On Saturday night, the Notre Dame Fig Things will face the Michigan Wolverines in just the second night game ever at the Big House. Originally scheduled to play through at least 2017, this will be the last game between these teams in Ann Arbor for a while because Notre Dame chose to end the series early (they are scheduled to play in South Bend next season).
For Michigan fans, this is very disappointing. For Notre Dame fans…eh.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly made headlines this week when, speaking about Michigan, he said, “I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries,” but rather a “big regional game.” Two days later he reversed field, opening his press conference by saying, “It’s a great and historical rivalry that we’ll be playing this Saturday, so let’s get that out of the way right away so we don’t have to answer any more questions about this rivalry.”
His original comments angered, or at the very least annoyed, Wolverine Nation. Many Irish supporters agreed with their coach. We can parse what “historical” and “traditional” might mean, but here are the facts:
- Notre Dame and Michigan first played in 1887, when Michigan’s team travelled to South Bend to literally teach Notre Dame the game of football.
- They played just twice between 1909 and 1978.
- Notre Dame has played more than twice as many games against Purdue (84) and almost twice as many against Michigan State (75) than it has against Michigan (40).
Yost and Rockne hated each other, as did Crisler and Leahy, hence the hiatuses (hiati?). But since the game was revived in 1978, the schools have met all but six years and every season since 2002. From John U. Bacon’s excellent new book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football:
“They relaunched the rivalry in 1978, and it was an immediate hit. The games were so good Sports Illustrated put the rivalry on the cover four times in a decade, plus four features—each time eclipsing the NFL’s opening weekend, and tennis’s U.S. Open.”
Over that span the series is deadlocked at 14-14-1.
The Fig Things (sorry, I can’t help myself) are dropping Michigan because their partnership with the ACC, which begins next season, limits their scheduling options and they want to continue to play USC, Stanford, and Navy every year. Keeping Purdue and Michigan State (both trophy games, for whatever that’s worth) instead of the Wolverines gives Notre Dame a more manageable schedule.*
Not only that, but it’s what many Notre Dame fans prefer. Remember, recent ND-Michigan State games have been very entertaining as well. Notre Dame’s first ever game wasn’t against the Spartans, but their history isn’t marked by breaks in the action either.
Still, it’s a shame this rivalry is coming to an end. I went to Michigan; most all of my family went to Notre Dame. I’ve seen this matchup in person at least nine times. Many of my fellow alums would love to keep the Irish on the schedule, especially given the uncertainty over whether another marquee opponent will replace them. But both sides believe the rivalry—and yes, Coach Kelly, it is a rivalry; Wikipedia says so—will return in the future, as it has done in the past.