Column: Notre Dame Sells Out Rivalry, Fans

Deal eliminating football tradition against Michigan smacks of greed
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The only constant is change.

Yeah, yeah. We know that – and in case we didn’t, there’s always some office blowhard too eager to say it, as if it’s the most profound truth of the universe.

But that’s why, the more things change, the more we appreciate things that don’t. When Carole King sang, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more?” she probably wasn’t talking about NFL franchises, but she could’ve been. From 1982 to 1995, seven NFL teams moved – about a quarter of the league – which is just one more reason I’ve always preferred college football: universities don’t move.

During that same stretch, Michigan played Notre Dame in the first or second weekend of the season every year, and the games were so good Sports Illustrated gave the game four of ten cover stories, and four features – eclipsing the NFL’s opening weekend, and tennis’s U.S. Open.

The rivalry had almost everything going for it, including history. In 1887, the men from Michigan were traveling to play a game against Northwestern. When they found out, en route, that Northwestern had canceled, they got off in South Bend – and literally taught those boys how to play the game. It remains the oldest rivalry among major college powers.

It had tension: In 1910, when Michigan’s Fielding Yost accused Notre Dame of using ineligible players, he cut off the series. The tear grew bigger at a track meet in 1923, when Yost got into an explosive argument with Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, over…the gap between the hurdles. (I’m not making this up.) Yost vowed to keep Notre Dame out of the Big Ten – and unfortunately for the league, he succeeded.

After that, Michigan played Notre Dame just twice, during World War II. But at a banquet in the late sixties, Notre Dame athletic director Moose Krause sat next to his Michigan counterpart, Don Canham, and leaned over to say, “Don, Michigan and Notre Dame should be playing football.” They were the two best teams in the game’s history, they both had reputations for doing it the right way, and they were only three hours apart. Canham couldn’t argue against the obvious logic of it.

After a few years of tricky negotiations, they re-launched the rivalry in 1978, and it was an immediate hit. The game held a special place at the beginning of the season, giving Michigan a perfect symmetry of rivals: Notre Dame to start, Michigan State in the middle, and Ohio State at the end. It also kicked off college football nationwide, and gave even casual fans a marker of the seasons: when Michigan plays Notre Dame, fall has begun.

The rivalry had everything college football fans love: In addition to history and tension, it boasted classic uniforms and stadiums – designed by the same architects – and unequaled parity. The night before the rivalry restarted in 1978, Moose Krause said, “When we look back 25 years from today, we will probably see that Michigan won half of the games and Notre Dame won half of the games.” Thirty-four years later, we see that Michigan has won 14, and Notre Dame 14.

Years later, according to John Kryk – who wrote the authoritative book on the rivalry, “Natural Enemies” – when President Gerald Ford spotted Krause at a golf tournament, he praised him in a room full of dignitaries for restarting the rivalry. “It’s good for Michigan, it’s good for Notre Dame, and it’s good for college football.” On all three fronts, President Ford was right.

After the Big Ten admitted Penn State in 1990, giving it an awkward eleven teams, the league reached out to Notre Dame. The Irish returned the Big Ten’s original snub, so the league gave Notre Dame’s spot to Nebraska a couple years ago. Last week, Notre Dame joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in every sport but football, though the Irish have agreed to play five ACC teams a year. The deal revealed that both of these once-proud and stable institutions – Notre Dame and the ACC – were willing to sell their histories. They also sold out their fans, alumni and athletes – all for a few more bucks.

An hour before Saturday’s kickoff, Notre Dame handed Michigan’s athletic director a letter, ending one of the greatest rivalries in sports. Notre Dame will replace Michigan with teams like Wake Forest and Clemson, while Michigan will replace Notre Dame with – well, probably teams like Wake Forest and Clemson.

The NFL was created as a business designed to make money, but the college game was supposed to have higher ideals. That’s getting harder to argue.

I’ve said it before, but I have to say it again: The people who love college football seem to have little in common with the people who run it.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game.” 

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  1. By SkinPounder
    September 28, 2012 at 9:36 am | permalink

    For as many years as i can remember The head of the University of Michigan has led a campaign to have Notre Dame banned from bowl games, rebuked the Big Ten’s invitations to have Notre Dame join the conference, and stuck his finger in Notre Dame’s face every time he could. He has called them “irrelevant”, and even mocked ND’s graduation rates as being meaningless.

