SportsMonday Column: What Brian Kelly doesn't know

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2013

Here’s what Brian Kelly knows but won’t say: he can’t decide what is a rivalry and what isn’t. Jack Swarbrick can’t decide what is a rivalry and what isn’t.

Here’s what Brian Kelly knows but won’t say: that doesn’t matter. What matters is that instead of people talking about Notre Dame backing out of its game with Michigan after next year, they’ll insist that this game is a rivalry. They’ll say: Of course it is! Is he insane? They won’t say: Notre Dame’s move to a more ACC-heavy schedule is killing a tradition. They won’t say that this is a shame.

He’s not insane. What Brian Kelly knows but won’t say is that by questioning a rivalry, he’ll rile up his fan base and save face for his boss.

Kelly knew all this on Sunday when he said of the Michigan-Notre Dame series: “I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries. I’ve seen it as just one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played.”

Michigan spent much of Monday insisting that, for them, this game is a rivalry. Michigan coach Brady Hoke dropped the phrase “great rivalry game” twice in a row before even being asked a question at his afternoon press conference. Then reporters asked him and his players about it for the rest of the press conference.

But arguing that the series is a rivalry is a waste of time because the answer is so glaringly obvious. And Brian Kelly knows this.

Brian Kelly coached in the state of Michigan from 1987 to 2006, so he surely knows about the 1994 game. He knows it was televised in more than 100 countries, “including Zimbabwe,” The Michigan Daily reported at the time.

After Michigan won, Rachel Bachman reported, students flooded South University and swelled onto South Forest and into East University. “There were shouts of ‘Let’s Go Blue!’ and spontaneous rounds of ‘The Victors,’ ” Bachman wrote. “The air smelled of sweet leaves and cloudless sky, and no one seemed to know it was dinnertime.”

Maybe he also knows that Michigan’s former Athletic Director, Don Canham, promoted the 1978 version of the game — played after a long hiatus — for nearly a decade. The Daily reported that one scalper sold a fifty-yard line ticket for $500. That’s worth $1,971 today, adjusted for inflation.

He knows football, so he knows that Raghib Ismail means kick returns and Desmond Howard means diving catches and Denard Robinson means breathtaking runs.

Who cares what makes a rivalry? We made them up to occupy our time. In 1887, a bunch of Michigan students traveled to South Bend to teach the sport to a bunch of Notre Dame students so someday their great-great grandchildren could bicker about it at press conferences.

We decide the games are important, because when we’re exhausted from classes or when our country is set to bomb another country or when we’re having a bad week, we need a place where everyone can get together and drink and yell and hug and cry. We want moments when the leaves smell sweeter, and the skies seem brighter and no one cares they’re missing dinnertime.

These moments have come when Michigan plays Notre Dame. Moments like two years ago. The students stayed in the stadium for 45 minutes after the game ended. Denard Robinson, his voice cracking, marveled at the student section.

“The game is over!” he said, but still they stayed until, finally, they spilled out into the streets.

No one cared it was 4 a.m. as they partied on the lawns and in the streets, and no one cared if this game was a rivalry or not. If Michigan wins another game like that on Saturday, they’ll do it again, and they won’t bother asking themselves if Michigan plays Notre Dame enough to warrant it. They’ll just know.

Does that mean this is a rivalry? It doesn’t matter. Brian Kelly knows that, and he probably knows, too, that whatever he calls it, it’s worth playing every single year.