If Michigan State is Little Brother and Ohio State is who-cares-they-suck, Notre Dame would be that snooty kid across the street who you keep stop playing with. In fact, the upcoming lacuna is one of several times that one team or the other has chosen to sever ties with the other program. But going back to before the frustration, bitterness, and apathy, it was Michigan that taught the game to Notre Dame, under much more welcoming circumstances.
In October 1887, DeHaven wrote to Brother Paul, who ran Notre Dame's intramural athletics program, telling him about the new game of football. Michigan had planned a game in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, and the three men, DeHaven, Harless and Brother Paul, persuaded their respective schools to play a football match on the Notre Dame campus on the day before Thanksgiving.
On November 22, 1887, the Michigan football team departed from the Michigan Central Railroad Depot in Ann Arbor on the late train. After breakfast in Niles, Michigan, the team changed trains and arrived in South Bend between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. The team was greeted by Father Superior Walsh and spent two hours touring the university buildings and departments of Notre Dame.
The game was the first played by a Notre Dame football team, and the Michigan team was credited with teaching the Notre Dame team the game before play began. The Notre Dame student newspaper, Scholastic, reported: "It was not considered a match contest, as the home team had been organized only a few weeks, and the Michigan boys, the champions of the West, came more to instruct them in the points of the Rugby game than to win fresh laurels."
The 30-minute match that followed was later credited as Notre Dame's first collegiate football game, and it ended with an 8-0 loss to Michigan. That Michigan team left South Bend to rousing cheers, and the promise that a "cordial reception... would always await them at Notre Dame."
The Big Boys
In the '40s, Notre Dame was starting to run away with the Heisman Award. Three Irish players won it in a seven-year period, and the trophy that was born in 1935 saw five different ND players win it in the first 22 years. Before 20 other programs had as much as one recipient, Notre Dame had 6 Heisman winners. Championships made their way through South Bend four times in the '40s, and twice, a player won the Heisman, the championship, and was picked first in the NFL Draft within the same year.
As it turned out, the Irish were pretty good at football. They were further extending an already impressive program record, which started at 314-70-25 when Frank Leahy took over the program in 1941. From '41 to '55, as college football became embedded in Americana and found itself on TVs, Notre Dame won 119 games and lost only 18.
From the mid-'50s to early '60s, and a sizeable portion of the '80s, the Irish would show the floor that they could occasionally sink to. But great coaches always seemed to make their way through South Bend and bail the Irish out with another decade of good play. Ara Parseghian, formerly a Northwestern coach, led the Irish to two national championships and 95 wins over eleven years. Lou Holtz, who took over in 1986, had them 12-0 champions within two years. Then, the perfect remedy for a subpar (6-5-1) '94 season: Randy Moss, the greatest high school player many had seen in years, and a diehard Notre Dame fan since an early age, wanted to come play in '95. He would never make it to South Bend, because of a racially charged fight with bigots from his school that caused one student to be hospitalized.
Notre Dame football began a steady decline around this time. Over the next two decades, the Irish would have only three more teams that won more than 75% of their games. Lou Holtz left by December of '96, and later reports came out of paying players. Randy Moss, who landed at Marshall, broke receiving records in 1996 and 1997.
Notre Dame was a small, regionally successful school in 1913, when new coach Jesse Harper scheduled matches with blue-blood teams Penn State, Texas, and Army. Their first test was Army, and it was a national homecoming of sorts. Using the forward pass, Notre Dame upset the powerhouse 35-13, then won against Texas and Penn State to finish unbeaten. Texas and Army went 15-2 that year, with the two losses to the hands of the Irish. Just like that, they were a regional power no more.
The receiver who caught most of the forward passes in that game took over the team in 1918, and he further popularized its use and grew to be the Irish's first coaching legend - Knute Rockne. After he left in 1930, with three championships in hand, players who played under him ran the Irish for another 21 years. And all told, every Notre Dame coach from 1918-1963 attended the university as a student. There was continuity, and then there was the Irish.
The Irish under Brian Kelly
By the time that Brian Kelly made his way to South Bend, the team had gone 7-6 or worse more than half the time since Lou Holtz retired. There were good seasons, as well, but it never lasted very long. Kelly, at least, has brought a measure of consistency back: 8-5, 8-5, 12-1, 9-4. The Irish that knew so intuitively how to control and win the game have still not solved the puzzle of the SEC and the modern game, but they have the potential to break out if they do the right things.
