When Notre Dame meets Michigan, it's a Bars family reunion

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

It’s a series that has produced, just in the last few years alone, games that have turned seasons. The two schools have met just 41 times, but the history runs deep, and with passion, the first meeting coming 22 years after the end of the Civil War. Prior to last year’s game, one coach drew heat for downplaying the significance of the rivalry, the other adding fuel by calling the other school “chicken” for putting an end/hiatus to the series.

There typically is no gray area or ambiguity in terms of picking sides in the Notre Dame-Michigan series. It’s one or the other.

Except in the Bars household in Nashville, Tenn., where there’s enough love to go around for both schools. Why? Middle son Blake is a 6-foot-5, 294-pound redshirt sophomore offensive lineman who is not listed in the two-deep for the Wolverines this week. Alex, the youngest of the three Bars boys, is a 6-6, 305-pound freshman offensive lineman at Notre Dame who is likely ticketed for a redshirt year, but was a highly regarded member of ND's most recent class

Oh, and then there’s this little nugget: Joe, the boys’ father, played at Notre Dame.

“It’s what gives you goosebumps,” Joe Bars said. “And whether they’re first-string or last-string, to see them playing out there is pretty neat. That’s what I enjoy. Here’s the way you’ve got to look at it as a parent – you just want them to be successful, right?”

Success in terms of each landing a big-time scholarship already has happened. And that could have created a wardrobe problem for Sally Bars -- Joe’s wife and the boys’ father -- had her sons not chosen the schools they did. The problem? What will she wear? The answer?

“Blue,” Sally Bars deadpanned before breaking into laughter.

Not only do the Bars have sons at blue-clad ND and Michigan, but oldest son Brad is a fifth-year defensive end at Penn State. Brad’s Nittany Lions opened their season in Ireland during Week 1, so Joe and Sally made the trek to Ann Arbor to see Michigan dismantle Appalachian State. Week 2 was a no-brainer, although the mom in Sally came out when discussing this weekend’s plans.

“I feel bad because we’re missing Brad’s first home game at Penn State,” she said, “but I wouldn’t miss this Notre Dame-Michigan game for anything.”

Travel plans for the rest of the fall have been locked into the GPS, with Joe already having seen a good share of the Big Ten terrain during fall camps. During a one-week span in August, he spent Sunday through Wednesday in State College, Pa., made the trip back to Nashville to work Wednesday and Thursday, went to South Bend on Friday and Ann Arbor on Saturday before heading south again to start the work week on Monday.

“That’s pretty good,” said Joe, who owns an insurance company just south of Nashville.

Joe, a linebacker from Farmington, Mich., who played at ND from 1981-84, also has a pretty good understanding of the game. Knowing kids on both sides of the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry, he also knows tendencies of particular players.

“It’s an interesting perspective,” he said.

Joe and Sally’s perspective on any sibling rivalry has been that the two boys avoid talk. Blake and Alex were home together this summer for only about a week, but nary a word was said between the two. The rest of the family? Yes. The two combatants? No.

“They avoid it,” Sally said. “It’s funny because we’ll have family group texts going and whenever the game comes up, nothing back from them. Everybody else is weighing in on it, whoever is part of the group text. Nothing from Blake. Nothing from Alex. Nothing from Brad.”

Joe, though, believes there will be some ribbing the next time the boys are home, particularly with the ND-Michigan series not scheduled beyond this year.

“It’ll be a lot of smack talk at that point,” Joe said. “That’ll last for a lot of years.”

Saturday night’s game will be the first time the two will be on opposing sides. They always played football, basketball and baseball together, and when Alex’s recruitment began to heat up a few years ago, it was Blake who played the role of good teammate/brother.

“His advice to (Alex) was go where you feel most comfortable,” Sally said. “Don’t worry about what anyone else wants. He was just telling him, go with your heart, go with what feels right. Go where you feel like you belong. And his other advice was go where you feel like you’re wanted most. He said, ‘I’d love to play with you, but it’s not about me.’”

While Blake and Alex haven’t discussed the matchup much, neither have mom and dad.

“It’s funny, I said the boys don’t talk about it. Joe and I don’t either. Isn’t that funny?” Sally said, before breaking into laughter again. “I guess I don’t want to know his answer because either way it might make me mad.”

Blake Bars (67) and younger brother Alex (70) pose with their grandmother, Elaine Proctor, following a high school game in 2011. Blake is now a redshirt sophomore at Michigan while Alex is a freshman at Notre Dame. (Photo provided)