Notre Dame-Michigan always a big game for Mattison

Mark Snyder
Detroit Free Press

The end of the Michigan-Notre Dame series — at least entering the longest hiatus since it restarted in 1978 — has stirred many emotions.

For U-M defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, it’s as if a part of college football’s fabric is fading away.

“It always is a huge game because forever it has been Michigan and Notre Dame in my mind,” Mattison, a former Notre Dame assistant, said Monday. “I know there’s a team in Ohio and I understand that, and there’s a team in Lansing, I understand that. But growing up, that was football. It’s really disappointing we don’t keep that rivalry. I know in all my years of coaching and being around football, it was always that game, it was a big one. Having been a part of it from both sides makes it special.”

Just like with those Ohio State and Michigan State rivalries, it’s rare to find someone who can understand the view from both sides.

But Mattison has dealt with every emotion, living the game between the all-time leaders in winning percentage.

His first game at U-M was the 1992 opener, in South Bend between top-10 teams. The game ended in the series’ only tie, 17-17. And two of his past three matchups have been U-M’s emotional night game victories in Michigan Stadium.

Between that first game and those recent meetings, Mattison spent eight years at Notre Dame — the longest sustained stop of his career.

He returned to Michigan in 2011 for a second U-M stint with his close friend Brady Hoke, and his strong rivalry feelings revived each September.

“This will always be a really big game for me,” Mattison said. “My daughter had a great softball career at Notre Dame, got her degree from there. My son grew up right there. We spent eight years living in South Bend.”

Yet that was the end of his sentiment. Mattison apologized for being late when he entered the room, pointing out that it is an important work week.

That is why Hoke was a little short on details and game plans Monday in public.

“It is because there’s guys they recruited (and have) that we recruited, there’s guys we’ve got that they recruited. So, to some degree, the talent level, there’s a lot of similarities,” Hoke said.

U-M quarterback Devin Gardner spent his whole life seeing the matchup as a defining moment and, once he got to college, understood it even more. He was a backup in 2010 when Denard Robinson dominated with 502 yards of offense and in 2011 when Robinson pulled out another comeback win at home. Gardner was a receiver in the 2012 loss in South Bend.

Last year, when he finally got his chance, his breakout game came against the Irish with five touchdowns. That makes the final game mean something more.

“Everybody knows how big this rivalry game is, and it sucks that it has to go and it’s not appreciated by everybody,” Gardner said. “But I really appreciated it growing up here and seeing all the great games and being able to participate in it was amazing.”

Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Greg Mattison watches a drill during Irish practice in 1999. Mattison is now the defensive coordinator at Michigan. (SBT File Photo)