    Why would you be surprised that the first school ND chooses to eliminate is Michigan?

    While many remember that Michigan students came to ND to teach the game of football back in the 1880′s, few recall that it was during their third game that Notre Dame discovered that the Michigan players were cheating (using their own players as referees), which ended the game in a doneybrook (which Notre Dame won) and ended the series for several years.

    It appears they still haven’t learned their lessons from it.

  2. By Ara The Great From Dixie
    September 28, 2012 at 9:53 am | permalink

    Me thinks someone is jealous. Just be content playing all those boring Midwest schools during the freezing cold, gray days of October and November….while Notre Dame will be playing Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Clemson in the warm, sunny south.

  3. By Walmart Wolverine
    September 28, 2012 at 10:09 am | permalink

    I can’t believe google served up this piece of garbage article today. It is full of half thruths and lacks a complete understanding of how scheduling contracts work in college football. The bias is understandable, just wish google had a “bias filter.” The rivalry is not ending, they will re-work a new deal. We might go 5 years without it, but after that I’d bet my big house they end up with a 2 year on and 2 year off deal going forward.

  4. By SubwayAlum-MA
    September 28, 2012 at 11:56 am | permalink

    And Michigan counted those early games when Notre Dame had a club team as wins in the series!
    Fielding Yost, skunbear AD was notoriously anti-Catholic and kept Notre Dame from being accepted into the conference.
    Further, the Big Ten’s expansion, formation of two divisions and a conference championship to be eligible for the championship game will eventually lead to a larger conference schedule eventually squeezing out Notre Dame who will not be able to play Purdue, Michigan State AND Michigan each year anyway as these teams will fill their out of conference games with teams from the MAC, UMass or Appalachian State (remember them) – supposed warm-up games that they should win, avoid injury and get ready for the conference schedule.
    AD Swarbrick saw the handwriting on the wall and made this move before it was forced upon him. As one of the few truly national programs, Notre Dame tries to play at least one game in every region of the country for recruiting and for its alumni to attend,as they can’t always get to South Bend or, if they can,can’t get a ticket to sold-out Notre Dame Stadium.
    Just another case of a writer who hasn’t got a clue as to the history or tradition of this storied university and its football program!

  5. September 28, 2012 at 2:23 pm | permalink

    I rarely respond to reader comments, especially when they don’t bother to leave their names, but in this case, you might consider googling my name with Fielding Yost, Willis Ward, racism, Fritz Crisler, Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, George Gipp, Father Ted Hesburgh and Rev. Joyce before accusing me of ignorance or bias.

    After you look up my past articles and interviews, you’ll realize you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

    Sorry — couldn’t resist.

    I hope everyone has a fine weekend.

    -John Bacon

  6. By Tom Cramer
    September 28, 2012 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    I am a Notre Dame Alumni, and I am heartbroken. My absolute favorite game of the year, for as long as I can remember, is Michigan – Notre Dame. Most of the time, it has been a back and forth contest, being decided in the last minute. It used to be the first game of the season, with both school’s hopes and dreams riding on the outcome.

    When I heard that Notre Dame would have to play five ACC opponents, the first thing that popped in my head was that there were 2 games that just could not change: Michigan and USC. I sincerely hope that this rivalry, this tradition does get renewed.

  7. September 28, 2012 at 6:07 pm | permalink

    Mr. Cramer,

    I’m with you. This rivalry, to me, is one of the best things about college sports: Two schools with tremendous tradition, success and well-earned reputations for doing it the right way, with a great deal of mutual respect, going at it every fall to start the season.

    I do believe it will eventually come back, for the very reasons it resumed in 1978, but I bet, given why and how it ended this time, it will be the longest hiatus since the World War II games.

    Here’s hoping I’m wrong!

    -John Bacon

  8. By Chris
    September 29, 2012 at 10:07 am | permalink

    “Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Clemson” — wow, won’t that be some compelling football. What history! What pageantry! And I say this as someone born and raised in the South.

    It’s not like Notre Dame is joining the SEC, y’all.

