Musings on Notre Dame and the Rivalry

Submitted by DanRareEgg on September 26th, 2012 at 12:19 PM

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.



September 26th, 2012 at 1:10 PM ^

I will miss this rivalry, plain and simple.  Hopefully it is not canceled for good and that by 2020 they can start something up again even if it is for a few years on and a few years off.

Does anybody know if ND will cancel MSU and Purdue, or is it just us they are ducking?  I can't imagine them not wanting to play at least one B1G team a year. 



September 26th, 2012 at 3:22 PM ^

Notre Dame isn't ducking Michigan. In the last 15 years, the Spartans have actually beaten them more often than Michigan has.

Purdue will be a lock. It's their most frequent Big Ten rival, it's an intra-state game, and it's close to an auto-win on the Irish schedule. And quite frankly, Purdue would be screwed if Notre Dame backed out. They would never be able to find home & home opponents of comparable quality.

Michigan State has a four-on, two-off schedule with Notre Dame. This is a more favorable arrangement for ND than they had with Michigan, who they were obligated to play every year until 2031 (except for a 2018-19 hiatus). On top of that, Notre Dame already had a 2014-15 hiatus scheduled with Michigan State.

So they dropped Michigan, for the time being, because Purdue is their highest-priority Big Ten rivalry, and a Michigan State break was already built into their existing plans. I think they'll keep playing Purdue annually and alternate Michigan and Michigan State.

Swarbrick (the ND athletic director) sounded very open to re-starting the Michigan rivalry. I don't see why he'd say that, if he didn't mean it. They have home & homes scheduled with Oklahoma and Texas in the coming years, neither of which is an easy win. This idea that the Irish are cowards is not backed up by the facts.


September 26th, 2012 at 3:34 PM ^

I agree that ND is not dodging anyone. They simply always aspire to having a "national" footprint and playing Michigan isn't a top priority now that they have 5 ACC games locked in.

I see this as basic math. They added 5 games (although they play BC and Pitt already) and so they need to drop a couple.

I wouldn't be so sure about the Purdue game being a lock. I don't think it does much for the Irish profile to dominate them. Winning the state of Indiana doesn't really move the dial.


September 26th, 2012 at 2:16 PM ^

Thanks for this.  I did not get into college football until the mid-2000's, so this perspective is new to me.  I have a hard time understanding why some fans hate the Irish so much, since all I've known of them have been mediocre-to-terrible teams that regularly get beaten down by the Wolverines.  As a newer fan, I've always considered OSU the biggest and most important rivalry (obviously), followed by Michigan State.  I'm not sure if I'll ever be shaken from this point of view, much as you weren't shaken from yours that was born by a 4 game losing streak to the Irish.  


September 26th, 2012 at 4:53 PM ^

You're absolutely right to have OSU as the main rival, but, like you said, the memories of youth are hard to shake. I'll never forget 1990. Michigan lost a heartbreaker to ND and the next week they were in another nail-biter against MSU. MSU was small potatoes. We just wanted to see the Irish lose. ND's winning score was set up by a play that ND Nation calls "The Immaculate Deflection" When this play happened my dad, not wanting to curse in front of me, simply said, "I'm sick! I am just sick!" and stormed out of the room. Damn you, Lou Holtz!!!


September 26th, 2012 at 2:21 PM ^

those two games plus touchdown tiim biakabatuka's game against ohio state and woodson's entire 1997 campaign are my favorite 90s michigan memories

the howard catch still gives me chills. i have to say that i didn't know how good we had it with moeller when he was there, and he's been a true michigan all the way even since his forced resignation


September 27th, 2012 at 4:24 PM ^

I think there are a myriad of reasons why Moeller's program was fading and under Lloyd it revived with recruiting being a small component.  I think Bo leaving Michigan to be president of the Tigers created a mini-power vacuum similar to what we experienced after he passed away in 2006 and Gary just didn't possess the force of personality that Bo did to keep things on course.  I think there was discord amongst the staff, rumors of Les Miles having affairs with other coaches wives and whatnot, something that probably wouldn't have gone down it Bo was around (see above).  I think when Lloyd took over as head coach the defensive coaching got a huge upgrade with Mattison's promotion to Lloyd's old position.

I think it would make for a great tell-all book that Bacon needs to get on RIGHT NOW.