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Under this regime, the formula for success would probably start and even finish with the defense. Kelly's offenses have featured some intriguing players and respectable attacks, but the potential has been much, much higher on the other side of the ball, with current or former Irishmen Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Max Redfield, Manti Te'o, and Harrison Smith. They are elite players that any team in the country would love to have and have a hard time handling. The offense can do their part, but for all the talent that's been poured into that system, they've scored 24 points or less in more than half the games under Kelly. The schemes have not really been on par with other 'elite' teams, really on both sides of the ball. But the strength for them has been the ability to scout and recruit dominating defenders.
Interestingly, while the 3-4 itself has become more widespread, old stalwarts like Nick Saban and, in the NFL, Bill Belichick have gone away from it. The Irish are also moving to a more 4-3 look, and they will try to improve on what was a consistent top-30 defense with the help of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who coordinated the Atlanta Falcons from 2008-11. VanGorder's job is two-fold: first, to implement a more aggressive, effective scheme, and second, to continue to develop some of their younger talent. If he can do those reasonably well, the team could consistently win ten games and challenge for a playoff birth.
It would also be helpful for an offense that would be at its best with an added dose of a run game to set up play-action. Their running backs are reliable but not extraordinary (Greg Bryant gives them a little more ceiling). Their quarterbacks are mobile and talented but also green and unproven. It's easy to predict a better season on that side of the ball either way, but having the help of an elite defense would let them run, kill the clock, and that would open up the passing game beautifully. But it all starts with the defense.
Hitting the Links Hates Notre Dame
This is a sympathetic story, though - Devin Smith was in a car accident last week and will be okay. Best wishes to him.
In The Departed, Martin Sheen's character has Notre Dame ties, too. Sheen himself didn't go there, but he is a devout Catholic, so that's probably why. His real name is Ramon Estevez, by the way (and Charlie Sheen's real name is Carlos Estevez), and he has citizenship in the U.S., Ireland, and Spain.
The incredible end to UM-ND's 2011 contest. I was
stuck babysitting about a half-mile away from the Big House during the game, and after both touchdowns you could hear the dull, deep roar of the crowd. The home owners said that had never happened before. It felt to me like this game was a "where were you when..." moment for quite a few Michigan fans.
Little did we know just how breath-taking that sight would be.
Highlights of the highlights: Jeremy Gallon's run at 1:23, Devin Funchess one-handing a ball at 3:34, and a perfect throw at 9:23. You can see the progression during the highlights, where Gardner is running away from defenders at first, then starts trying to do it more, which leads to needless hits and an interception under pressure in the Michigan end zone. The prelude to Akron and UConn.
Reading about the defense ("Michigan State Lite") was interesting, and he also tackles the question of whether Baylor is "the new Texas."
I'm including this only because it's a Michigan preview. Hit the link for some generalized commentary and slightly funny/awkward elevator-music pauses between segments.
This story has been developing for a little while; due to ACT scores and low grades, Jeff Jones will have to get creative about how he will make the roster this season for the Gophers. Best of luck to him.
This was well-written and interesting. Chris Stewart, a Notre Dame offensive lineman, became the first and only ND player a few years ago to simultaneously attend law school. If you've known any law school students and heard them talk about how stressful and demanding law school is, you'll know how amazing it is that somebody can do that and start for a football team.
I have been more optimistic about Penn State's receivers for a while. They are bringing in three four-star freshmen, one of whom (DeAndre Thompkins) had a full spring to practice and has the jets to add that little something extra (the Lions already have great running backs, tight ends) to make the offense hum. But, on the flip side, they are all freshmen and the unit underperformed last year outside of Allen Robinson. So there could be something valid to that criticism.
To talk about Moss not attending Notre Dame in Michigan terms for a second, our championship year in '97, we faced Notre Dame and won, barely, 21-14. Notre Dame even had the lead at halftime behind the passing of Ron Powlus. Michigan also had three turnovers in the fourth quarter, one that gave the Irish field position at the Michigan 28. They ran four straight times, without getting a first down. The same week, Randy Moss, en route to getting 1820 yards and 26 touchdowns on the season, caught 5 touchdown passes against Ball State.
He's an inch taller than Devin Funchess and five pounds lighter. But, can he palm a football from six yards away?
Fun fact that I haven't been able to fit in anywhere: on November 10, 2016, Rutgers University will celebrate its 250th anniversary. They are one of the nine Colonial Colleges.