  9. September 29, 2012 at 6:52 pm | permalink

    Great article on the history but the conclusions are presented without any facts. How much more is Noter Dame making by not scheduling Michugan?? They do have the largest stadium in the country. What is best for all the athletes at Notre Dame? Continue to compete in an inferior and deteriorating Big East and add travel to San Diego State and Boise State. Consideration of all the student athletes, male and female, in all sports comes into play. When Notre Dame made their decision there was more in it than consideration of the Michigan football rivalry or money. The ACC will have football teams that have had longer (games played), or as long a rivalry as Michigan. They include Pittsburgh (over 75 games), Georgia Tech (over 35 games), Syracuse, Boston College, Florida State, and Miami. After scheduling the ACC teams Notre Dame needs to honor the longest rivalries (Navy, USC, Purdue, Michigan State) and rivalries with schools that share a mission to develop student athletes that can compete in the classroom and on the football field (Stanford). That leaves one more game that is better used scheduling an assortment of teams from the nation. One game in Michigan is enough. And would you rather play in front of real fans or at a school that modified their stadium so people could sit indoors and hob nob, eat, shrimp and other goodies, while occasionally peaking at the game when it got interesting enough for the. Talk about changing the face of college football in the name of money. I think John tagged the wrong school.

  10. September 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm | permalink

    I heard this on NPR and it answered my question about why Notre Dame was kept out of the Big Ten to begin with (yes kids-you can learn things from the radio instead of the Google). I will say that I’m an NFL girl, not at all a fan of college football (despite living a mile from the stadium) and even *I* liked this rivalry….

  11. By Chuc Presley-Clubb
    October 4, 2012 at 11:17 am | permalink

    I’m a born and bred North Carolina boy! I was born right in the heart of Tobacco Road! In this part of the south you are a fan of one of the four North Carolina ACC teams—North Carolina “Tar Heels”, Duke “Blue Devils”, Wake Forest “Demon Deacons” or North Carolina State “Wolfpack”! We welcome Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” to the academically and athletically gifted Atlantic Coast Conference!

  12. October 4, 2012 at 11:58 am | permalink

    Well, as they say, if you’re going to eat the horse, you might as well eat the tail. So I’ll finish these responses, and call it good.

    Mr. Skinpounder (assuming that is your real name), I have read, interviewed, written and researched this rivalry probably more than anyone this side of John Kryk, the author of the authoritative “Natural Enemies” (who also vetted this column for accuracy), yet I have no idea to whom you are referring when you cite this “Head of the University of Michigan” and all his or her evil acts. It describes no one I’ve heard of.

    Mr. Cramer, you make some good points, but if Notre Dame’s first concern was the well-being of its student-athletes, the solution would be very simple: Join the Big Ten, and minimize travel, instead of joining the ACC, which maximizes travel (to Miami, Boston, and other far flung stops). (The Notre Dame faculty has been clear about its desire to join the Big Ten and its famed CIC, which fosters cooperation among Big Ten faculty.)

    You can call Notre Dame’s decision to join the ACC and drop Michigan a lot of things, but inspired by academic or athletic piety, it was not.


  13. By Rod Johnson
    October 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    Skinpounder means Fielding Yost.

  14. By TJ
    October 5, 2012 at 9:14 am | permalink

    Fielding Yost, really? He died in 1946. He stopped coaching football in 1926 and retired as UM’s athletic director in 1940. Skinpounder must be REALLY old and carry quite a grudge if his/her “as many years as i can remember” is referring to Yost’s career! Perhaps Yost deserves it, but he’s been gone from UM sports for 72 years (or at least 66)…

  15. October 5, 2012 at 9:16 am | permalink

    John,thanks for your response to what I assume were my (Kevin McGuinness not Mr Cramer) comments regarding all the student athletes. I did not know that a decision to join the big ten was still on the table. I was talking to the decision to drop the Big East for the ACC in other sports and form a non-conference agreement with ACC. I should have realized I was speaking to someone with a Michigan centric view of the world. Piety is a strange way to describe a concern for student athletes or academic standards for athletes. I am pleased that Notre Dame did not adopt the Michigan model of being a member of the BIg Ten and then filling most of the rest of the schedule with uncompetitive teams and Division IAA teams (Eastern, Central, UMass Appalachian Sate, etc.) that do not require reciprocal home games allowing Michigan to cash in (greed?) on more home games while insulting their fans with the most boring of Athletic events.

