July 7, 2016

By John Heisler

July 7, 2016

It’s probably safe to say the respective, ultra-competitive fans of the University of Notre Dame and University of Michigan football programs don’t often see eye to eye.

But that changed–at least Thursday, and presumably for lots of other college football fans at large–with the announcement that the Irish and Wolverines are back on the books for future football games.

The teams won’t meet every year, but they’ll start with games in 2018 and 2019 and take it from there. That comes after nearly four years of some teeth-gnashing from supporters on both sides–and those generally interested in viewing matchups between major programs–after Notre Dame announced it would be blending five games against Atlantic Coast Conference programs into its existing future schedules.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, this had nothing to do with anyone in South Bend or Ann Arbor thinking the Notre Dame-Michigan series no longer made sense or didn’t have great value. After all, there may not have been a more tradition-rich, early-season contest of big-name programs once Notre Dame and Michigan renewed their rivalry in 1978 (circa Joe Montana and Rick Leach).

The temporary roadblock proved strictly logistical. When the Irish announced their new ACC relationship in September 2012–with the five games against ACC opponents kicking in two seasons later–the Notre Dame reality meant there were too many future games on the docket and some of them had to disappear.

Unlike other home-and-home agreements, the Notre Dame-Michigan series had been set to add another future game to the agenda each time a contest was played–an automatic rollover each year, in effect. That led to the necessary letter Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick delivered to his Michigan counterpart in that same fall of 2012, to ensure another game wasn’t added to the mix when the 2012 meeting took place in Notre Dame Stadium. At that early stage, Notre Dame could not afford to commit to more games with Michigan or any other opponent until the ACC scheduling challenges could be resolved. As it turned out, both teams moved on, adding several big-name opponents to their early-season slates. That made the resumption of the series a bit more challenging–yet, in the end, there was certain agreement that more Notre Dame-Michigan football games made sense.

As Notre Dame realigned its future schedules with five annual ACC games, it committed to ongoing annual relationships with USC (87 previous games), Stanford (the USC/Stanford combination allows the Irish to finish on the West Coast each year on Thanksgiving weekend) and Navy (89 games) to underline its commitment to a national schedule. That made it somewhere between unrealistic and impossible to play three Big Ten opponents on an ongoing basis.

Something had to give. There was no way to play five ACC games and also play Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Stanford, USC, Navy, Boston College and Pittsburgh (the general list of annual opponents) and a Shamrock Series contest. In fact, imagine the angst in West Lafayette and East Lansing when the long-time series with Purdue (now 86 games) and Michigan State (77 games), featuring far more longevity than that with Michigan (42), required lapses. Both Michigan State and Purdue are sprinkled every so often on future schedules–and presumably Michigan will fall into that category as well.

It’s accurate to say Irish coach Brian Kelly likes playing this game. It’s safe to say Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh does as well–with his years at Stanford also providing him a good understanding as a head coach of what standing on the sideline opposite an Irish team was all about.

So now there will be reason again to recall Bob Crable’s late-game, field-goal block in 1979, Harry Oliver’s resounding 51-yard field goal a year later and Raghib Ismail’s two kickoff returns for scores in 1989 (cue the Irish cheers).

There will be reason to re-enact Desmond Howard’s fourth-down, lay-out touchdown reception in 1991 and Michigan’s remarkable comeback win in 1999 (cue the Wolverine cheers).

There again will be Irish fans thrilled to make the drive to Ann Arbor to see if their team can win in the Big House–and Wolverine faithful eager to watch their team in the facility that Knute Rockne modeled after Michigan’s own.

There will be satisfied fans who once again have the opportunity to hear two of the greatest college fight songs around played on the same afternoon in the same stadium–and opposing camps primed to debate which version of blue and gold looks better.

Since the Associated Press began its poll in 1936, these teams have meet on 33 occasions–and in 23 of those both teams have been nationally ranked. That has made for plenty of great theatre. The only reason the games haven’t been even more meaningful is that most have been played as season openers or at some point in September, long before bowl and now playoffs slots are on the line. Go back a few decades and remember how watching Lou Holtz and Bo Schembechler match wits was worth the price of admission in itself. From 1989 through 1994, both squads came in ranked in the top 10 on five occasions.

Want more connections? The list is long:

  • Kelly spent 20 years coaching at a combination of Grand Valley State (in Grand Rapids) and Central Michigan.
  • Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Denbrock was born in Homer, Michigan, and graduated from Grand Valley State.
  • Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder–born in Jackson, Michigan, and a Wayne State grad–coached at Grand Valley State, Wayne State and Central Michigan.
  • Irish secondary coach Todd Lyght is a Flint product–and strength and conditioning director Paul Longo is from Sterling Heights. One of Longo’s assistants, David Grimes, played receiver for the Irish after coming from Detroit.
  • Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Mike Elston is a Michigan graduate (and former Michigan player) who spent four years coaching in Ann Arbor and six others at Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan.
  • Irish defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is from Detroit and previously coached at Wayne State, Michigan State, Northern Michigan, Grand Valley State, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan.
  • Michigan assistant Greg Mattison previously coordinated the Notre Dame defense.

All of that qualifies as good stuff for Notre Dame and Michigan–and it’s good for college football, too.

Here we go again.

On that subject, Irish and Wolverine supporters will unanimously agree.


John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.