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Notre Dame v. Michigan rivalry ends: It's not about tradition anymore

Michigan vs. Notre Dame. The two teams play their final game in 2014.
Michigan Football

Notre Dame announced this week the school is suspending its century-old rivalry with the University of Michigan after the 2014 season.

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 some profound truth.

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, which is just one more reason I’ve always preferred college football: universities rarely threaten to move unless the taxpayers build them a bigger stadium. 

During that same stretch, Michigan played Notre Dame in the first or second weekend of the season, and the games were so good they eclipsed the NFL’s opening weekend, and tennis’s U.S. Open, all played the same weekend.  


The rivalry had almost everything going for it, including history.  Way back in 1887, the Michigan players got off their train in South Bend, and literally taught the Notre Dame students how to play the game.  They learned fast.  

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. Yost vowed to keep Notre Dame out of the Big Ten – and unfortunately, 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.”

Canham couldn't argue against it: they were the two best teams in the game’s history, they played clean, and they were only three hours apart. 

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.  The game 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: tradition, classic uniforms and stadiums, and unequaled parity.


The night before the rivalry re-started 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.”  Michigan has won 14, and Notre Dame 14. 

Years later, when President Ford spotted Krause at a golf tournament, he praised him for restarting the rivalry.  “It's good for Michigan, it's good for Notre Dame, and it's good for college football."  He 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.  Last week, Notre Dame joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in every sport but football, thus revealing both institutions to be willing to sell their souls – and sell-out their fans, alumni and athletes -- for a few bucks.  

A few minutes before Saturday’s kick off, Notre Dame handed Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon 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, who knows?


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.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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