ND-UM is just realignment wreckage
Notre Dame and Michigan have staged a wonderful rivalry, rich in storylines and filled with passion. What began as a tale of hate and prejudice evolved into a partnership of two schools that have lived out the fairy tale that American intercollegiate athletics tells us. Brains and brawn not only may coexist but they may thrive on the same campus.
The rivalry, played nearly annually since 1978 and scheduled through 2031, instead became a casualty of Notre Dame's decision to pledge five games of its 12-game schedule to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame bailed out of the rivalry for the three years after 2014. The schools had scheduled a two-year break in 2018-19. What happens after that, no one is prepared to say.
The Notre Dame-Michigan game will no longer signify the arrival of autumn, a task it has performed every September for a generation. The memory of Raghib Ismail's two kickoff returns for touchdowns for the Irish in 1989, or Wolverines kicker Remy Hamilton's 42-yard game-winning field goal in 1994, or the craziness of the final minute of last year's game, will fade in importance.
If you are a college football fan who considers those memories to be manna from heaven, then the announcement by Notre Dame on Tuesday is a heartbreaker. But if you sit where Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick sits, you may understand why Michigan is expendable. Once you set aside tradition and passion, Michigan doesn't offer Notre Dame anything that it can't get elsewhere.
Of course, tradition and passion are what separate college football from the other beasts in the American sports jungle. But Vegas will tell you that tradition and passion are two-touchdown underdogs to the athletic department balance sheet for a reason.
Of the remaining seven slots on the Notre Dame schedule, one will be filled by USC, Notre Dame's most storied rival. They will play their 84th game this season. One will go to Stanford, and not at all because Swarbrick graduated from Stanford Law School. Notre Dame likes the affiliation with Stanford (see brains, brawn) and playing the Cardinal means that the Irish will play a football game in California every season.
Notre Dame also will not turn its back on Navy, which kept the school alive during World War II by placing a V-12 training program there. Notre Dame shows its gratitude by playing the Midshipmen in perpetuity (and occasionally in Dublin).
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That leaves four games on the schedule, three of which are currently filled by Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. What that says is that the divorce -- or is it a separation? -- of Notre Dame and Michigan is actually a casualty of the inability of Notre Dame and the Big Ten to find a way to join together.
That is a story that goes back nearly a century, and has been almost rom-com in the way that love went unrequited on both sides of the relationship. When Notre Dame wanted to join the Big Ten in the 1920s, the conference said no. Michigan athletic director Fielding Yost led the effort to blackball the Catholic institution.
When the Big Ten and Notre Dame discussed membership several years ago, Notre Dame refused to commit its entire football schedule. In the ACC, Notre Dame found a conference of like-minded schools that is willing to let the Irish be Irish. The deal with the ACC, in the end, will curtail the relationship that Notre Dame has with Big Ten members. It didn't have to be mutually exclusive. But that's how Notre Dame chose to play it.
Notre Dame-Michigan, a rivalry that seemed as perennial as Santa Claus, instead will go the way of Texas-Texas A&M, Missouri-Kansas and other rivalries sacrificed to mammon. It is one more piece of wreckage on the side of the road to realignment.
It may provide solace to realize that 20 years ago, the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry carried the same sort of prestige that Notre Dame and Michigan carry today. Times change, and time heals. Dumping Michigan surely is a decision that no one at Notre Dame wanted to make. But make it Notre Dame did. College football will live on.
Just don't confuse the passage of time with progress. The disappearance of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry doesn't make college football better. The fairy tale that Michigan and Notre Dame told us has been traded for another tale, in which a boy named Jack trades the family cow for a sack of magic ACC beans.
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