SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly reversed fields on Tuesday, calling the Fighting Irish series against Michigan “a great and historic rivalry.”
The proclamation in the opening statement during his weekly news conference was contrary to what he said during a teleconference Sunday, when he said: “I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries,” going on to call it a “big regional game.”
Many Notre Dame fans probably agree more with his statement Sunday, considering the Irish have played Navy (86 games), Southern California (84), Purdue (84), Michigan State (76) and Pittsburgh (68) far more often than the 40 times they’ve faced the Wolverines.
But nationwide, outside of the annual Notre Dame-USC game, few of the other rivalry games get the same attention as the Fighting Irish vs. the Wolverines. The scrutiny Kelly’s statement Sunday received is proof of that.
After all, it’s Michigan’s winged helmet against Notre Dame’s golden helmets; “Hail to the Victors” vs. the “Notre Dame Victory March;” the school with the best all-time winning percentage in college football (Michigan, at .735) vs: No. 2 (Notre Dame, at .734).
The series started pleasantly enough, with Michigan students traveling to South Bend in 1887 to teach Notre Dame students how to play the game. The relationship turned sour after Notre Dame beat the Wolverines 11-3 in 1909, ending an eight-game losing streak. The game was canceled the next season when the Irish wouldn’t play without two players Michigan contended were ineligible.
The Wolverines canceled the series, but things worsened when Michigan coach Fielding Yost left Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne off his All-American team in 1913. It escalated when Yost and Rockne had a dispute at a track meet in 1923, and then Yost urged Big Ten teams not to play Notre Dame and several other independents because he said they didn’t follow the Big Ten’s strict eligibility rules.
After Rockne died and Yost retired, the two schools agreed to play each other in 1942-43. The Wolverines won the first game 32-20, as the Irish gave up their most points in 37 years. The next season, top-ranked Notre Dame beat No. 2 Michigan 35-12. Michigan coach Fritz Crisler called the Irish a dirty team after the game and vowed never to play Notre Dame game again.
The series finally resumed in 1978 and they’ve played most years since. But Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon a letter on the field before last season’s game, canceling scheduled games in 2015-2017. In May, Michigan coach Brady Hoke told a luncheon crowd in Grand Rapids in May that Notre Dame was “chickening out of the series.”
Kelly said he hasn’t spoken to Hoke about the series since Notre Dame announced it was ending it, but said he doesn’t believe Hoke meant any disrespect.
“He’s never been one to show disrespect to anybody or anything. It’s really, for me, about two programs that share a border, that it makes sense to play. I get that,” he said. “It’s just there’s so many complexities with our schedule and our agreement with the ACC that it’s difficult and frustrating. I can see the frustration that would be there.”
The Michigan series isn’t the only one in jeopardy. With Pitt now in the ACC, the Irish aren’t expecting to play the Panthers each season. Notre Dame hasn’t announced whether it will continue to play Michigan State and Purdue.
The Irish schedule is expected to include five ACC teams a year, Navy, USC and Stanford (giving it four home games and four road games), as well as an opponent it will face at a neutral site. Since the Irish play only five road games each season, that only leaves one spot a season for a school looking for a return visit from the Irish.
Kelly said playing a tough schedule is important, noting that the Irish replace Michigan with Texas in 2015-16 and 2019-20. He said strength of schedule is important heading into the playoff era, when a committee decides which teams will be playing for a national championship, Kelly said.
“That they can look at our schedule and say, ‘That’s a deserving schedule,’” Kelly said.