So an hour before the kick off of the annual Michigan vs Notre Dame game the other night, Michigan’s Athletic Director David Brandon was handed a letter from Notre Dame. When he opened it the next day, he learned that Notre Dame was canceling the annual series between the two schools after their meeting in 2014.....
This is sad for me, because I live 20 minutes from Notre Dame, and I’m a HUGE Michigan fan. The result of this is that the chance I get for yearly bragging rights in my community is gone. Its also sad because Notre Dame and Michigan are two of the oldest football traditions in the country, and they’ve got the oldest rivalry in the nation - which like .... awesome! So Notre Dame is pulling the plug on something I think is pretty cool and pretty important to me.
Why would they do this?
They say that its to protect their coastal important rivalries. I think they’re lying through their teeth when they say this.
Well, Notre Dame - a school with a proud of being independent in football (which makes absolutely no sense to me!) is looking to protect its brand. Now hopefully you’re asking, “What does that mean?!?” Well its about about visibility and recruiting.
College sports are a really weird way that schools build their reputation and influence. Example: Pennsylvania State University. In the 1960’s Penn State was a rather insignificant school, but in the next few decades, Joe Paterno, through the power of his football tradition, built up the school’s reputation. Today, “State College” is one of the more respected academic traditions in the country, a member of the prestigious AAU (a collection of the top research institutions on the continent), and national brand. All of this way made possible by the fame and the cash flow brought in by the football team.
Notre Dame, in much the same way as Penn State, has been propped up by its football tradition. The exploits of their traveling football team in the early part of the 20th century put this midwest school in the front of the nation. They would play anybody, anywhere. As a result Notre Dame has strong connections with major cities on either coast. As a result, many of the students that attend the school are from states far away from the school. And you cannot separate the rise of their academic tradition to a top 20 school, from their football tradition.
Now in the past few years decades Notre Dame’s football tradition has become a bit ..... stagnant. They have not finished in the top 25 for the past 6 seasons, they have failed to win a BCS game since the BCS was started in 1998, and they’ve failed to win a National Championship since 1988. Some have dubbed the phrase, “Notre Dame, returning to glory since 1993.”
Winning 1 National Championship in the past 34 years is something that is tough for the proud alumni of the schools, a fact drilled deep into the awareness of many of the alumni from Notre Dame. They insist that their school do everything possible to return their alma mater back to the level it once was. They have gone through multiple coaches looking for the man who can be their messiah; the chosen one capable of winning it all.
There have been several reasons why their brand has suffered; academics, location, the number of schools getting on TV, and the rise of the SEC have all contributed to Notre Dame’s dip in prominence. These factors have weakened Notre Dame.
There is also the way that the National Championship teams build their schedule. You want to have a strong schedule, yet you need to win the majority of your games. Notre Dame hasn’t been able to do these things in recent years. Either they have played teams that were much superior to them in strength, they have lost to their rivals, or they have played teams that were so poor that it did not prepare them/boost their strength of schedule.
Notre Dame has always fiercely maintained their independence from a conference. The main result would be that this would limit their influence. The problem with the major football conferences is that they end up being tied down to a geographical region. (The SEC mainly recruits students to their school from south eastern, the Pac(ific) 12 recruits the west coast, the Big Ten (12) recruits the midwest, and the Big 12(10) recruits Texas.)Notre Dame knows this, and doesn’t want to become geographically limited; they want to make sure that they maintain their national brand.
Notre Dame is located in the midwest part of the country, near Chicago (the region’s largest metropolitan area). They are very visible in this city, so much so that they aren’t worried about recruiting in their own back yard. They are comfortable with their fan base in the middle area of the country.
To be present on the west coast, Notre Dame has played Stanford and Southern Cal. They rotate the years that they play them, so every year Notre Dame makes a trip out to California. They have also been affiliated with the Big East for the past few decades; full members in basketball & the Olympic sports and playing a number of Big East opponents in football. Thus, Notre Dame is visible on both coasts.
In the past few years, Big East football has become diluted. Many of their traditional football programs have left the conference, and Notre Dame has been left to schedule a number of weak teams instead. As a result, ND has chosen to change is conference relationship to an East Coast conference with some football muscle: the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
Notre Dame will now play 5 or 6 games a year against ACC opponents. These ACC opponents will be quality football teams stretch up and down the East Coast. So their move to the ACC is good for their level of competition AND it gives them a presence on that coast. Its a win-win for Notre Dame.
This year, Notre Dame is already playing 4 ACC schools, so to add another game or two against these conference teams means that Notre Dame will need to drop one of its non-coastal, midwest opponents; they chose to drop Michigan.
The problem with Notre Dame saying they are stopping the Michigan rivalry because they value their more important coastal rivalries, is that Michigan isn’t the only non-coastal, midwest school that Notre Dame plays; Michigan State and Purdue are also regular opponents. So to say that Notre Dame canceled their series with Michigan is simply because they’re looking to protect their coastal reputation - which was Notre Dame’s reason for dropping the Michigan series - is to miss the point. There are three schools they could have chosen to stop playing. Now if you look at these three schools and their football rivalry with Notre Dame you’ll see something else.
Purdue: Notre Dame has dominated its series with Purdue. Since 1970, Purdue has only beaten the Irish 10 times; only 2 of these wins being in South Bend! (This includes an 11-game winnings streak by Notre Dame.) This rivalry has been completely one sided.
Michigan State: Michigan State is viewed as a thorn in the side of the Irish. They’re the pesky underdog that usually gives them fits. MSU has always been a 2nd level program in the midwest, surviving on the football players that were rejected by the region’s elite programs. The series is a bit more even than the ND/Purdue series (with Notre Dame winning 2/3rds of the games), yet its still a series where Notre Dame is the favorite.
Michigan: In the non-coastal midwest region, there are three big dogs in the football world: Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan. Not just the biggest in the region, they’re three of the biggest football traditions in the country! They are near the top of the of the totem pole in wins, national championships, budgets, stadiums, Heisman Trophy winners, etc. etc. etc. If there is a stat that can be compared, these three schools are among the leaders in those stats.
While Ohio State and Notre Dame don’t have much of a rivalry, Michigan and Notre Dame have a very fierce rivalry that stretches back to the earliest days of organized college football. Some students from Michigan, were the first to teach ND students how to play the football. Michigan was ND’s first opponent in 1887 (an 8-0 UofM win). And Notre Dame was first described as “the Fighting Irish” by a Michigan newspaper. There is also a long period of time between 1909 and 1978 where the two schools refused to play each other.
Since resuming playing one another (in 1978), Notre Dame and Michigan have played 29 games, each team has winning 14 and tying in 1992. Its as even as it possibly could be. And while both teams like to think they’re a better tradition, they’re the same tradition; Notre Dame == Michigan.
[Also, we should note that since resuming this rivalry, Notre Dame has only won one national championship. 10 of their 11 championships were won during the years the teams did not play each other (1909-1978).]
So what we see is that Notre Dame canceled the rivalry with the midwest rival they’re equal with; while keeping the rivalries that they dominate.
I think we should see this move by Notre Dame as nothing short of the Irish cutting the strongest of their non-coastal, midwestern rivals as they amp up their strength of schedule by moving into a relationship with the ACC. This has nothing to do with protecting their coastal allegiances. They want to avoid a strength of schedule that will limit their ability to compete consistently for the national championship.