With the news that came out last month that Notre Dame and Michigan would renew the rivalry game, many in the Irish fanbase would get on one side or another on the debate of is this game is actually worth it. "This is one of the best rivalries in college football!" some would say while others would shout back "We shouldn't even acknowledge Michigan's existence!". Why all of the fuss over if the Irish should play the Wolverines? For as heated as both fanbases get about the other, you think everyone couldn't be able to wait for that fall day to beat the opposing team and shut the other fanbase up. At least for another year. Yet that's not what happens. As said above, some people in the Irish legion don't think we should recognize Michigan as having a football team (spoiler: they weren't the first ones to act this way). How did it get this way? How is it that the two winningest powerhouses in college football, located 180 miles away, with a rivalry that spans over 100 years, get to not wanting to play each other?
To understand this, we must go back to the beginnings of college football itself....
The Beginning (1887-1909)
Notre Dame's first three football games actually came against the Michigan Wolverines. The first, coming in 1887, happened when a few students transferred from Notre Dame to the University of Michigan. They kept in touch with their fellow friends who were still at Notre Dame. At this point in time, Michigan had already established itself somewhat as a football power. Wanting to get football for Notre Dame, some of the Notre Dame students were able to convince the Wolverines to come down to South Bend and play them (at this point in time, Notre Dame didn't have the "Fighting Irish" name yet, they were just known as the "South Bend" based school). Michigan agreed. They'd stop by South Bend to play a game on their way to Chicago to play another team.
This is where Michigan fans of today say that they taught Notre Dame how to play football. And by most accounts, that's more accurate than not. It was more of a scrimmage and tutorial than actual heated game. The Wolverines would win that day in 1887 8-0 (note: a few months later in March of 1888, Lars and Martha Rockne would give birth to a boy who they would name Knute...). However, they hadn't foreseen what that little "tutorial" would build for generations to come. The scoreboard might have shown Michigan winning, but it was Notre Dame that would come out on top. That scrimmage sparked a hunger and desire in that "South Bend based school" to crave more football. Little did either side know that what would come from that is the birth of the winningest college football program, that would have multiple dynasties across several decades, producing iconic players and coaches alike. Little did they know that what would come would be a fierce rivalry, spanning over 100 years, yet only playing 42 times, and not annually.
Notre Dame would play Michigan another two times in 1888, and a total of 8 times from 1887-1908. In that time span, Michigan would outscore Notre Dame a total of 121-16. Then, in 1909, it all changed. The Irish pulled off an 11-2 victory over the Wolverines. This is where things get heated, as Michigan's head coach Fielding Yost is not at all happy with this. He didn't like that an "upstart" program had beaten his powerhouse team. And his team was a powerhouse, having gone 55-1-1 from 1901-1905 and beating Stanford 49-0 in the inaugural Rose Bowl. Yost did not like that another program could be in his backyard and threaten his perceived title as the only powerhouse program in the Midwest. He accused Notre Dame of having ineligible players and accused them of committing recruiting violations. Yes, even 100 years ago, rival teams accused each other of recruiting violations. He didn't just throw accusations around and leave it at that. He went out and tried to convince teams in the Western Conference (Big Ten) to not play Notre Dame.
And thus, that is exactly what happened. Notre Dame would not play teams that were regionally located. This would show. Going back to Notre Dame's 1915 schedule, they played teams in Nebraska, New York, and Texas. That is a lot of long travelling by today's standard, let alone in 1915. Adding some more insult to injury, Yost left Rockne off of his 1913 All-American team, and in 1923 there was a dispute between Yost and Rockne at a track event, causing Yost to further stand ground on his stance of Big Ten teams not playing Notre Dame. In 1926, Notre Dame would give one last try to join the conference, but yet again, would get denied. This gave the Irish the "screw it" mentality, and thus would forever remain Independent.