September 26th, 2012 at 4:52 PM ^

Very enjoyable history. The ND series as we knew it started in 78, my first year in Ann Arbor. Rick Leach passed his way to a big win over Joe Montana in South Bend. I was at the 79 game, a brutal loss at home when Bob Crable blocked the final FG attempt.

But the most memorable for personal reasons was 80. That summer I managed to break my neck and was laid up in Yale New Haven Hospital. I was watching the game while my dad and brother were driving up to visit. They had it on the radio and stayed in the parking lot listening to Michigan score the go-ahead touchdown. They figured it was over and headed up to my room. I endured Harry Oliver and the wind dropping and the FG, and when they walked in all fired up about the big win, they couldn't believe it.

I understand why ND is dropping Michigan, but I don't like it. Those ND games have been a feature of most Septembers of my adult life. There have been so many thrillers, going both ways. The college football landscape continues to change for the worse. I'm sorry to see the Domers go.


September 26th, 2012 at 5:52 PM ^

It's been a fun game. But rivalry for what?

The game itself means nothing in Big Ten play, though there were a few years when losing it seemed to take the starch out of Michigan's shorts right at the start of the season.



September 26th, 2012 at 6:38 PM ^

It's mostly a rivalry of historical significance, which admittedly doesn't mean a whole lot in the here and now. I think for Notre Dame it's about several things. There's the bitterness from when Michigan refused to play them for 35 years and there's always being second-best in all-time wins behind the school that they've tried to mimic for well over a century, and still not having been to a BCS bowl.

For me it's about a lot of things. Private v. Public schools, Big Ten/Midwest v. their quasi-independent status and national footprint, the sanctimonious words of guys like Paul Hornung ("ND needs to lower it's academic standards in order to get the black athlete"), and preferential treatment from the NCAA, BCS, and now ACC (and they still haven't made a BCS bowl!)

I suppose it is mostly just another game that gets more attention due to the history behind it, but I'm with Brian - they're the perfect foil.


September 26th, 2012 at 7:23 PM ^

The other thing about Notre Dame is that they were a rivalry where winning usually seemed to have more upside than losing had downside. Losing to them sucked, all right, but it wasn't a conference loss and it was early in the season. We could lose to Notre Dame and still have a successful year. Beating them could set us up for a great run.

In that sense the rivalry was the opposite of Michigan State, where winning is nowhere near as rewarding as losing is disgusting. We're supposed to beat State, fergodsake. Ohio falls somewhere between: losing to them tends to be roughly equal in awfulness to the joy of beating them.


September 27th, 2012 at 12:26 AM ^

but ND has been to three BCS bowls. They played in the 2001 and 2006 Fiesta Bowls, and the 2007 Sugar Bowl. There are only thirteen schools with more BCS bids than ND. That's not at all a powerhouse number, but none would have them tied with Sparty.


September 27th, 2012 at 6:39 AM ^

Pre-BCS you had to be undefeated to be the national champion. If we lost to ND, the season went from being a national championship hunt to just a run for the B1G and the Rose Bowl. 1989 is an example of a season where the NC hunt ended against the Irish.

Now of course you can win the NC even if you don't win your own division and conference championship.


September 27th, 2012 at 1:29 AM ^

was the best of all our rivalries. Two classic all time teams. More classic compared to Ohio.

Sure ND is down. But just like Bama, USC and just recently Michigan...they'll be back. Its too bad.

User -not THAT user

September 27th, 2012 at 12:36 PM ^

...with both programs on decline recently, the rivalry wasn't much from anyone's point of view other than that of the participants, but it was a small comfort  knowing that as bad as things may have gotten, as least we could look forward to beating the Irish (perfect example:  Brian's "Cripple Fight" South Park theme leading up to the 2007 game).  Think of the one-hit wonders Michigan has had on their sidelines lately...Ryan Mallett and Tate Forcier were both 1-0 against the Irish.  RichRod was 0-for-6 against OSU and MSU, but he was 2-1 against ND.

Yeah, that matters.

Communist Football

September 29th, 2012 at 5:09 PM ^

My memories of Michigan-ND are exactly like those of the OP.  In those days, MSU and OSU were annoyances—ND was our true nemesis.  For me, still, it's the game I look forward to the most every year.  ND is the school that is most like Michigan in terms of tradition and glamour.  

Hopefully the rivalry continues, as Swarbrick has said he hopes to, despite the upcoming cancellation.  Given the demise of communist football in AA, it may the only game I continue to watch once the Age of Denard is over.