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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