The date was November 23, 1887. Geronimo had just surrendered. Coca-Cola and the Statue of Liberty were one-year-old. The population of Los Angeles was 50,000. Neither the University of Southern California nor Ohio State University had football teams. And never mind a football team or even a university, the actual city of Miami, Florida did not exist.
It was nearly seven o’clock on a soggy Wednesday morning when a University of Michigan student wiped some moisture from the Michigan Central Railroad coach window and peeped into the gloom.
“South Bend,” crowed the conductor.
“At last,” groaned the Michigan student. He and his companions tumbled off the train to the smiling, glad-handing welcome of a well-dressed group of Notre Dame undergraduates. A quick trip to campus was followed by a two-hour tour of that obscure little university.It wasn’t much.
A big building with a dome; a church; a grade school; an agriculture barn; and a few other scattered structures. There were signs of construction in progress here and there. The visitors were informed that the school had recently converted from gasoline lamps to the new Edison electric lights. None of which impressed the Michigan students as much as the unnerving sight of Catholic priests, hovering everywhere in those swirling cassocks.
Finally the boys from up North asked permission to withdraw. They reappeared a few moments later at the muddy senior campus field dressed in uniforms of spotless white. A few moments of instruction were given, and a team of Notre Dame undergraduates squared off against the champions from Michigan. It was the first inter-collegiate football game at the University of Notre Dame.
In the span of one “inning,” the visitors from Michigan slogged to an uninspired 8-0 victory and literally taught Notre Dame the game of football. Notre Dame sort of returned the favor in 1898 when Louis Elbel, a South Bend native, wrote the world’s second-greatest fight song, “The Victors.”
Truthfully, Notre Dame was little more than junior varsity tackling dummies for a seasoned Michigan program, losing the first eight games of the series by a combined score of 121-16. But then it happened. In 1909, Notre Dame finally beat Michigan 11-3.
Fielding Yost, the legendary Michigan coach, was beside himself. Channeling the anti-Catholic sentiment of the era (Notre Dame’s side of the story) and spurious claims that Notre Dame used academically ineligible players (Michigan’s side of the story), Yost abruptly canceled the teams’ 1910 game and managed to blackball Notre Dame not only from Michigan’s athletic schedule, but from the schedules of the entire Western/Big Ten Conference.
The Irish would eventually resume playing Big Ten teams, beginning with a 0-0 tie versus Wisconsin in 1917, but the seeds of animosity between ND and UM had been planted, ostensibly forever. There was a brief glimmer of hope when Notre Dame and Michigan agreed to a home-and-home series for the 1942 and 1943 seasons. The 1943 matchup featured the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, with the former being Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish won handily 35-12 in Ann Arbor and went on to win the national championship. It was Michigan’s only loss of the season and spoiled Michigan coach Fritz Crisler’s run for his first national championship. Crisler refused to play Notre Dame again, and the series did not resume again until 1978. From 1910 through 1977, this would be the only two times Notre Dame and Michigan played one another.
Still, what’s done is done, and the saddest of Irish fans is the one who holds fast to gridiron ghosts and dusty trophies. Harboring resentment for something that happened in 1910 or even 1943 is like my crotchety old Irish grandfather still hating the British. The Michigan boycott inevitably ended, their series with Notre Dame resumed in 1978 and, aside from a couple years off here and there, has continued uninterrupted. Yes, I realize jackasses like Bo “to hell with Notre Dame” Schembechler—whose resume still lists zero national championships, in case anyone’s counting—have done their best to continue the Michigan coaching fraternity tradition of crapping on Notre Dame. But beyond the soap opera, the games themselves have been nothing short of magnificent. For better or worse, I personally was in attendance for Harry O’s Field Goal in ’80, Reggie Ho’s Heroics in ’88, Rocket’s Returns in ’89, The Catch in ’91, the Tie in ’92, and in 1993, during the brief time I was actually a resident in Ann Arbor, I got to watch from halfway up on the 30-yardline an arrogant Big House eat a delicious plate of blue-and-gold crow.
As Notre Dame fans, most of grow up believing USC is our biggest, most historic rival, but I’m not buying it. There’s something uniquely intense and contentious when the Wolverines come to town. While the USC-ND matchup is certainly long and illustrious, in my lifetime it has been kind of ho-hum, characterized by one team dominating the series for decades at a time. From 1967 to 1982, ND went 2-12-2 versus Southern Cal. From 1983 to 1995, ND went 12-0-1. Currently, ND hasn’t beaten the Men from Troy since 2001.
And the Michigan series? The average score of four of the last five games in Notre Dame Stadium has been 29-26. No matter how good or bad they are, these two teams consistently play one another close. By comparison, the average margin of victory in USC’s current eight-game winning streak over the Irish is 22 points.
A Notre Dame alum once told me something that I think sums up the ND-UM matchup quite succinctly: “USC is our rival, but Michigan is our enemy.” (An old UHND article focused on Michigan being Notre Dame’s enemy as well). The road this rivalry has traveled from 1887 hasn’t been without its potholes. What it’s lacked in sheer longevity—I think the Notre Dame-Navy “rivalry” is about as compelling as an interleague baseball game between the Padres and the Mariners, not that anyone asked—it’s more than made up for in intensity and drama.
Following its victory in 1887, the Michigan team was treated by Notre Dame to a hearty lunch and a throng of cheering ND students as they boarded a caravan of horse-drawn carriages bound for the Niles, Michigan train station. If you don’t mind, Coach Kelly, I’d really like to see you kick Michigan’s ass and their sendoff circa 2010 to be a tad less hospitable.
(Book excerpt from Out of Bounds: An Anecdotal History of Notre Dame Football, Michael Bonifer and L.G. Weaver, Piper Publishing, Inc., 1978)
McSweeney is a longtime blogger and poster on UHND. His novel, EXOTIC MUSIC OF THE BELLY DANCER, a coming-of-age story about sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and Notre Dame football, is available as an e-book on Amazon by clicking here.