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Notre Dame and Michigan remember historic rivalry before game

| Friday, August 31, 2018

The score of 31-0 (or 37-0, to some avid fans) is a well-known and often referenced one at Notre Dame. The two numbers side by side bring up memories of a sunny September day filled with screaming fans, dynamic plays and a particularly rousing rendition of “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye.”

Four years ago, at what was purported to be the final game in the historic series — at least, the final game for the foreseeable future — Notre Dame completely shut out Michigan in a historic showing in South Bend.

The score of 8-0, though, may be lesser known here on campus, likely because it took place in 1887 rather than 2014. As Notre Dame prepares to restart the storied rivalry Friday against No. 14 Michigan, over 80,000 fans eagerly await the culmination of the 42-game, 131-year series between the two Midwestern schools.

In a modern college football world in which the Southeastern Conference regularly dominates the regular season and playoffs (in the four years of the College Football Playoff era, SEC teams have appeared in all four and won three), Michigan–Notre Dame games still hold a sense of importance and drama, even at the national level, despite the fact that neither team has won a national championship in decades.

John Kryk, author of “Natural Enemies: The Notre Dame-Michigan Football Feud,” attributes this continual spotlight to several different factors, including large fan bases and national recognition.

“There are so many special memories from this series, from games themselves, so many iconic moments,” Kryk said. “When you think about the helmets, uniforms, stadiums, fight songs and tradition, they are some of the most recognizable in this sport or in any sport. You take all these things and throw them together, and that’s what makes this series special.”

Amir Carlisle, a former wide receiver for the Irish who caught two touchdowns in the 2014 Michigan game, added a player’s perspective on the rivalry.

“There is no bigger rivalry than Notre Dame–Michigan,” Carlisle said. “Every year, the game was something we got super excited for. There was a lot of hype built around the game from both sides. It’s the kind of moment you dream about and live for as a high school player.”

The relationship between the two football teams began in the late 19th-century. Kryk described the humble beginnings of what would grow to become a bitter, nationally-known rivalry.

“Michigan literally taught Notre Dame how to play football,” Kryk said. “Two Notre Dame students transferred to Michigan in 1887 and joined the varsity football team. They stopped by South Bend on the way to Chicago once, and [Notre Dame] made up a squad so Michigan could teach them how to play. That was their first game in history.”

After this lesson, Notre Dame and Michigan went onto play each other sporadically throughout the following two decades. Michigan won the first eight games of the series.

“It was a big brother-little brother kind of relationship,” Kryk said. “Notre Dame wanted to be what Michigan was in athletics.”

The series went south when Notre Dame beat Fielding Yost’s Michigan team in 1909.

“Yost hated to lose, and after that, there was a disagreement,” Kryk said. “Michigan thought Notre Dame had submitted three ineligible players for the next year’s roster. From that point, Notre Dame’s reputation went under.”

The demise of this reputation began when Michigan cancelled the 1910 match and firmly refused to play Notre Dame, with Yost insisting that the team was one of rule-breakers and renegades. Since Michigan had influence in the Midwestern conference, none of the other teams near Notre Dame would play the Irish either. After years of being unable to play any good teams, the Irish, led by Knute Rockne, decided that they would begin travelling.

“They had to go on the road to play teams in NYC, Texas, Missouri — they, went all over,” Kryk said. “Eventually, they began their relationship with USC in the 1920s. All that happened because the Michigan scandal spilled over. That’s how they became a national school, Michigan made it that by boycotting, though Notre Dame just did it to play some good teams. It’s why Notre Dame is Notre Dame today.”

Notre Dame’s current reputation isn’t all that stemmed from its 1909 victory. Among many conjectures about the origin of the nickname “Fighting Irish,” one legend comes from an event that apparently occurred at the 1909 Michigan game.

According to the report “What’s In a Name,” published on Notre Dame’s official website, “The first use of the nickname ‘Fighting Irish’ for Notre Dame sports teams may have been in 1909, when legend says that a player’s speech at the halftime of a football game against Michigan inspired a furious comeback. He reportedly yelled to his teammates — with names like Dolan, Kelly, Glynn and Ryan: ‘What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick.’ The news reports that picked up the story attributed the victory to the Fighting Irishmen.”

The story with the “Fighting Irish” headline appeared in the “Detroit Free Press.

The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry continued off the field in the years to come, with quick-tempered coaches Yost and Rockne exchanging strongly worded letters and adamantly refusing to play the other. In the letters, Yost often accused Rockne and his Notre Dame team of disavowing the rules set by Michigan’s conference – the Big Nine or Big Ten, depending on different years. The two coaches did not settle their differences before Rockne’s untimely death.

The teams met intermittently after Yost’s reign at Michigan came to and end, including two wartime games in 1942 and 1943, of which each team won one. In the ’70s and ’80s, the rivalry restarted in earnest, often ending with last-minute lead reversals, game-winning field goals and general hysteria. The games became a national spectacle, and since the rivalry was rekindled in 1978, each team has won 15 games of the series (the 1992 game ended in a tie).

Since the Wolverines and the Irish last met on the turf, harsh words have been exchanged between the coaches and athletic directors and a full four years of undergraduates have passed through both universities. With College GameDay coming to South Bend and the Michigan flag flying over the north end zone, the anticipation around campus is palpable as students and fans count down the minutes to the 7:30 p.m. kickoff this Saturday.

Carlisle said he has high expectations for the Irish on Saturday.

“The guys who were younger when I was there, like [graduate student linebacker] Drue Tranquill and [senior wide receiver] Chris Finke, have grown into great players and great leaders,” Carlisle said. “I expect them to go out there, execute the game plan, fight from the first quarter to the fourth quarter, play hard and ultimately come out with a victory.”

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