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Thanking Michigan

Sep 6, 2013, 8:34 PM EDT

Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.

Before the last game that Notre Dame is scheduled to play in Michigan Stadium, I would like to take the opportunity to do something most Irish fans don’t do.

I’d like to thank Michigan.

Notre Dame has a unique position among its college football peers. Over the years the Irish have created a remarkable brand built on Catholicism, academics, graduating its players, tradition, independence, and – most of all – excellence. Notre Dame is consistently among the top schools for graduating athletes, and still has the most consensus national championships (sorry Alabama, if you get to count 1973, we get to count 2012).

Even now, 25 years removed from its last title, Notre Dame was named by Forbes as the standard for building an athletic brand. But what set Notre Dame apart? How did a small, Midwestern Catholic school come to field the football team with the broadest national following? As Forbes pointed out, crafty administrators, iconic coaches, and a little luck didn’t hurt.

But what the article didn’t point out was how helpful our good friends in Ann Arbor were.

As an independent school, Notre Dame built its brand by playing a national schedule before anyone else did. Playing at Carnegie Tech and at Georgia Tech in back-to-back weeks in 1929 was no small feat, and it was just a step on the way to the national championship that year.

But why did Rockne’s teams choose to travel all over the country at a high cost to the University and heavy physical toll on its players? Did he know how important it would be for the brand? Maybe, but it was also because he had no choice. And for that he can thank Michigan.

You see, after Notre Dame beat the Wolverines for the first time ever in 1909 (in Ann Arbor, no less), the rivalry mysteriously vanished for 33 years. Not only did head coach Fielding Yost refuse to play the Irish, he also was very successful in getting other Big Ten schools to blackball them.

You know the rest. After being spurned by the Big Ten, Notre Dame remained independent, created a national brand by playing across the country, and racked up 11 consensus national titles while Michigan’s sitting pretty with two since that 1909 game (again, half national championships don’t count as consensus).

If Michigan had let Notre Dame into the Big Ten 100 years ago, Jack Swarbrick wouldn’t be a major player in talks that decide the future of FBS football.

If Michigan had not blackballed the Irish from playing Midwestern schools, the rivalry that has produced the most All-Americans, Heisman winners, and national championships of all time would not have been bred.

If Fielding Yost had not dubbed Knute Rockne a “Protestant holdout at a Catholic school,” perhaps it wouldn’t have become the flagship team for Catholics across the country who felt persecuted at the time.

When Brian Kelly said Notre Dame-Michigan was not a traditional rivalry, he was on to something (even if he later amended the statement). The Irish have played the Wolverines 31 times since that 1909 game. In that time, they have more games against Army, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Navy, Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Purdue, and USC.

I get as excited as anyone for Notre Dame-Michigan every year. As I’ve just detailed, Michigan has been incredibly important in Fighting Irish history. As much as I’m looking forward to Saturday’s game, count me among those who cheered for Swarbrick’s decision to leave the Wolverines off the schedule in favor of schools with whom we have a more positive historical relationship.

But hey, maybe they’ll thank us for it in 100 years.

  1. ndarkiestedsman2011 - Sep 9, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    Nice piece Craig. Don’t forget about the #1 v. #2 matchup in Ann Arbor where ND wins 35-12. Taking a page out of Yost’s book, UM head coach/athletic director Fritz Crisler put the rivalry on hold for 35 years – wanting to focus on the Big 10.

    I, as you have, can thank Michigan for turning us into a national brand, but it was tough leaving Ann Arbor without the W this weekend. I was also disappointed (and would be ashamed if I were a Wolverine fan) that Michigan played the chicken dance over the speakers.

    Time to prepare for Purdue, I can’t wait for Michigan game next year! Go IRISH!

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