When asked about the future of the Michigan-Notre Dame game back in August, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr gave the typical response — that Notre Dame is a great game and a great rivalry.
“I think it’s a game that everyone in the country wants to see, I think it’s a game that the players want to play, and I think it’s great for college football,” Carr said.
But then Carr added that, recently, there has been a problem with the game. He said that the introduction of the BCS seven years ago has transformed the college football environment into one in which you cannot lose a single game. For teams that are perpetually at the top of the national rankings such as No. 3 Michigan, the pressure to win a title comes from all sides. But in this day and age, winning a national championship means not losing a single game all year, and Notre Dame is always a tough opponent.
Add that to the fact that the rivalry is scheduled through 2011, and Carr’s concerns are understandable. The two teams didn’t play in 2000 or 2001, but, in two of the last three seasons, Notre Dame has upset Michigan — effectively ending the Wolverines’ chance at a national title before the Big Ten season even began.
“Each institution has to decide if that team is worth risking,” Carr said. “There are a lot of schools out there that aren’t going to risk playing a nonconference game like that because of fear that it will cost them a chance at a national championship.”
But this isn’t like Texas playing Ohio State — an exciting matchup but one that doesn’t carry any history. The Michigan-Notre Dame game is something special for both sides.
For Michigan, it might be Desmond Howard’s catch in the back of the endzone or Tom Brady leading a comeback in 1999 to beat the Irish 26-22. For Notre Dame, it might be Raghib “Rocket” Ismail returning two kicks for scores in 1989 or walk-on kicker Reggie Ho kicking four field goals in 1988 to beat Michigan 19-17.
Legend has it that Michigan players brought football to South Bend in the first place. At the urging of the Irish, the Wolverines supposedly taught Notre Dame the game of football in 1887. After the first lesson, Michigan gave the Irish another one, with an 8-0 victory in the first game. Then, according to legend, the two teams had lunch.
But things haven’t always been that cordial. When Fielding Yost was the Michigan athletic director in the 1920s, the two teams didn’t even play each other — in part because of the animosity between Yost and Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne. The hatred was passed along to Fritz Crisler, who coached at the same time as Frank Leahy.
“I think because of the fact that both of those men (Yost and Crisler) were ADs as well as the football coach, we didn’t play Notre Dame for a long time,” Carr said. “And that is quite a controversial part of the discussions today that go on regarding scheduling and conference affiliation, all that stuff.”
The two teams started playing each other regularly in 1978, and the rivalry really started to take shape then. Carr’s first memory of the series between Michigan and Notre Dame dates back to 1980 — a game that is still one of the more famous battles between the two programs.
“My first memory is not a pleasant one,” Carr said. “In 1980, we went down there. We got behind 14 to nothing.”
Carr was an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler at the time. The team tied the score by halftime and took the lead with the game entering its final minutes.
“I remember the (Notre Dame) quarterback threw the ball right to us on defense and we dropped the ball. It would have ended the game, but we dropped an interception. Some interesting things happened in the last minute down there. Of course, Harry Oliver stepped in there and kicked the winner.”
Since Carr was thrown into the fire of the Michigan rivalry right from the start, he understands some of the history behind the game — although it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is important. Just take a look at the numbers. Michigan and Notre Dame are the only two programs with more than 800 wins — Michigan has 843, Notre Dame 803. These two teams are also the two winningest programs in Division I-A football in terms of winning percentage and the two most televised programs in college football.
And when the Irish come to town, they’ll have their hands full. Carr has a 59-6 record at the Big House and a 30-7 record against nonconference teams. His teams have won 16 straight at home against nonconference opponents. The Wolverines lead the head-to-head series between the schools, 18-13-1, but, if you take out Michigan’s first eight victories from 1887 to 1908, the Irish actually have the edge. Michigan is one of just 10 teams to have a winning record against the Irish.
That’s why it was so surprising when Charlie Weis, a first-year coach at Notre Dame, said earlier in the week that the game was no different than any other contest.
“I have no emotions at all about Notre Dame versus Michigan, none,” Weis said.
The players who play in the game, and who have played in the game for a few years now, might feel a little differently. Three Michigan players have direct connections to Notre Dame. Jim Massey, the father of Mike and Pat, played defensive end for the Irish in 1969, and punter Ross Ryan’s father, K.C., played with Notre Dame from 1976-1980. But even the players without immediate ties have some idea of what’s at stake.
“You come to Michigan to play teams like Notre Dame,” senior co-captain Jason Avant said. “The game means that much more to me because it’s my last year and I only have one more chance to play this team. It’s one of the greatest rivalries in college football between two schools that have the most tradition.”
A history of Notre Dame vs. Michigan
September 1994: Notre Dame loses to Michigan, 26-24, in Lou Holtz’s final game against the Wolverines.
November 1995: Despite heading into the Ohio State game as large underdogs, the Wolverines defeat the Buckeyes, 31-23, on the legs of Tim Biakabutuka.
December 1996: Lou Holtz retires after finishing the season 8-3. Shortly thereafter, the Fighting Irish name Bob Davie — Holtz’s defensive coordinator — as the new coach.
Sept. 1997: In his first game as coach against Michigan, Davie’s Irish lost 21-14. Michigan’s stellar defense stifled the Irish’s attempts to take advantage of three Michigan turnovers.
December 1997: Notre Dame ends Davie’s first season 7-6, including an embarrassing four-game losing streak that included three Big Ten teams.
January 1998: Michigan heads to Pasadena with an undefeated season on the line. The Wolverines beat Washington State, 21-16, and took home the AP National Championship.
November 1999: A four-game losing streak ends Notre Dame’s disappointing 1999 season. The year also included a three-game losing streak, aiding in the Irish’s 5-7 record and a 26-22 comeback victory by the Wolverines.
January 2001: After finishing the regular season with seven straight wins, the Irish are humiliated in their first BCS bowl game, a 41-9 loss to Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. They start the next season with three straight losses.
January 2001: Drew Henson leads the Wolverines to three straight wins to end the season, including a 31-28 victory over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
January 2002: After an up and down season, Michigan closes the season with an embarrassing 45-17 loss to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.
September 2002: After a two-year break from competition, Notre Dame and Michigan match up again in South Bend in Willingham’s third career game. The Irish win the error-filled game 25-23.
January 2003: Once again, Michigan encounters a topsy-turvy season, losing three games, but beating Florida in the Outback Bowl, 38-30.
December 2003: Three months after losing to Michigan, 38-0, the Irish cap Willingham’s second season by dropping four of seven. Willingham’s team had not returned to glory, instead finishing the year 5-7.
January 2005: The Wolverines defense had trouble stopping mobile quarterbacks all season long, and the Rose Bowl was no different. Texas’s Vince Young had five touchdowns in the Longhorns’ 38-37 win.
January 2005: Despite beating Michigan two of his three years, Willingham is not able to revive the Notre Dame program and is fired after three, largely unsuccessful seasons. Former New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is hired to be the new leader of the Irish ship.
September 2005: In Weis’s first game as coach, the Irish upset No. 23 Pittsburgh. Weis’s pro-style offense put up 502 total yards and scored 42 points in Pittsburgh.