, Texas A&M, is no longer in the league. The South team won the game 11 out of 15 times, including the last seven times, and often by lopsided margins. Kansas State is the only team in the current Big 12, other than the Big Two, that ever won the game.
Because the Big 12 is so competitively lopsided, Texas and Oklahoma prefer to have the conference championship decided by a regular-season round robin, which they figure to dominate 75 to 80 percent of the time. Neither one is comfortable with putting a regular-season crown on the line in a conference championship game, where an upset could knock them out of the top-tier bowls. No doubt there are teams in other leagues that feel the same way, but no other league is dominated by two schools to anywhere near that extent.
Of course, the Big 12 has an additional problem. It is highly unlikely that the league would attract two powerhouse teams comparable to Texas and Oklahoma, which means that almost any conceivable divisional split would be competitively unbalanced unless the Big Two were split up. The Big Two want no part of this, as their annual rivalry is the conference’s biggest game, and they don’t want to dilute it by (potentially) playing it twice.
(I realize that the Big Ten put its two marquee teams, Michigan and Ohio State into separate divisions, a decision that many fans still regret. But Michigan and Ohio State do not dominate the Big Ten the way Texas and Oklahoma dominate the Big 12. Until the recent scandal decimated Penn State, the Big Ten had four premier programs and several others that are frequently strong, a situation the Big 12 cannot replicate.)
A while back, sources from Florida State and Clemson hinted—I stress, hinted—that they might be open to exploring a move to another conference. The FSU president quickly poured cold water on that idea, and that was before the ACC added Notre Dame and instituted a $50 million-per-school exit fee. The newly constituted ACC will probably have a TV package approaching the Big 12’s package in value, thus negating whatever merit some Florida State fans might have seen in moving.
FSU partisans might salivate over annual games against Oklahoma and Texas, but in most years they’d face only one of those teams, along with a steady diet of less desirable opponents like Iowa State, the two Kansas schools, and Baylor. Take another look at Florida State’s ACC schedule, especially with Notre Dame now in the mix, and the Big 12 does not look so good, monetarily or competitively. On top of that, the Big 12 would be a significant step down academically from the ACC, and once again I refer you to the four axioms: in the modern era, no school has moved to an academically less-prestigious conference.
If the Big Ten wanted to expand to 14 teams, he ACC is home to the only schools that might plausibly be available someday, and that might contribute enough television revenue to be considered worthy expansion candidates. But only three current ACC schools have been national powers in the last fifty years: Clemson, Florida State and Miami. Even if the Big Ten wanted them (a dubious proposition in itself), those schools are far more likely to see a path to the national championship through the weaker ACC, than to be playing November football games in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
In addition to Texas—which is clearly not available—you can be sure that the Big Ten looked at every remotely possible school that met its criteria. That the Big Ten has chosen to remain at 12 teams is a pretty good indication that no team is available that the Big Ten wants.
Fans toss out realignment scenarios as if they were trading players in a fantasy football game. The conference commissioners and university presidents who make these decisions are far more ruthless. Any move has to be consistent with the four axioms: money, football, academics, and geography. It’s hard to find moves that meet those criteria, because the Big Five leagues are already very strong and stable, and have no burning need to grow.
Notre Dame was the last big prize remaining unclaimed. The Irish have now made their decision, one that suited their priorities better than any other available option, including the Big Ten. Now that all of the major programs have what they want, look for them to sit tight for a long, long time.
Who are you rooting for when Ohio visits Lil' Bro in East Lansing this Saturday (3:30pm, ABC)? As much as it pains me to (I guess it would either way) I'm cheering for Ohio. They're ineligible for the post-season, so they might as well give State a conference L and make our path to Indy potentially a little easier. Plus after last year's games against us and the NCAA sanctions on Ohio, State needs to be taken down a notch more than Ohio. Here's to an ugly game with the Buckeyes squeaking one out, hopefully on a deliciously heartbreaking Sparty NO!!!!
For those who prefer to peruse a searchable UFR with linked video for every play:
Enjoy ... um, well maybe not enjoy, so much.