I posted this over at a blog for which I occasionally write, but it's not a Michigan-centered blog and I don't get much feedback there so I thought I'd share it with the MGoCommunity.
Salty Sam Throws You on a Railroad Track
Being born in 1983 in Ann Arbor to a pair of Michigan alumni was the perfect storm for hating Notre Dame. For my entire life as a minor, Michigan State and Ohio State would occasionally jump up and bite the Wolverines, but they were largely just fodder for Michigan whether the coach was Schembechler, Moeller, or Carr. Notre Dame, however, was in the midst of selling its soul under Lou Holtz who was himself in the midst of getting his second of three straight schools at which he coached in hot water with the NCAA (Minnesota before and South Carolina after ND). Ethics aside, Holtz was a darn good coach which made his bizarre personality and speech pattern all the more obnoxious. At least John L. Smith has the decency to be nothing but comedy relief.
Holtz took the reigns in South Bend in 1986. After losing his first game against Michigan (and debut as Irish coach), 24-23, Holtz then led the Irish to 4 straight victories over Michigan, a stretch that included the 1988 national title for the Irish as well as the "stop kicking it to Rocket Ismail, please" game in 1989 when the Irish and Wolverines were ranked 1-2 to start the year. During this time I ranged in age from 4-7 and my father, like any true Wolverine would, grew an intense distaste for Holtz and the Domers, which I of course fully absorbed. I needed no other reason to hate Notre Dame, but then NBC made it even easier with their absurd TV contract. Half of my Michigan-Notre Dame viewing experiences have featured Tom Hammond (honorable mention in terribleness to ABC/ESPN for subjecting me to Brent Musberger for the other half)
Anyway, 1991 rolled around and in came the Irish to Ann Arbor looking for an unfathomable fifth straight win over the Wolverines. Michigan fans are rightfully (much of the time, anyway) noted for their arrogance, but in 1991 if there was one fan base that could out-smug the Wolverines it was Notre Dame. I was already destined to be a Wolverine slappy, but this cemented me for life:
That play and Remy Hamilton's winner in 1994 are the two that most stand out to me in my early Michigan football memories (of the positive ones, anyway. Don't even mention Miami in 1988. Crap, I just did). Holtz "retired" following the 1996 season. There still isn't a stated reason why. Holtz said "it was the right thing to do." Irish aficionados will tell you it was because the school's brass didn't want Holtz to surpass Knute Rockne's all-time wins record of 105. The likely reason became clear in 1999 when the Irish were hit with probation by the NCAA for failing to report improper benefits and academic fraud during the tenures of Holtz and his successor, Bob Davie. In any case, Holtz was gone and the first of many mediocre coaches to roam the sidelines in South Bend had taken over, so life must have been dandy for the Maize and Blue, right? Not so.
The Irish kept managing to defend their home turf despite fielding lousy teams and despite things like the hilarious hiring gaffe of resume doctor George O'Leary. The "Return to Glory" and "Field Goal Jesus" jokes were always funny, but not as funny as they should have been because Notre Dame still found ways to maintain some relevance by beating ranked Michigan teams. It wasn't until Charlie Weis' "decided schematic advantage" and then Brian "Grimace" Kelly that Michigan was able to put more than one consecutive win together against the Irish. The three most recent saw the Wolverines snatch victory in the waning seconds (I think the first two were by design; Rich Rodriguez didn't know how to win any other way) and the two most recent saw jaw-dropping offensive numbers from Michigan's quarterback, Denard Robinson. The 2012 game brought an opportunity for Michigan to win four straight against the Irish, matching the Irish's streak at the end of the 80's. Notre Dame is Salty Sam, always up to no good until, just when you thought all hope was gone, along Comes Jones in the form of Denard Robinson. There are three verses to the song. This would be Robinson's third and final game against the Irish. The thought of a third thrilling victory for Robinson was just delightful. The idea for this post came to me on Thursday, but I didn't dare say anything about it for fear of the jinx.
This game would be played in South Bend, however, and other than a couple blips on the radar South Bend has been the Bermuda triangle for Michigan. Whether it be an errant pass somehow still completed in 1990, Carlyle Holiday fumbling on the 1 and still getting a touchdown in 2002, or the 2008 slop-fest, good things don't often happen for Michigan in Notre Dame Stadium. The Ghost of Irish Past reared its ugly head again on Saturday and Robinson, with a little help from his friends, had the worst day of his Michigan career. 5 interceptions and a fumble and Michigan still only lost by 7 points. You can make a case that the better team has lost in this game for four straight years now. I was mad, but if you've watched enough of Denard Robinson it's impossible to really be upset with him. He's seen more in his 22 years (oh yeah, Saturday was his 22nd birthday) than most will in their lifetimes. His humility is equally evident in victory as well as defeat. So, instead of seething over this game for two weeks (Michigan has a bye on Saturday) like I would do pretty much every other year, I'm going to try damn hard to get past it because there are only 8-10 opportunities left to watch Denard Robinson in a Michigan uniform. Sure, he's a feast-or-famine kind of player, but when it's been feast I haven't had as much fun watching football since Charles Woodson donned the Maize and Blue.
As for Notre Dame, they've decided to opt out of the rivalry after 2014 due to
joining the ACC scheduling issues. The good news is games like Saturday's won't happen so much, but I'll still miss the rivalry. To me Notre Dame will always be Salty Sam, trying to saw Michigan all in half. It sucks when they succeed, but there's nothing sweeter than when Jones comes along and saves the day. Michigan-ND was a game I looked forward to more than any other; it was better when it was the first game of the year, but sadly Lou Holtz put and end to that by scheduling warm-up games in the early 90's. There's no doubt Bo was right ("To Hell with Notre Dame!"), but it was always truer when Michigan sent them there.