As time ticked down on the first night game in Michigan Stadium history, the record crowd of more than 114,800 was buzzing, about to erupt.
Michigan and Notre Dame had been trading successive blows in what seemed like an instant – two touchdowns already inside the game’s final 90 seconds — and Michigan was setting up for what probably would be a final play, aiming for a fourth touchdown in the fourth quarter. As Denard Robinson connected with Roy Roundtree in the corner of the end zone in front of me, a collective howl of joy rose towards the lights. The Irish had been vanquished, again.
That was September 2011, but it could have been so many of the games between the two storied programs, matchups that seem to so often come down to the wire, that so often have so much at stake.
I’m sorry to see that rite of fall come to a close Saturday. Michigan-Notre Dame helps define the beginning of the football season for me. Two of the great college bands playing two of the great college fight songs. Students enjoying the Midwestern fall weather. Two all-time powerhouses grinding it out on national television.
The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry has been unlike many others in college football. It pits two national academic powerhouses in a high-level athletic contest. It resonates through areas of two states whose border blurs for outsiders, a region known to some as “Michi-ana.” It matches private parochial school against large public school, and it draws in fans from coast to coast because the outcome so often affects the national college football landscape. It generally also exudes a polite animosity from both sides, a mutual respect for each other along with a deep desire to run up the score.
But let’s be clear: The end of the modern Michigan-Notre Dame football rivalry isn’t the end of the world, nor should it send ripples through college football. Sure, fall will feel a little emptier because the two teams won’t meet regularly, but great football traditions will continue unabated in Ann Arbor and South Bend, each without skipping a beat.
For most Michigan fans, the matchup with the Irish is a distant third to conference rivalries with Ohio State (blood feud) and Michigan State (family feud). As many have noted, the annual Notre Dame game was a good early-season measuring stick for each team, a matchup with a solid program that could help with positioning in the rankings.
And a lot of people watched those games, both in person and on television. The two most-attended games in Michigan history – in turn the two largest crowds in a college stadium, ever – were Michigan-Notre Dame games, the one I attended in 2011 and the most recent game, last season, which drew more than 115,000 fans to the Big House.
Generally, from my view, it’s been a genteel rivalry, not a bitter one. The one game I attended at Notre Dame, in 2008, was one of the most surprising days of my life. I wore my Michigan gear and expected vitriol. Instead I was invited into numerous tailgates, offered food and beer, treated like a guest. And we got trounced on the field, in a horrible hours-long downpour, but my memories are positive. That says a lot about Notre Dame fans.
Or when a stream of Notre Dame students swarmed Section 13 ahead of me, wearing Kelly green and jovially chanting “Here come the Irish!” in September 2003. Michigan was ranked No. 5, Notre Dame was ranked No. 15, and my stomach turned as the game began. It felt like it meant something. Up 31-0 early in the fourth quarter, the Michigan fans around me chanted “There go the Irish!” as those same students formed a river of green toward the exits. All in good fun.
It’s hard to blame Notre Dame for dumping the annual game when you look at the statistics. Notre Dame’s overall winning percentage is .734, currently the best in the history of college football, slightly ahead of Michigan. Their overall number of wins is second only to Michigan. Against Michigan?: Notre Dame is 16-24-1 (a winning percentage of .400), including losing six of the past eight games dating to 2006 (a .250 winning percentage).
Teams shouldn’t make decisions about who to play based on their chances of winning, but we all know that happens in an era when winning all your games (or all but one) is the only way of getting to a national championship game. (Of course that leaves me with no explanation for Notre Dame agreeing to play games against Ohio State, announced this week. The two do have a long and distinguished rivalry – of five games. Five.)
I was introduced to the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry in 1994 — when I watched, on a small television in my freshman dorm — Remy Hamilton nail a last-second field goal in South Bend, sending students into the Ann Arbor streets. Notre Dame was one of just two teams that held a lead against the national championship Wolverines of 1997 during my senior year, giving them one of the best games they had in an undefeated season.
It has been a classy rivalry that matched two traditional powerhouse teams early in the season, and I’ll miss that, as I’m sure others will, too. But losing the annual game will just whet my appetite for future matchups – when we’ll get to play for the National Championship and the rivalry will really mean something.
Josh White, a 1998 graduate of the University of Michigan, is the education editor at The Washington Post.
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