So Notre Dame was faced with two choices. To either downsize, or go big. For the most part, the administrators wanted to go ahead and downsize. Head coach Jesse Harper, arguably one of the most influential coaches in program history, was able to convince everyone to not downsize, but get a "barnstorming" mentality. He'd take his team and play anyone, anywhere, anytime. The effects of this are incredibly evident today, still. College football is generally regionally based on who you play and who you cheer for (recent conference realignment has dramatically changed this). However, Jesse Harper and Notre Dame transcend all of this. By essentially getting blackballed from playing Big Ten teams and forcing the Irish to play teams all over the country, it effectively marketed the Notre Dame brand to a national audience. This is apparent today in that the program quite literally has fans all over the nation. They also still take their national trips to outside the region yearly by heading out to the West Coast to play USC and Stanford. Just imagine, had Fielding Yost not done this, Notre Dame could potentially be a member of the Big Ten. Thank god that isn't the case.
A quick resurgence (1942-1943)
The rivalry would make a quick appearance for two years in the early 40's. At this point, the Irish were entering the Leahy era and already had a successful program. In an attempt to let bygones be bygones, Michigan head coach Fritz Crisler and Leahy agreed to have a home/home series. In 1942, the Wolverines would come in to South Bend and get a 32-20 victory, this would prove to be Leahy's last loss in South Bend until 1950 against Purdue. The following year in 1943, Notre Dame would get revenge against Michigan when Heisman trophy winner Angelo Bertelli would rock the Wolverines 35-12.
Again, after the Irish won, it was the Wolverines head coach (albeit a different one) who would accuse Notre Dame of something and come up with a reason not to play them. The reason this time being that Crisler thought that Notre Dame played dirty and that he vowed to never play the Irish again.
The Modern Era (1978-present)
During the 1960s, attendance at Michigan games had been dwindling outside of games against Michigan State or Ohio State. Michigan athletic director Don Canham and Edward "Moose" Krause began talks in the late 60's about bringing the rivalry back in an attempt to help Michigan with its game attendance. On a cold, snowy, January morning in 1969 in South Bend, Indiana (ok, I don't know what the weather was that day, but couldn't be too far off), the two sides would agree to a 4-game series that would begin in 1978. From this point on, the rivalry would play annually, except for a year or two here and there. There would be iconic players, plays, and coaches on each side. Crushing defeats and thrilling wins. And it seemed like each team was in the hunt for a national title.
As it stands, Michigan leads the series 24-17-1. However, Irish fans come quick to say that since the modern era, the series is tied 15-15-1. It's interesting how this seems to be more of a rivalry from what happens off of the field than anything that actually happens on the field. It's also something to chew on had Notre Dame not been barred out of the Big Ten from the efforts of Yost. Imagine a scenario in which the Irish are stuck in that bottom feeder of a conference. It's also interesting to see how the roles almost reverse in the current situation. In the beginning, Notre Dame needed Michigan (hard typing those words) to play in order to get its football program on its feet and going. Now? With the emphasis on strength of schedule, Michigan needs Notre Dame to boost its scheduling. Notre Dame isn't stuck in a conference littered with weak teams. They have the flexibility to play who they want (Ohio State, Georgia, and Texas A&M are all on the future schedule).
Also, it's one of the bigger ironies in college football that Michigan played The Chicken Dance in the last game in Ann Arbor when Notre Dame had legitimate reasons in postponing the series by agreeing to play 5 ACC teams a year, when after both times Notre Dame beat Michigan in 1909 and 1943, the Wolverines came up with some weak excuse why not to play Notre Dame.
Interesting to look back on the impact that a few individuals from over 100 years ago could have on the landscape of college football today.
I hope you had as much enjoyment out of this look back on the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry as I had looking things up and putting this piece together. I absolutely love the history and tradition of college football, and this was a thorough pleasure in writing about. I'm sure there are things that I missed, tidbits that I did not add in, or some accuracies that you view as inaccurate. Please add them below as we discuss one of the more iconic rivalries in the game that we love.