Losing A Little More of College Football’s Soul

[To listen to the audio version, click here: Michigan-NotreDame Rivalry Ending 9-28-12]

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 he just came up with it, and 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.

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 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.”  34 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 – and sell-out their fans, alumni and athletes — for a few more bucks.

An hour before Saturday’s kick off, 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.

* * * * *

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Feel free to respond, but remember: I’ll run only those letters that are not profane or insane, and you include your full name.

Radio stuff: I’m back to my original normal of 9:05 Friday mornings on WTKA (semester’s over!), and sticking to my new normal on Michigan Radio of 8:50.  And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”

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“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now, in hardcover OR PAPERBACK!


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12 comments Leave a comment  

  • John F. Kwant September 28, 2012 at 6:10 am

    “…the people who love college football seem to have little in common with the people who run it.”

    Truer words were never written/spoken.

  • Mark Blitz September 28, 2012 at 6:17 am

    I feel this rivalry will be revived…eventually. Does this open the door for a Michigan v. Arizona series as RichRod was reportedly promised?

    • johnubacon September 28, 2012 at 7:20 am

      I suspect you’re right, but the way it was handled won’t help, and Mr. Brandon is not likely to forget.

      Despite the return of Appalachian State to the schedule, I don’t see Michigan playing Arizona any time soon. But I’ve been wrong before!


  • Stephen Foster September 28, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Nicely stated John… Nicely done…

  • Len Clark September 28, 2012 at 6:58 am

    John –

    Great summary or eulogy. I love college football, but what is happening makes me sad. Saturday afternoon’s used to be special to me. Now they are sponsored, do not show the band’s halftime show, and begin on Thursdays. Thanks for the info on Rockne, I did not know that about the track meet. You quote Carole King, but the great philosopher Cyndi Lauper also stated, “money changes everything.”

    • johnubacon September 28, 2012 at 7:21 am

      Good stuff, Len, as usual! Thanks for the Lauper quote. Watch me use that one, too!


  • Josh L. September 28, 2012 at 7:59 am


    Per usual, thanks for the phenomenal class period deduced into a blog post. Sometimes I wonder why I took the class when I could have just read the blog…(oh, yeah, because it was the best course I took at Michigan.)

    With the strength of the SEC (where my guess is ND has aspirations), I don’t think ND will have a fighting (Irish?) chance. No use telling you how large a fan base ND has (Irish immigrants…yadda yadda) and until now I feel as though they’ve sustained enough success to hold onto them. However, I feel that they may have shot themselves in the foot – they are no longer a power house team, and attempting to move around to find other avenues to exert their “dominance” may backfire. It’ll be extremely interesting to see what ND faithful do in the coming years…

    As for college football becoming a big business – I think we’re way past that amateur stage. The argument is not longer for paying athletes, it’s deciding how MUCH to pay them. I’m not entirely sure I like where it’s going, but, as some brilliant man once said, “The only constant is change.”


  • Dave Brown September 28, 2012 at 8:03 am

    The thing that never makes sense in these new conference alignments is the huge increase in expenses for all of the non-revenue sports and how is must damage the academic side of the Student Athletes. With ND in the ACC the field hockey team (for example) will be going on Southeast swings instead of taking a bus to Purdue or Northwestern. Maybe it is time Football is broken out into separate conferences?

  • John M. September 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    John – again not only did you hit it out of the Park on this one, you hit a
    grand slam !!, The aspects of College Football that drew me in when I was young
    and that made me fall in love with the game are disappearing more and more,
    regionalism, tradition, history, rivalries, Bowl Games etc this is the latest
    body blow, like I told you before, years ago some combination of a Conf Title,
    New years Day Bowl Game, Top 10 ranking was the equivalent of National Title and
    good enough for everybody , or a winning record and a bowl game and Top 20 or
    Top 25 was the equivalent of a great season, this is No longer

    I think in 10-15 years All this Super Conference realignment it will dawn on
    some people in power that something in the game has been lost and more than a
    few are going to say , “What in the Hell did we do with this game ? And for

    Call me old school , but till this very day Penn State in the Big 10 is foreign
    to me, to me they will always be an Eastern School, and they lost something when
    they left Pitt, Cuse, West Va, BC, Rutgers, ,etc behind.

    Another great Job John U. !!

  • David Young September 30, 2012 at 5:10 am

    As a Notre Dame graduate, and one who has come to respect the historical rivalries it has with both Michigan and Michigan State, I question the reasons for Stanford now assuming a weekend date formerly guaranteed the Wolverines since 1978. The Irish first met Stanford in the 1924 Rose Bowl. Over the next six decades, the schools met only three times. The current series with the Cardinal began in 1988. Overall, the Irish have won 16 of the 25 games played. In my opinion, this does not equate with the Michigan rivalry that dates back to the last 1800s. I can only assume that ND athletic director Jack Swarbuck felt that having another California team locked into his annual schedule was good for the Irish’s NBC contract. It might be interesting to see how the Nielsen ratings compare for the Stanford-ND and Michigan-ND contests. But in the meantime, a truly unique, highly competitive annual interplay among three prominent Mid-west schools within a few hours drive from each other, will be placed on hold…at least for now.

  • George Gugle October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am


    Great meeting you on Friday at Plank’s. Thanks for the book. Looking forward to your upcoming return trips.

    To the point, when I heard the announcement about Notre Dame’s five games with ACC schools, I counted: 1. Michigan 2. Michigan State 3. Indiana 4. Purdue 5. Northwestern. Yep, there’s your five games!

    Nothing left to say!

    • Ivanildo December 26, 2014 at 7:21 am

      Thanks gents. Blue, it would be silly to write off Wisconsin after two games. After all, the Badgers lost Russell Wilson to the NFL and more importantly, feomrr offensive coordinator Paul Chryst took the head coaching job at Pitt. Wisconsin has historically struggled outside the Midwest anyways. As for this week, UW has been known to lay the lumber on mid majors at home. So I expect a bounceback at Camp Randall.


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