Notre Dame football: Michigan series will be missed after next year

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Memories made on a grand stage endure.

In the realm of college football, there are few more significant than Notre Dame-Michigan.

Heroes from those games are etched in history. Harry Oliver, Bob Crable, Rocket Ismail, Remy Hamilton (who?), Desmond Howard — they all enjoyed fame rooted in success from that classic matchup.

Notre Dame playing Michigan every year is good for the game.

The Michigan series, which will take a hiatus after next season, is one of the casualties of Notre Dame's alignment with the Atlantic Coast Conference. Trying to squeeze five ACC teams on a schedule that was already — for the most part — set, was a delicate balancing act for Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

From his perspective, losing Michigan from the schedule — at least for the time being — was simply a business decision. Something had to give.

Ask Michigan coach Brady Hoke, and he'll call it Notre Dame “chickening out” of the rivalry. That's what he said in front of a bunch of fans in mid-May.

Wonder how many times that quote will be excavated this week?

From the players' perspective, there's almost a sadness. Actually, the situation caught Notre Dame linebacker Dan Fox a little by surprise the other day.

"They're one of our rivals," said Fox. "When you play Michigan, it's a special game for a Notre Dame player.

"(Not playing Michigan) would be a little weird. I never even thought about (that future players won't have that opportunity). I love playing them. It's always a good game. They're always a good team. I love playing good competition. It's exciting."

Heck, two years ago, after the two teams made a video-game sort of scoring episode (21 points) in the final 1:12 of the game as the Wolverines pulled out a 35-31 victory in the first night game played at Michigan Stadium, U-M fans booed the Notre Dame equipment truck as it pulled away from the stadium long after midnight.

Now, that's a rivalry.

It's not a case of audacity that Notre Dame would even think about taking a break from the series that consists of 40 games (Michigan leads, 23-16-1). Navy (86 games), Southern Cal (84), Purdue (84) and even Michigan State (76) have been much more frequent visitors to the Irish schedule.

But, it goes beyond just playing the games. There's more quality than quantity. These are two of college football's most popular brands. For years they have gone back and forth in the race for the best all-time winning percentage, which the Wolverines currently own by a hair.

It's good enough that ESPN's College GameDay is going to be at The Big House Saturday.

"The Michigan game and the atmosphere that's created is special in itself," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "We won't need any more motivation. It will be an electric atmosphere."

That sort of electricity won't be a shock to anyone's system. One factor that makes this game what it is is that both teams understand and embrace center stage. Neither backs down from the opportunity of a national television showcase.

As caretakers, Kelly and Hoke have done their part to return their programs to a level in which they can compete on the highest level and thrive.

Michigan means more than any team but Southern Cal on the Notre Dame schedule. The Irish occupy a back seat behind Ohio State in the eyes of the Wolverines, but they're still in the picture.

Two more games are left before the break. Two more opportunities to make memories.

Chickens need not bother to show up.

Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson (2) hits the turf after intercepting Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson during a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, at Notre Dame. The Irish series with Michigan will take a break after this Saturday's game at Michigan Stadium. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER