Notebook: Notre Dame-Michigan football series moves to front burner

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly has Michigan on his mind, and it has nothing to do with the still-percolating satellite camp debate inspired and prolonged by his Michigan coaching counterpart, Jim Harbaugh.

It’s all about resurrecting the Notre Dame-Michigan football series — and sooner than later.

“We’re going to make that happen,” the seventh-year Notre Dame head football coach said Thursday, relaxing in his office. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re going to make it happen.

“It’s something (ND athletic director) Jack Swarbrick and I want to do, and we’re going to get that game back together. We’ve got some challenges, but I think we can pull it off.”

How soon?

“We want to do it as soon as we can,” Kelly said. “We’ve got Michigan State home-and-home the next two years (2016-17), and then we’re hoping to. We want to get in on the schedule as quickly as possible after that.”

The 42nd and foreseeably final rendition of the on-again, off-again rivalry unfolded Sept. 14, 2014 in Notre Dame Stadium, a 31-0 Irish shutout of the Wolverines that snapped Michigan’s NCAA-record 376-game scoring streak.

It was also the most lopsided of Notre Dame’s 17 victories in the series between college football’s two most winningest programs.

The cold war between the two schools had been in motion for a couple of years prior to the 2014 game. Notre Dame’s new commitment to playing an average of five ACC schools a year, as a condition for its membership in that conference in other sports, put Swarbrick in the position of having to do some serious schedule juggling to make it all work by the time the plan went into place in 2014.

Series against Purdue and Michigan State were also affected, but only the Michigan series created hard feelings to the point that a permanent hiatus to the series was a real possibility.

That certainly wasn’t Swarbrick’s intent when he started discussions about suspending the series with then-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon in 2012.

The rendition of why the relationship went so suddenly toxic that gained the most play in 2012 was that Swarbrick handed Brandon a letter asking to opt out of future games just prior to kickoff of ND’s 13-6 win in South Bend in 2012.

As the story went, Brandon stuck the letter in his pocket and purported not to look at it until the following day. When he did, he reportedly was bewildered by its contents.

The Notre Dame version of the narrative includes many of the same details, except for one. Swarbrick actually called Brandon the day before the ND-Michigan game to discuss the scheduling dilemma adding five ACC games a season had created.

Brandon then told Swarbrick he needed written documentation of the intended cancellation and Swarbrick said he would provide it before kickoff the next day. As Swarbrick handed it to Brandon, he reportedly asked Brandon if he was sure he needed the letter.

So if Brandon was indeed bewildered the Sunday after the game, he apparently had a very short memory.

“The Michigan contract, at Michigan's request, had a provision that allowed you to stop the contract from rolling over,” Swarbrick would say later. “Once we made the ACC commitment, we knew we had to stop the roll over while we figured out what we were doing.”

As long as Brandon was athletic director at Michigan, it didn’t appear there was any way “what Notre Dame was doing” would entail playing Michigan again.

Yet a little over a month after the unpleasant exchange, Brandon was purged at Michigan. He later landed on his feet at Toys “R” Us and is currently that company’s CEO.

The thaw began incrementally and modestly, then gained steam when Warde Manuel was named Michigan’s athletic director, in January.

"It's good for each institution,” Swarbrick said last year of the series, sensing momentum. “It's good for college football.”

Personnel matters

Kelly said Thursday the school will have an announcement on Wednesday regarding senior wide receiver Corey Robinson’s future with the Irish football team.

Robinson has been pondering whether to walk away from the sport after suffering multiple concussions in his career, including one that wiped out almost all of this past spring’s practices.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder is ND’s active leader in receptions (65), receiving yards (896) and TD receptions (7). He’s played in 38 games with five starts in his first three seasons, though his productivity was way down last season from 2014 (16 catches from 40 in 2014).

• Suspended defensive end Grant Blankenship remains on the Irish roster as summer school begins for him on Monday, but his suspended status hasn’t changed since it was announced on April 15.

“He’s got to hit some marks there,” Kelly said, “and so his status will not be defined until he completes summer school.”

Blankenship was suspended toward the end of Notre Dame’s spring practice sessions for a violation of team rules, per Kelly.

The 6-foot-5, 278-pounder junior from The Colony, Texas, had played sparingly in his first two seasons at ND and struggled to move up the depth chart throughout the spring before the suspension.

• The redshirt year for sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush appears to be back on for 2016.

Kelly announced in early February he planned to redshirt ND’s third-string quarterback in the upcoming season but backed off that idea shortly thereafter, because Wimbush had expressed to him the desire to compete with starting candidates DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire during the spring.

And while Wimbush showed considerable growth during the spring, Kizer and Zaire were able to create separation.

The original plan was to redshirt Wimbush as a freshman in 2015, but after Everett Golson transferred to Florida State last May and Zaire suffered a season-ending injury in September, Wimbush was suddenly No. 2 on the depth chart.

“We’ve had a conversation and he’s fine with redshirting if that’s what we end up doing,” Kelly said. “But if something happens along the way and we’re ready to activate him, he’s ready to do that as well.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith celebrates a big stop during the Notre Dame-Michigan football game on Sept. 6, 2014 — an interrupted series that may get new life. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)