The gloriously petty history of Michigan-Notre Dame

It took Notre Dame’s footballists, as they were known back then, nine tries to beat the boys who taught them how to play America’s new favorite sport. And up until that fateful afternoon on Nov. 6, 1909, the football teams from Michigan and Notre Dame largely enjoyed a cordial and hospitable relationship. That was a long time ago.

The coach who finally led Notre Dame to victory was a Michigan man. Shorty Longman — of average height for his day — played fullback for Fielding Yost on the legendary point-a-minute teams of the early 1900s and lived most of the year in Ann Arbor, where he co-owned an automobile dealership. When his Notre Dame team at last beat his mentor, Longman didn’t want his neighbors to forget. So he purchased a tiny jacket for his pet bulldog embroidered with the numbers “11-3,” the game’s final score. The dog wore it often on their walks through the streets near the Michigan campus.

Michigan refused to play Notre Dame for the next 33 years.

How did the strife between Michigan and Notre Dame survive a span of 70 years when the two storied programs — loaded with other long-standing annual opponents — played each other only twice? The persistence of their shared history strikes at the heart of a bigger question: What makes for a great college football rivalry?

A great rivalry needs big names and bigger stakes. Notre Dame and Michigan provide those by the fistful. It needs memorable, dramatic moments. Few series, if any, have more per capita instant classics than the Irish and the Wolverines. In an interview with John Kryk, the author of “Natural Enemies,” an all-encompassing book about the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry, former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr explained that playing the Irish early in the season has helped lead to a lot of wild finishes.

Traditionally the first or second game on the schedule since the series resumed more regularly in the late 1970s, those September starts — like Saturday night’s battle in South Bend, Indiana — provide a combination of the two things that separate college football from most other sports: unbridled passion and the likelihood of amateurs making mistakes that lead to zany, unfathomable, heartbreaking finales.

“Neither team is going to play their best game of the year,” Carr said. “But they’re never going to play harder.”

What truly sets apart the great rivalries in college football, though, is the under-your-skin, petty arguments that keep rabid fan bases poking at each other through long offseasons or decades of not playing each other. And when we talk about Notre Dame and Michigan, we’re talking about more than a century’s worth of canine-accessory levels of shade.

Kryk says he couldn’t help but laugh when, while digging through wooden crates full of archives for his book, he came across the 1910 Michigan team photo. Sitting in Fielding Yost’s lap that year was a new member of the squad, a pet bulldog.

“I’m sure he saw Shorty’s dog or heard of it,” Kryk says. “I’m sure it drove him absolutely nuts to see it.”

Yost’s given reasons for not wanting to play the Irish after the 1909 loss were that Notre Dame, an independent team, didn’t have the same standards of amateurism and recruiting that were mandated by teams in the Western Conference, a predecessor of the Big Ten. Some of those complaints might have had some merit. Others did not.

Despite never meeting on the football field, Yost developed a nearly lifelong nemesis in Fighting Irish coach Knute Rockne, who came to South Bend as a player just a few years after the series halted. Yost tried to get the rest of the Western Conference schools to boycott Rockne’s teams. Rockne tried on multiple occasions to get Yost in trouble by providing “anonymous” tips to the Western Conference commissioner about violations in Ann Arbor.

How’s this for petty? Rockne even wrote a novel in which a fictional “Coach Smith” served as the arrogant, selfish antagonist. It’s no mystery as to who inspired the character.

Personal feuds continued with the next generation of legendary coaches. Michigan’s Fritz Crisler and Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy split a pair of national-headline-making games in the 1940s and clashed off the field for the decade that followed. Most of their disagreements centered around Leahy’s “sucker shift” offense. Crisler, as head of the NCAA rules committee, publicly chastised Leahy on multiple occasions for a tactic the rules committee deemed unsportsmanlike.

Notre Dame attempted to set up more games with the Wolverines in the 1940s. Crisler and Michigan, partially because of concerns about the emphasis that was being put on the contest with a nonconference opponent, said they didn’t have room on the schedule.

Notre Dame borrowed the same reasoning when setting in motion the series’ most recent hiatus. The Irish had just struck up a partnership with the ACC in 2012 when athletic director Jack Swarbrick informed his counterpart, Dave Brandon, that Notre Dame couldn’t commit to any games after 2014. Adding five annual games against ACC opponents didn’t leave many openings in Notre Dame’s schedule.

At the time, the two programs had a rolling contract that stretched three games into the future. Unless otherwise noted in writing before their annual meeting, the deal automatically extended to play another game three years down the road. And so, Swarbrick provided the news in a written letter on the sideline 10 minutes before kickoff in 2012.

Brandon, who was ousted at Michigan in 2014, claims that letter was the first he had heard about the series ending. Swarbrick said different.

“It’s on my cellphone records and his that we talked that Friday afternoon,” Swarbrick said at the time. “I don’t know if Dave doesn’t think we talked on Friday or he remembers a different conversation. I wish that hadn’t occurred, but it did.”

Either way, the last-minute letter is a fitting echo of how the series stopped more than a century earlier. Michigan informed Notre Dame that it wouldn’t be playing the 1910 contest just 24 hours before it was supposed to kick off because of a dispute about ineligible players on the Irish roster.

A journalist from Collier’s magazine investigated the claims that offseason and concluded that Notre Dame was being unfairly criticized. Surely, when an editorial in the Michigan student newspaper described the Collier’s investigation as “chicken-hearted,” the author could never have imagined that Michigan’s football coach would use a similar description 103 years later to describe another break in the series.

History, even when it’s petty, tends to repeat itself. That was the case in 2013, when then-Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Notre Dame was “chickening out” by canceling its future meetings with the Wolverines, and the Michigan Stadium public-address system played the “Chicken Dance” song at the conclusion of the 2013 game in Ann Arbor, a 41-30 Michigan victory.

Shorty Longman and his pup would’ve been proud.

The long-term future of the series remains unclear heading into Saturday night’s revival in South Bend. Head coaches Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh both seem keen on playing each other if their schedules will allow it. One hopes more games and more jabs will follow. And if we’re lucky, some new embroidered bulldog jackets, as well. This is, after all, what makes a college football rivalry great.

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