There are bigger rivalries than Michigan-Notre Dame. Heck, Michigan has two bigger rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State. Notre Dame has USC, and Michigan State, and Navy, and Purdue, and most of the country, really, which is one reason Notre Dame is special.
So there are bigger rivalries, better rivalries, more heated rivalries. But Michigan-Notre Dame is absolutely the most passive-aggressive rivalry in the country. They are two Midwestern gentlemen who shake hands and curse each other under their breath.
The rivalry ends this weekend, in an utterly ridiculous and absolutely fitting way.
Notre Dame says it can’t keep playing Michigan. No more room on the schedule. So on Saturday, the Fighting Irish host the series finale, and then that’s it.
But two days before kickoff, Notre Dame announced ... a series with Ohio State -- which, of course, is Michigan’s biggest rival. This is like breaking up with somebody by saying, “It’s not you. It’s me. I really want to date your sister.”
Notre Dame’s administrators are not the first people to choose Ohio State over Michigan. Recruits do it sometimes. But it’s hard to understand how Notre Dame has room for Ohio State and not Michigan, especially since Ohio State is a bigger school.
So what happened? This will shock you, but it appears that egos were involved.
Three years ago, Notre Dame gave Michigan notice that it was ending the rivalry. According to the contract, Notre Dame had to give a warning three games in advance. Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick slipped Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon a letter minutes before kickoff in 2012. Brandon didn’t even read it until after the game.
Well, Michigan could have said, “Hey, them’s the breaks, guys.” But who was Notre Dame to claim it didn’t need Michigan? So instead, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Notre Dame “chickened out”. Hoke is a not a big-ego guy and was probably just having fun with it, but Michigan folks jumped on it. When Michigan beat Notre Dame in Ann Arbor last year, the loudspeakers blasted “The Chicken Dance” afterward.
Well, you can say a lot of things to Notre Dame people. You can call them self-righteous or full of themselves, and they will claim that’s not fair, but deep down, they think their place is more awesome than yours, so who cares what you think? You can’t call them chicken, though, and expect them to be your friends.
So when Notre Dame was looking to add a marquee opponent for a two-game series in the next decade, the easy solution, to outsiders, was to schedule Michigan. Sure, it would only be two games, but so what? Even in the glory days of the rivalry, in the 1980s and 1990s, the schools took some breaks. But scheduling Michigan would have meant calling the people who said Notre Dame was chicken and asking to reunite. And I don’t imagine Notre Dame wanted any part of that.
In a way, this is perfect. The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry is surely the only great rivalry in the country that was built on the schools not playing each other.
From 1943 to 1977, the schools did not play each other. Not once. There are myriad reasons for this, and some are still in dispute. But essentially, both schools saw themselves as the dominant name in college football, and preferred to pretend the other did not exist. It was easier that way. There was a healthy dislike there, but it was always below the surface.
They started playing in 1978, mostly because they could make a lot of money playing each other, and a genuine rivalry developed. But it wasn’t a normal rivalry. Michigan and Notre Dame officials would sometimes speak admiringly about shared priorities -- academics and athletics, following NCAA rules and winning NCAA championships. But the normal rivalry dynamics were never in play. There was no Elitists vs. Commoners element or Underdogs vs. Favorites because both schools like to see themselves as favorites to win everything -- which, of course, leads to charges they are elitist.
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler liked to say “To hell with Notre Dame.” The implication was that Notre Dame was never the biggest fish in the pond. Michigan was. Well, Notre Dame just sent a subtle little message: “To hell with Michigan.” Of course, the Irish didn’t actually come out and say it. That would be rude.