ANN ARBOR — Earlier this summer, Frank Clark reflected upon his first visit to Notre Dame.
That 2012 trip to South Bend, Ind., didn’t conjure images of Touchdown Jesus or the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Not even the gilded dome of the school’s main administration building that’s become the university’s trademark.
Clark, a senior defensive end for Michigan, recalled a less flattering image of the college town.
“I’ve never seen so many middle fingers,” Clark said at the Big Ten media days in July in Chicago. “I thought it was supposed to be a Christian school.”
After Saturday night’s matchup between the No. 16 Irish (1-0) and the Wolverines (1-0), a rivalry that’s trademarked by respect and animosity, the annual matchup could be in its final days, at least for the foreseeable future.
The longtime series between Michigan and Notre Dame — which began in 1887 and has had only three interruptions since 1978 — goes on an indefinite hiatus after Saturday. Two years ago, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon a notice of termination on the sidelines at Notre Dame Stadium before the start of the Irish’s 13-6 win. Because the letter was delivered before the start of the 2012 game, it was included in the three-year window required by each team to either discontinue or put the series on hold.
“It’s a slap in the face when you end one of those great rivalries for whatever reason you choose to,” Clark told reporters after Michigan’s 52-14 win over Appalachian State. “It’s something for the people. It’s something for the fans. It’s one of those games everyone expects to watch every year.”
Now, it’s one of many traditional college football rivalries that’s falling by the wayside because of several factors, including Notre Dame’s move to the Atlantic Coast Conference and the emergence of the College Football Playoff. But in the days leading up to Michigan’s final game against Notre Dame for the foreseeable future, several of the Wolverines reflected on the rivalry.
While Jake Ryan admits he didn’t grow up much of a college football fan, Notre Dame-Michigan was one of the few college football games the red-shirt senior linebacker paid attention to.
“It’s a game filled with tradition, and it’s one of the greatest games to play in,” Ryan said. “It’s kind of sad.
“It’s the young guys I feel for, who don’t get to be a part of that tradition.”
De’Veon Smith grew up outside of Youngstown and paid more attention to another college football rivalry: Michigan-Ohio State. The magnitude of Michigan-Notre Dame didn’t hit Smith until he visited Michigan on Sept. 10, 2011, for the first night game at Michigan Stadium, when Denard Robinson’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree in the final seconds of the game lifted the Wolverines to a 35-31 win over the Irish.
“It was a huge deal, when they broke the record for the most fans in the Big House, and seeing all the players getting hyped when they were coming out with the [striped] jerseys,” the sophomore running back said.
For Joe Bolden, Michigan-Notre Dame has been part of a lifelong gridiron affair. The junior linebacker grew up in Cincinnati, and Fridays meant going to high school football games while Saturdays meant watching college football. Some Saturdays, the TV in the Bolden house was tuned into Michigan. Other Saturdays it was tuned into Notre Dame. On one Saturday in the fall, it was tuned into both teams.
“I was two weeks old when I was at my first high school football game because my dad was a high school football coach, and that Saturday the TV was flipped on and we were watching the game,” Bolden said. “Watching the two play each other, it’s a phenomenal series.”
Yet, not all of the current players from both teams are necessarily apt to get nostalgic. They’re trained to be focused on the task at hand. After Notre Dame’s 48-17 win Saturday against Rice, Irish quarterback Everett Golson wasn’t thinking about bragging rights or the prestige that comes with the Michigan-Notre Dame series.
He was thinking preparation.
“We've got to prepare for Michigan just like we did Rice,” Golson said. “I don't think I get into all of the hype of the game and things like that. But at the same time, you have to take care of business and you have to prepare. Michigan’s got a great football team. It's going to be a tough one, but I'm ready for it.”
MICHIGAN-NOTRE DAME FACTS
■ Start of the series: Nov. 23 1887. Michigan students traveled to South Bend to teach the Notre Dame students the game of football. Michigan won the first game 8-0.
Five key dates in the series:
■ Oct. 18, 1902: UM defeated ND 23-0 at Armory Park in Toledo, at what is now Spielbusch Avenue and Orange Street. The neutral-site matchup sparked gridiron legitimacy for Notre Dame, which has become one of college football's winningest programs.
■ Nov. 5, 1910: A year after Notre Dame's 11-3 win oin Ann Arbor, UM cancelled the 1910 contest and claimed the Irish were using ineligible players. That claim and a feud between Michigan coach Fielding Yost and ND coach Knute Rockne was the start of the first series stoppage, with the two teams meeting again only twice until 1978.
■ Sept. 23, 1978: The series resumes. UM quarterback Rick Leach steered a second-half comeback in a 28-14 win in South Bend. The series has only been interrupted three times since: 1983-1984, 1995-1996, and 2000-2001.
■ Sept. 10, 2011: Regarded as Denard Robinson's breakthrough game at Michigan, the quarterback spearheaded the decisive drive that clinched a 35-31 win in the first night game at Michigan Stadium.
■ Sept. 22, 2012: Prior to kickoff of the Irish's 13-6 win in South Bend, ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed UM athletic director Dave Brandon an envelope. When Brandon opened it after the game, it was a written notice to put the series on hiatus.