I remember the first time I came to appreciate the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry, because it was 1988, and the key player was a 5-foot-5 Hawaiian who practiced voodoo. It was early September, as this was the epoch when Notre Dame and Michigan met each other in the first game of the season, and it felt like they were openly defying the trend of scheduling opening-weekend patsies just to assert their moral superiority over the remainder of the college football universe.
It was a Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, and Lou Holtz was coaching a young Irish team, and Lou Holtz's kicker was a scrawny walk-on named Reggie Ho, and Reggie Ho was studying to become a doctor. Ho tried out for the team, he said, because he didn't want to become a full-on geek, and because this was 1988, Sports Illustrated had to ask him what the word "geek" meant, and Reggie Ho said, "A geek is a nerd who studies too much."
Reggie Ho said he would have refused a scholarship even if offered one, because Notre Dame had given him enough already. Reggie Ho did not have much range, which may have had something do with the fact that he weighed 135 pounds, but Reggie Ho was startlingly accurate from short distances. And that night against Michigan, he kicked four field goals, including the game winner in Notre Dame's 19-17 victory. And before each one, he performed the same routine, sweeping his arms to the right and wiggling his fingers, as if tinkling the keys of a toy piano. "Special voodoo" fingers, Ho called them, and they were meant to relieve stress, and never mind that Reggie Ho didn't even last as Notre Dame's starting kicker until the end of the season, because he'd beaten Michigan, and without getting through Michigan in the first game of the season, Notre Dame wouldn't have won a national championship.
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I will admit, I am a nostalgist when it comes to college football, but I think most of us are. We are so enamored by the sport's traditions that we are willing to overlook its fundamental flaws, and maybe this makes us naïve sentimentalists, or maybe we just like knowing that certain things will stay the same even as we continue on the inevitable creep toward our own demise. And I know this fealty to tradition is occasionally overwrought and illogical and a barrier to advancement, but I wonder where we draw the line, and I wonder if any of the college administrators responsible for the rampant conference-shuffling lotto are aware that they risk alienating an audience that likes a certain amount of consistency. At some point, things need to settle down; at some point, you need to at least give us a year to figure out who's actually in the American Athletic Conference.
But listen, I get it, progress and all. So now the end is coming for the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry, at least for the foreseeable future, since Notre Dame is playing half an Atlantic Coast Conference schedule without actually joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. They and Michigan will go at it in Ann Arbor this weekend, and then in South Bend the year after, and then this thing will go on hiatus for at least a few years, and perhaps longer than that, depending upon the whims of the Notre Dame athletic department. They're the ones who pulled the plug on the game, preferring instead to preserve rivalries with Stanford and Navy and Southern California.
And this led Michigan coach Brady Hoke, speaking at one of those rally-the-troops Grand Rapids alumni luncheons (and perhaps inspired by the sheer volume of rubber chicken that football coaches are required to consume), to declare that the Irish were "chickening out." And Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (who coached for many years in the state of Michigan) responded, essentially, by saying that Michigan was not one of Notre Dame's traditional rivals, before he walked that back, realizing that it wasn't the right thing to say to people like me, who just kind of assumed that Notre Dame-Michigan had been there (and would be there) forever.
But in this case, Brian Kelly's initial statement is essentially accurate.
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I mean, there was a time, before the era of multiplying Jerry-Jonesified Kickoff Classics, when Michigan and Notre Dame was one of the few things that actually mattered in Week 1 of the regular season. From 1988-1994, they played seven times early in the season, and in no year was either team ranked lower than 13th in the polls, and five times, both teams were ranked in the top 10. Only one of those games was decided by more than five points; one ended in a tie. There were Heisman winners and Heisman should-have-beens, and there were game-winning field goals, and there were running backs being knocked unconscious at the end of spectacular touchdown runs, and there were near-brawls. And this era happens to be in my personal-nostalgia wheelhouse, but if you grew up in the 1940s or the 1950s or the 1960s or the early 1970s, Notre Dame-Michigan meant nothing, because Notre Dame and Michigan didn't play at all. For years, there was festering animosity over Michigan's refusal to admit Notre Dame into the Big Ten; after two games in 1942 and 1943, Michigan-Notre Dame was nothing more than a recruiting rivalry until 1978.
"Notre Dame people get so into tradition, which is great," says Jerry Barca, a Notre Dame graduate who recently published "Unbeatable," a chronicle of the Irish's 1988 national championship season. "But a lot of the traditions there have evolved, as well. People freak out about the (shamrocks on the) helmets, but I've seen old photos where the helmets looked just like that. The Play Like A Champion sign wasn't a thing until 1986. I think a lot of this depends on when we all started paying attention to these things."
So perhaps it's over for Notre Dame and Michigan, in the same way it's now over for Oklahoma and Nebraska, or Texas and Texas A&M. Perhaps this is the end of one tradition and the beginning of some better one, if, say, the Irish start playing Texas every year. But I will miss Michigan-Notre Dame; I will miss its voodoo and its tension and its overarching geekiness. I will miss it terribly, as an early-season tradition, unless someday, it is gone for long enough that I forget it even existed.