    But your response did not address my main question to what are facts to support your main assertion that greed had anything to do with dropping the Michigan contract. My assumption is Michigan and Notre Dame will play again in the future, it just will not be an annual event for the time being.

  16. October 6, 2012 at 10:11 pm | permalink

    Excellent comments from Kevin. John I think your frustration at losing one of Michigan’s most exciting non-conference games is misdirected. Kevin is right the acc makes more sense for all the athletes, female and male at Notre Dame than did joining the B1G Ten. Go Blue (and Irish).

  17. October 12, 2012 at 12:24 am | permalink

    Against my better judgment — and virtually all common sense — I’m responding to readers of this piece, and for the last time.

    Regarding Mr. Skinpounder’s claims, yes, it is true that Fielding Yost generally worked against Notre Dame and especially Knute Rockne — and that was at least partly due to his anti-Catholic bias, which I started writing about in 1996. (Please see my earlier letter listing my articles on Notre Dame.) But Yost did not keep Notre Dame out of the bowl games. Notre Dame did that, from 1925 to 1970. Likewise, I am aware of few schools which kept track of graduation rates at the time, and have never seen any record of Yost raising this issue. Further, Yost was the UM athletic director who rescheduled Notre Dame for the 1942 and 1943 seasons, before he stepped down in 1941.

    A far better question is: Why am I responding to someone who claims his name is Skinpounder? I have no good answer to that one.

    Regarding the comments of Mr. McGuinness (and my apologies for referring to you as Mr. Cramer, earlier, as you note), let me start by addressing your claim of my ‘Michigan-centric’ view of the world. While I am undeniably proud of my alma mater, my many articles on Notre Dame, if you’d read the ones I suggested above, would show your claim to be false, especially those which are justly admiring of Notre Dame’s unique role in college football, and critical of Yost and Crisler’s anti-Catholic bias. (Your comment also suggests you haven’t read my last book, which was unafraid to point out when Michigan fell short of its ideals.)

    I agree with you that Michigan — and all other nationally respected teams — should not schedule FCS opponents, which I’ve underscored many times in my articles and my last book. But if you believe Notre Dame is magically free from greed, you have not given much consideration to its long-standing NBC contract, which for years was the most lucrative in college football.

    As to how that applies to Notre Dame’s decision to join the ACC, you are right that I don’t have exact figures. That’s because Notre Dame, being a private school, does not need to divulge them, and almost never does. But common sense would suggest a few things: Notre Dame did not decide to move its non-football teams from the Big East to the ACC to lose money; Notre Dame did not agree to increase its football games with the ACC from three to five (which is why Notre Dame ended the Michigan series)without the ACC paying handsomely for the privilege; and competing in the ACC will be much more costly for Notre Dame’s athletes (in time and energy) in all sports than it would be in the Big Ten. (Why Ms. Livesay claims otherwise is not clear to me. I will bet you this: Notre Dame did not ask any of its athletes before making the decision, and I further bet few are looking forward to those exhausting road trips.)

    There are many things I admire about Notre Dame, its history, its administration, its football program and its fans, and my 16 years of writing on Notre Dame reflects these views. But uninformed self-righteousness is not among them.


  18. By Bob
    November 16, 2012 at 10:04 pm | permalink

    Regarding your last sentence in your latest comment, are you implying that Notre Dame itself (i.e. the administration, the decision makers, etc.) are self-righteously uninformed? You sure seem to (despite saying you admire ND’s administration a sentence earlier). If you didn’t mean to, perhaps you’d like to qualify that a bit better.

  19. By Bob
    November 16, 2012 at 10:06 pm | permalink

    Never mind! Missed part of the sentence. No wonder it didn’t seem to make sense!

  20. November 17, 2012 at 1:04 pm | permalink


    Thanks for the careful re-reading, and not blowing up my very small point about a couple letters into something bigger about the university itself I did not intend.

    And hey, hats off to the Irish for this remarkable season. Bet you’re enjoying a fun ride.