Michigan and Notre Dame bolster a sport built on rivalries

Notre Dame should never have become Notre Dame. The small Catholic university in Indiana roamed the country playing an eclectic group of opponents and recruiting from the archipelago of Catholic high schools dotting the nation. But these idiosyncratic features, along with several national titles, actually made the Fighting Irish, in the postwar years, the most popular (and polarizing) college football team in America.

Notre Dame’s closest rival as a program with a recognizable and broadly appealing ethos might be its neighbor to the northeast, Michigan. The Wolverines have long been front-runners: Their stadium holds the most fans; their coach makes the loudest splash; as befitting their fight song, “The Victors,” they have won the most games in major college football history.

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It is fitting, then, that Notre Dame and Michigan enjoy one of college football’s more celebrated rivalries. It will be renewed in Saturday’s season opener in South Bend, Indiana, following an unusual four-year hiatus, as the No. 12 Irish host the No. 14 Wolverines.

Michigan leads the series 24-17-1. Eliminate the first several games — played when Michigan’s program was far more put together than Notre Dame’s — and the record is about even.

“It’s a rare rivalry where neither team seems to look up or down on the other,” said John U. Bacon, the author of several books about Michigan football.

The rest of the season will retroactively decide how crucial this game proves. Many analysts have pegged Michigan as likely to win the Big Ten. Notre Dame, one of the few independents left, has a typically difficult slate and a small margin for error. But the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry illustrates how, in college sports, off-field contrivances — such as rivalries with a history behind them — generate excitement for the on-field product.

In the NFL and the NBA, the only sports that currently rival college football in mass appeal in the United States, rivalries come and go depending on which teams feature the best players and duel for championships. By contrast, in college football, especially in recent years, the mainstay games with decades of legend behind them have become an increasingly essential part of the pageantry.

The Iron Bowl, the annual game between the in-state rivals Auburn and Alabama, has, in the past nine seasons, featured seven Southeastern Conference champions, six national titleholders and three Heisman Trophy winners. The winner of the Clemson-Florida State game has gone on to win the Atlantic Coast Conference in each of the past seven years.

Yearly contests between Stanford and Southern California, Ohio State and Michigan State, and Georgia and Florida have been pivotal in determining which teams play for conference championships and qualify for the four-team College Football Playoff.

Yet even rivalry games that have had less bearing on the postseason landscape of late (such as Wisconsin-Minnesota, Texas-Oklahoma and Army-Navy) have proved indispensable features of college football, providing the kind of subtext that distinguishes it from the NFL.

The actual game “is not the only aspect which inspires fandom and pride and creates identity and community within postmillennial college football,” Ben Phillips, a cultural sports historian, said in his master’s thesis. “Instead, team histories, nostalgia, stadiums, stadium traditions, fan activities, songs, cheers and geography all play a role.”

Rivalries help insulate college teams from losing seasons. Mississippi can salvage a bad year by beating Mississippi State, keeping fans intensely interested into late November regardless of results, and lending an added incentive to purchase season tickets.

It’s no surprise that several of the most-watched regular-season broadcasts last year were traditional rivalry games: the Iron Bowl, Ohio State-Michigan, Georgia-Auburn.

Interestingly, the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry has been contested far fewer times than many might think: There have been only 42 games. By contrast, Notre Dame has played USC 89 times and Michigan has faced Ohio State 114 times.

The competition owes its continued existence to the similarities, shared history and nuanced differences between the two programs. And, of course, to business considerations.

It may be the only rivalry in which one team taught the other how to play football.

In the late 19th century, Michigan took it upon itself to spread the rugby knockoff that prestigious Eastern schools played throughout the Midwest. The first football game west of the Alleghenies is generally considered to be Michigan’s tilt versus Racine College in 1879. (Michigan won 1-0; the game was a little different then.)

The Wolverines eventually got around to teaching the game to Notre Dame, which in turn imitated its teacher faithfully. Notre Dame’s fight song, “Victory March,” was written 10 years after “The Victors.” There are blueprints of Michigan Stadium in Notre Dame’s archives, as it was used as the model for Notre Dame Stadium, according to John Kryk, author of “Natural Enemies,” a book about the rivalry.

Michigan won the first eight games in the series before the Irish took the ninth, in 1909. The 1910 game was canceled at the last minute as Michigan officials claimed several Notre Dame players were ineligible (fielding freshmen or players who had played for three years was frowned upon by some).

The teams met twice during World War II before adjourning the rivalry for another 35 years. Fritz Crisler, Michigan’s longtime coach and then athletic director, disliked Notre Dame’s athletic director, Frank Leahy. He also worried that Catholic Michigan students would root against their team when playing Notre Dame.

“It’s hard to imagine to our ears today,” Bacon said, “but the Catholic/non-Catholic division then was far stronger.”

The teams finally met again in 1978 because Crisler’s successor as athletic director, Don Canham, was a brilliant marketer who saw the economic potential in the series. It continued nearly unabated for more than three decades.

Mike Tirico, who will be calling Saturday’s game for NBC and who makes his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is extremely aware of all the extra baggage. It is possible that no two teams have more history between them — and certainly true that no two teams are more eager to remind everyone of that history.

“It’s two legendary programs that are very similar,” Tirico said in an interview last week.

But when the ball is kicked, much of that will dissipate, like dew burning off the field of Notre Dame Stadium (which, heretically, switched to a FieldTurf surface a few years ago). Attention will turn to whether the Irish’s experienced defensive line can stop the run and get to Michigan’s quarterback, and in turn whether that quarterback, Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson, can prove he deserved to win the preseason’s close and much-watched position battle.

“The historical stuff is really the foundation for the week of hype,” Tirico said. “But once the game takes off, it’s 2018, and the people are on the field right now.”

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Michigan’s coach, Jim Harbaugh — who as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback was 2-0 against Notre Dame — seemed to be saying the same thing at a news conference this week.

“Feel good about renewing the rivalry,” he said. “Feel good about being in game week. Feel good about starting the season.”