Notre Dame fans, especially scheduling buffs like myself, are already very familiar with the recent chatter that the Notre Dame/Michigan football series, left for dead as recently as 2014 when ND won the final scheduled game 37-0 (#RememberThe6), looks to be on its way back. Both sides have expressed interest in scheduling a future series, with coach Brian Kelly even intimating that the next game could take place within the next five years.
(UPDATE: Several media reports, the first one coming from SI’s Ryan Krasnoo, say that ND and Michigan will announce a game for the 2018 season today. How’s that for timing??)
(UPDATE #2: It’s official – Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame and Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan, per @FBSchedules.)
While granting that this will certainly be an interesting development for the college football world at large, I submit that this isn’t the greatest idea for Notre Dame. A few reasons why:
– National pull. From my selfish and admittedly biased point of view, ND acknowledging Michigan’s existence by playing them in football doesn’t do much for ND, which can generate broad national interest by playing almost anybody.
You don’t need to look far for an example — an Irish road game against Temple (Temple!!) was selected for a national Saturday Night Football broadcast on ABC and hosted College GameDay last year. The Owls’ surprise emergence as a Top 25 team last year certainly helped make that happen, but even under those circumstances it’s hard to imagine a Temple game against another school, even a very good one, generating that kind of interest.
Meanwhile, Michigan, while considered a blue-blood program, generally doesn’t get much traction nationally unless they’re playing a highly-ranked Ohio State or Michigan State team. Even last year’s Wolverines opener against a very good Utah squad didn’t contribute as much as you might expect in the national conversation outside of Fox Sports 1’s desperate promotion. The game drew just under 3 million viewers, a solid figure for the network but still fewer than North Carolina vs. South Carolina drew the same evening.
The point is, Notre Dame can play several schools at or near the level of Michigan — Georgia, whom the Irish will play in 2017 and ’19, is a good example — and draw a bunch of interest. Michigan, frankly, can’t. Why help them out? Especially given:
– History. Now, bad blood between schools isn’t often a great reason not to play them — actually it’s quite the opposite. But then, that bad blood doesn’t usually include one school trying to stamp the other out.
It’s well-documented that Michigan essentially tried to smother ND football in the crib when the Irish began their emergence, for fear that their brand as “champions of the West” might be usurped. The Wolverines ceased playing ND after the Irish beat them for the first time in 1909, going as far as to cancel the next year’s game basically as the boys in blue and gold were boarding the train north. They also responded to ND’s attempts to join the Big Ten by strongarming the league’s other schools into refusing to play the Irish. (Imagine a world in which Michigan at that time realizes how beneficial ND in the Big Ten would be. Scary.)
Of course, as we now know, that strategy backfired spectacularly on the Wolverines. ND went on to adopt an attitude of ‘anyone, anywhere’, playing era heavyweights like Army and later USC. Those series, and the exposure they created, helped ND become a superpower that would transcend college football’s otherwise regional roots and whose popularity would forever outstrip Michigan’s.
Michigan would later consent to play ND in the early 1940s, but after the Irish won for the second time in the series in 1943, the Wolverines inexplicably accused ND of dirty play and again backed out of future games. The two teams would finally resume their rivalry in 1978 with only occasional breaks until the most recent stoppage. Those two prior withdrawals from the series make Michigan’s trumpeting of ND’s later “chickening out”, as Brady Hoke infamously put it at an alumni function in 2013, by turns patently absurd and hilarious.
If you need a more recent factoid to illustrate the irony of UM’s attitude towards the Irish, ex-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon was on record a good year and a half before ND canceled the Michigan series — using a contract clause that UM had insisted upon, allowing either side to cancel with three games’ notice — that he was thinking about it himself.
In April 2011, he said of a then-hypothetical nine-game B1G schedule, “I can’t be in a world where I have four Big Ten home games and I’m supposed to play Notre Dame (in South Bend). I can’t live in that world.” With the nine-game B1G schedule becoming a reality starting in 2016, Brandon would almost certainly have canceled the series prior to the 2013 game if ND hadn’t beaten him to it.
The combination of Michigan’s petulant attempt to destroy ND football in its infancy and their remarkable behavior since then (capped by playing that stupid Chicken Dance song following the 2013 game between the teams) turned me off of ever wanting the series to resume.
– The Last Word. With the above being said, I’m sure when the time comes, I will savor an opportunity for ND to potentially deliver another beating to Michigan. However, it’s hard to imagine any game between the teams being the kind of perfect palate-cleanser the 2014 game was.
With no further games scheduled, the atmosphere at ND was fevered for the matchup, and the Irish delivered in a huge way, destroying Michigan 37-0 (#RememberThe6). The game was Everett Golson’s finest hour as he dissected the Michigan secondary. A young receiver named Will Fuller who hadn’t done a ton to that point made an acrobatic touchdown catch. The student section — organically — came up with the absolute perfect response to Michigan’s contrived Chicken Dance nonsense from the year before in the late stages of the game.
And when Hoke foolishly kept trying to score in the final seconds to avoid complete embarrassment, ND scored on a pick-6 as time ran out, setting off one of the most joyous celebrations in recent stadium history. The fact that the score was called back on an at-best-picky and at-worst-incorrect roughing-the-quarterback call was almost beside the point. The message had been sent — “Enjoy your beating and get the heck out of our lives.”
Now it appears that 2014 rout won’t be the last word. And in the end, I suppose that’s fine. However, I can’t say I wouldn’t have loved it if the Irish had just taken their ball and gone home.