Why the Notre Dame-Michigan Game Means So Much


This week, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Michigan Wolverines will meet for what could be the last time in the foreseeable future. Conference realignment, scheduling obligations, all things that have led to the end of a great rivalry. Or at the least a hiatus. Some who see this game might not think much about it, they may think it’s just a regional battle. Then they clearly don’t know the tradition of two of the greatest football programs in history. I can’t explain what this game has been to me over the 35 years of my life, but I’m going to try.

I grew up in Southwestern Michigan in Three Oaks, only about a half hour drive from the campus of Notre Dame. I spent summers playing basketball there, occasionally with some of the members of the Irish basketball program. I was baptised Catholic, but didn’t really practice. But even that close to South Bend, I was still deep in Wolverine country. But that’s not how I saw it.

Now there isn’t going to be a “Rudy” story here. As much as I love Notre Dame, and no matter how hard I cheer for every team the University puts out, I was never going there. Not to sell myself short, but academically, I was not on the list of students likely to attend.

But these two met nearly every year for the majority of my life, an occasional hiatus in the mix. But when September came, these two were going to meet, and somebody’s season would be in essence over with a loss. That might be a bit dramatic, but that’s how most of us saw it. Through middle school, and into high school, the week of the Michigan game could be brutal. Some of the things that came out of the mouths of me and my friends as teens regarding this game were downright frightening. But that was the passion we had, and how much we believed that game would help decide the season.

I remember “Rocket” Ismail in ’89 returning two kicks for touchdowns. I believe we entered that game as the top two teams in the country. The ’93 game when Michigan drove 99 yards after stopping Marc Edwards on a 4th and goal, forcing the Irish to recover the onside to hold on to the game. 1991 and the ridiculousness that was Desmond Howard. 2009-2012 were games that will forever show what this series has been about. Neither team ever folding, all three games decided by four points or less.

Most games in my lifetime were barnburners. The two blowouts Michigan delivered were humbling, and for a few years I wondered if Notre Dame would ever be the Notre Dame I grew up watching. Of course Michigan had the Rich Rodriguez years, and the Brady Hoke regime is still being assessed.

Since social media became so prominent, I’ve lost friends due to this game. I saw today on Facebook that many of my friends are avoiding it BECAUSE of this game as to not lose friends. It’s just this fire, and an unwillingness for either fan base to back down.

But  deep down, as this series comes to an end, or at least another hiatus that could be longer, I admit this. I respect Michigan. As a program how can you not? Now, I still don’t like them, and I’ll exchange words till the end. But Michigan fans likely feel the same. If we didn’t, this game wouldn’t have this feel to it. Michigan isn’t that far from Eastern Michigan (my alma mater), minutes actually. That game doesn’t inspire the fire this game does. So it’s clearly not just about proximity.

There is something much deeper. It’s two of the oldest programs, who can only compare to each other. There are no other measuring sticks. Games won, winning percentage, National Championships, Heisman Trophy winners. These two schools put everyone else at a disadvantage in how consistent they have been through the years. No one can match it.

So as this weekend approaches, Notre Dame Stadium will be absolutely electric. Under the Lights, final time. The Irish out to prove the 2012 season wasn’t a farce, and the Irish really are back. Brady Hoke is hoping to establish himself as the seat has gotten a little hot in Ann Arbor. As it should, these two schools don’t have the patience for “off-years”. They want to win. It’s what makes them similar. It’s what drives the importance of this game. For me. For Irish fans, For Michigan fans.

Someone may have to hold the grudge for a few extra years after this one. Go Irish. Beat Michigan.