Notre Dame Football: Oh, How I Wish Again the Irish Still Played Michigan

By Tom O'Toole

Considering Notre Dame‘s impending move to the ACC, and accompanied commitment of the “independent” Irish football team to play five ACC teams a year starting in 2014, many figured the cancelling of the ND-Michigan football series to be inevitable. But considering the curious nature of the several past “postponements” of this competitive-but-contentious rivalry of college football’s all-time leaders in winning percentage, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s more to this present stoppage than meets the eye.

On the surface, Notre Dame’s move made perfect sense. As Notre Dame senior associate athletic director John Heisler explained, “Our contract with Michigan has an automatic rollover provision — with a year being added each time a game is played. We needed to avoid the automatic addition of additional games until we can get a better understanding of our five-game scheduling commitment to the Atlantic Coast Conference.”

Add this to the fact that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has already said that long-time rivals Navy, USC, and Stanford will stay on the schedule, and that Notre Dame has played Michigan State 76 times, Purdue 84 times, but Michigan only 40, seems to make this decision a no-brainer.

But apparently Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn’t agree. Brandon was shocked, SHOCKED! that the Irish cancelled the scheduled football games between the two traditional powerhouses from 2015-17.

“The decision to cancel games in 2015-17 was Notre Dame’s and not ours,” Brandon declared self-righteously. “We value our annual rivalry with Notre Dame but will have to see what the future holds for any continuation of the series,” noting Swarbrick handed Brandon a letter informing him of Notre Dame’s decision to opt out of the games a mere hour before kickoff of last Saturday’s game in South Bend.

Still, before you start feeling sorry for Michigan, know that Michigan has twice dropped the Irish — on far less cordial terms and on MUCH shorter notice. Notre Dame played the early football powerhouse Michigan eight times between 1887 and 1908, losing them all. But when the upstart Irish actually beat the highly-favored Wolverines for the first time in 1909, all hell broke loose.

Although legendary Michigan coach Fielding Yost said immediately after the 11-3 loss that the host team “treated this game as an exhibition…we didn’t really care if we won or lost,” when this “careless” loss cost Michigan a chance at a national championship, Yost ordered a full scale NCAA investigation of the Notre Dame player’s eligibility. When the report came back clean (quite a rarity at that time) the anti-Catholic Yost was so PO’d that he cancelled the 1910 game with Notre Dame less than two days before it was scheduled — and with the Irish already on the train to Ann Arbor.

After much kissing up by both Elmer Layden and Frank Leahy, old man Yost finally agreed to resume the series again in 1942. The Wolverines beat the Irish 32-20 that year and all was well, but when Notre Dame upset Michigan 35-12 the following season, at the same time snatching away the national championship from the Wolverines, history repeated itself. Fritz Crisler, the Michigan coach at that time, declared that Notre Dame had an unfair advantage at recruiting Catholics, and cancelled the series after a mere two years, this time waiting 35 years before resuming the series again.

So when it comes to complaining about cancelling this always-competitive-but-often-contemptuous series, there’s really not much Michigan can say. Still, I hope the two schools can see clear to resuming the games between the teams with the two best winning percentages soon. Because with the exception of Southern California, Michigan had grown into Notre Dame’s best and bitterest rival, a rivalry that constant companions Purdue or Michigan State have been unable to duplicate, and to which new foes Duke or Wake Forest will never even come close.

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