Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry was always about the money

Wednesday September 4th, 2013

Notre Dame has a record of 16-14 against Michigan in 30 college football meetings dating back to 1978.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I generally don't mock the people on ESPN talk shows, because a) the world has enough people who do that; b) I rarely watch most of the shows; and c) when I do watch, I find that many people at ESPN do a fantastic job, and people tend to focus on those who don't.

Still, as the website The Big Lead pointed out, college football analyst Mark May and world-events analyst Skip Bayless each made a pretty egregious mistake this week. It's a mistake that is easy to mock, but it's the kind of mistake many people make when they talk about college sports.

We remember innocent times that never were.

Bayless and May were talking (on different shows) about the historical significance of the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry, which is going on hiatus after next year's game. Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said he didn't see Michigan as one of Notre Dame's "historic, traditional rivalries," and Bayless and May were incredulous.

Bayless said: "I just about fell out of my chair."

May said: "Growing up in upstate New York, I used to watch it when I was growing up, when it was on television."

Bayless said: "I grew up, I couldn't WAIT for Michigan-Notre Dame, going back to Bubba Smith."

That must have been an awkward wait, in part because Smith played for Michigan State, not Michigan. Smith was one of the best and most important players in Michigan State history, and he played in some of the great games in the history of the sport. This is a pretty big error, the equivalent to referring to Texas quarterback Johnny Manziel or UCLA legend O.J. Simpson. But hey, those kinds of mistakes happen. They shouldn't, but they do. I don't expect my TV analysts to be perfect.

The egregious mistake that May and Bayless made was this: They remember games that didn't happen. When Bayless and May were kids, Michigan and Notre Dame never played. Never. Nev-ah. As my friend Taylor Swift says, "like, ever." Between 1943 and 1977, the Wolverines and Fighting Irish didn't play at all.

No, Bayless and May did not see the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry as kids ... but like a lot of people, they just assume they did. It is a big mistake, but a common one. Hey, it's called mythology for a reason. And that's why I bring this up today.

A lot of people view the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry the way that Bayless and May mistakenly do. It feels like the kind of rivalry that has been played annually, uninterrupted, for more than 100 years. Michigan is No. 1 all-time in winning percentage; Notre Dame is No. 2. They have two of the most recognizable fight songs, two of the best marching bands, and two of the best uniforms (when Michigan isn't screwing with its uniform in a regrettable attempt to "extend the brand"). Watch the Fighting Irish and Wolverines kick off, and it feels like a slice of college football nostalgia.

In truth, the modern rivalry started largely for one reason.


In the 1970s, Michigan athletic director Don Canham wanted to add a premier nonconference opponent so he could sell more season tickets. Michigan and Notre Dame had feuded for years, going back to the days of legendary coaches Knute Rockne, Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler. (According to Canham's memoir, From The Inside: Crisler thought if Michigan played Notre Dame, "Our Catholic students will be sitting in the Michigan stadium cheering for the Irish." Yes, those were slightly different times.)

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I suppose that is a rivalry, if teams hate each other so much that they don't even play. But it's not much of a rivalry.

The idea of Michigan actually playing Notre Dame was so far-fetched that when Canham wanted his big, marquee nonconference opponent so he could sell season tickets, he went straight to ... Alabama. Bear Bryant wouldn't go for it. Then Canham realized this was silly, and OF COURSE Michigan should play Notre Dame ... no, wait, that's not what happened. Canham talked to Penn State, which was an independent at the time. That went nowhere.

Eventually Notre Dame's leaders, athletic director Ed "Moose" Krause and Rev. Edmund Joyce, asked Canham about a game. Canham said he would agree to a series under one condition: Each school could keep 100 percent of the ticket revenue when it hosted the game. That was unprecedented in college sports. It also seemed like a preposterous demand, since Michigan had the biggest stadium in the country -- almost twice as large as Notre Dame's. But Canham was the kind of man who made preposterous things happen. He was one of the great salesmen in American sports history, and he went to work selling Notre Dame.

Canham pointed out that Notre Dame would get 50 percent of the television revenue for the game, while Michigan had to share its half equally with the rest of the Big Ten. And he said Notre Dame could use its Michigan contract as a template for all its other contracts -- meaning Notre Dame could demand a much larger cut of ticket revenue from other opponents than it had been getting.

Notre Dame agreed to the deal. A rivalry was born (or reborn -- the schools had played nine times between 1887 and 1909, including the first game in Notre Dame history). Also, an industry standard for contracts was set. Canham started promising visiting teams $100,000 in expenses, instead of a big cut of the ticket revenue.

Have you heard of all those deals where Lemon Cupcake Tech gets a flat fee to visit a big school, instead of 50 percent of ticket revenue? Many of those contracts have their roots in the first Michigan-Notre Dame contract.

Shortly after the contract was signed, a Michigan-Notre Dame game produced the first pure $1 million gate -- $1 million solely from ticket sales. Not long after that, it reached $2 million. The ticket revenue has gone up and up and up ... but so have TV revenues, which have spurred rampant realignment and caused Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to hand Michigan AD Dave Brandon a note on the sideline at Notre Dame Stadium last September informing Brandon that Notre Dame was opting out of the series.

The Irish are committed to play five ACC opponents each year. Add traditional rivals like USC, Navy, Purdue and Bubba Smith's old school (Michigan State), and Notre Dame decided Michigan wasn't worth the trouble any more.

Is this a shame? Sure it is. A real rivalry has blossomed since 1978. Michigan and Notre Dame have played some amazing games. They have each won a national championship. There has always been some underlying tension, bordering on mistrust. Michigan folks complained that the game was supposed to be the home opener, but Notre Dame started scheduling softer opponents the week before it played Michigan. Notre Dame has declined offers (real and implicit) to join the Big Ten, and some Big Ten coaches have wondered why the school would play Notre Dame when the Irish won't join the league. The rivalry has gone on hiatus a few times since the late 1970s. But it has also provided fantastic theater.

Still, if we're going to complain that money is ending this great rivalry, just remember: money started this great rivalry, too. You can say what you want about the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry. You can say it is wonderful, overrated, underrated or should continue. You can say you hate both teams or that the rivalry represents the best of college football.

But if you tell me this is a throwback to the days before dollars ruled the sport, I will just about fall out of my chair.

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