ANN ARBOR — When Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon an envelope prior to last year’s meeting between the football teams from the two universities, Brandon admitted he put it in his pocket and didn’t think much of it.
Little did Brandon realize that when he read the letter inside, it would ultimately put a shelf life on one of college football’s notable rivalries.
The letter stated Notre Dame’s intention to back out of the series after the 2014 season, and left only two more guaranteed games in the matchup, including Saturday night’s tilt at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan might not be alone in the fact that Notre Dame is abandoning one of its traditional rivals; the futures of two other regional rivalry series involving Notre Dame’s are up in the air, given that next year the Irish are begin scheduling five Atlantic Coast Conference teams on its schedule.
Michigan, however, is likely one of the highest-profile programs that Notre Dame has chosen to shed from its schedule, and the sentiment across the college football landscape is that the rivalry has national prominence.
On Sunday, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he didn’t quantify Notre Dame-Michigan as a national rivalry but instead as a regional rivalry — a point he backtracked on Tuesday, labeling it as a “great and historical rivalry.”
One notable name in Notre Dame lore begged to differ with Kelly’s initial opinion on Notre Dame-Michigan.
“It had national championship implications,” former Irish coach Lou Holtz said Monday night on ESPN. “You knew when you played Michigan that first game, you’d better be at your best. You knew if you won it, you weren’t going to play many people better than that, and you hoped you’d win the national championship.”
The rivalry’s national significance can still be debated; it doesn’t have the same continuity as Notre Dame-Southern California, which began in 1926, or Notre Dame-Navy, which has been played annually since 1927. The Michigan-Notre Dame series has gone on hiatus twice, from 1910 to 1941 and from 1944 to 1977. Yet in the course of college football history, a Notre Dame historian pointed this out: If it wasn’t for Michigan, Notre Dame might not have a football program.
In 1887, a group of students from Michigan traveled to South Bend to essentially tutor Notre Dame in the relatively new sport of American football, which at the time was less than 20 years old.
“Michigan gave Notre Dame their start,” said Michael R. Steele, a 1967 Notre Dame graduate who wrote The Notre Dame Football Encyclopedia. “Michigan came in and tutored Notre Dame. That’s something people have lost sight of, and you’d almost have to be a sport historian or a researcher to know that. Let’s face it. Most fans only have a memory of five to ten years of a team or a program.”
With Notre Dame choosing to seek partial conference affiliation in football, prominent rivalries between Notre Dame and two more Big Ten programs also have cloudy futures. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio didn’t use the words “national” or “historic” when discussing Michigan State’s rivalry with Notre Dame, which began in 1897 and has been played yearly since 1948, save for one season.
However, Dantonio wasn’t going to forecast the long-term future of the rivalry, which is scheduled to go on a two-year hiatus after 2015, and again in 2020.
“I think Notre Dame is one of the institutions that was involved in getting Michigan State in the Big Ten,” Dantonio said. “Because of that, there’s an affinity for Notre Dame from Michigan State, regardless of what happens. I think it’s a great rivalry, a great football game and I, personally, respect that tradition.
“Whatever happens, that’s up to them.”
Purdue’s rivalry with Notre Dame began in 1896, and the Boilermakers currently have Notre Dame on their schedule through 2021. Morgan Burke, Purdue’s athletic director, said that while both schools respect the traditions of the rivalry, he wants to bridge the gap that may be created because of Notre Dame’s shift to the ACC.
“We’ve got some square-peg, round-hole issues,” Burke told the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel in May, when discussing the rivalry between the two Indiana schools. “I think Jack [Swarbrick] and I are going to do whatever we can to maintain a healthy relationship between the two schools. We’re working on it. We just have to see what happens.”
Steele explained that college football’s move from the Bowl Championship Series format to the emergence of a playoff system has precipitated Notre Dame’s shift. Steele agreed with the assessment that Notre Dame is evolving with the changes that have come out of the evolution of college football.
“They’ve clearly been rethinking the historical role,” said Steele, who is a professor emeritus at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. “Football has changed immensely. [The BCS], that’s an earthquake within itself. Here, we see another one coming up with the playoff system. There might have been a period in which Notre Dame stayed above the fray, simply with its history and fame and bank account. Maybe that’s less of a possibility now.
“They’re somewhat joining the system. They’re not quite independent anymore. That’s going to remain to be seen. Is the tail wagging the dog or is the dog wagging the tail? We’re way too early in the relationship to see how it shakes out.”
As for a future rekindling of the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry? Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Tuesday he hopes for the return of a series between two of the nations’ top five winningest college football programs. Steele said several factors could go into whether or not that happens.
“I think it would be a mistake for Notre Dame not to have Michigan on their schedule occasionally,” Steele said. “They’re going to have to re-think the entire scheduling process, anyways, and they’ve got four to five games to play with. Notre Dame wants to have a national schedule. They want to be on the East Coast and on the West Coast. But they’re juggling numerous things right now.”