Knute Rockne

Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry has always been complicated


By this point, we’ve talked the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry to death. Reaction has been swift and definitive: this match-up matters to a lot of people and to college football in general.

But before we take our final digs into this match-up, I thought a history lesson was in order. And nobody is better to give us that lesson than Jim Lefebvre, an award-winning author and Notre Dame historian.

Lefebvre’s most recent work is the new book Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne. In a rivalry framed by gigantic personalities like Rockne and Michigan’s Fielding Yost, Lefebvre walks us through the complications that led to both the hostility in the rivalry, and the fairly large gaps in the Wolverines and Irish playing each other.

The entire article is worth reading at Lefebvre’s, but here are some interesting excerpts:

On November 6, 1909, the Irish shocked the Wolverines, 11-3, in Notre Dame’s first truly big-time victory. The game entered ND lore, which holds that on the winning touchdown, Pete Vaughan smashed through the Michigan line with such force that his headgear (or possibly his shoulder) knocked loose the goal post.

On November 4, 1910 Notre Dame’s gridders began their journey to Ann Arbor to defend their 1909 victory over the Wolverines in a game scheduled for Saturday, November 5. But they made it only six miles, to Niles, Michigan, when they were called back to campus. Michigan, based on accusations from football coach Fielding Yost, had just informed Notre Dame it was cancelling the game, questioning the eligibility of two Notre Dame stars from Oregon. The Notre Dame Scholastic reported:

“The trouble centered on our intention to play (Ralph) Dimmick and (George) Philbrook, Michigan claiming that both these men were ineligible because of the fact that they had played out their time as collegiate football players. A review of the athletic careers of both of these men shows that in 1904-05 they were preparatory students at Tullatin Academy and competed on teams there. The following year both men were students at Peason’s Academy, an institution apart from Whitman College. In September 1907, they registered at Whitman College, taking two freshman studies and three or four preparatory studies. Dimmick remained at Whitman until February 1908, and Philbrook until June of the same year. Whitman College is not named in the list of conference colleges issued in September 1907. Because of that it is only reasonable to presume these men as participating in preparatory athletics prior to their coming to Notre Dame. On these grounds we maintain that Philbrook and Dimmick are eligible and will continue to hold these grounds.”

The Scholastic also reported Notre Dame had inquired as to whether the pair would be allowed to play as early as January 1910, when the game was arranged, and was assured by Michigan athletic director Philip Bartelme that “there would be no trouble on that score.” There were also assertions made that Michigan players Clarke and Cole, who had played three years of competition at Oberlin, would be allowed in the game, thus seemingly clearing the way for Notre Dame’s two Oregonians.

From that point forward, it took years for Notre Dame to schedule any team from the Western Conference, until Wisconsin finally played Notre Dame in 1917, and eventually Purdue and Indiana began showing up on Notre Dame’s schedule. Per Lefebrve’s research, Notre Dame was intent on applying for full membership in the Western Conference, spending a decade adhering to the Carnegie Foundation’s strict academic and athletic oversight. Later in the mid-20s, Notre Dame president Father Matthew Walsh then tried to use Rockne’s popularity to help the school enter the conference.

Each president since Notre Dame founder Father Edward Sorin had painstakingly made efforts to bring Notre Dame up to the scholarly standards of the premier public and private institutions. Father Walsh, aware of rumors of Big Ten conference expansion, felt the time was right to approach the conference, and he planned carefully for it.

Father Walsh began by instructing Rockne to make a goodwill tour of conference member schools to speak with coaches and athletic directors. That was to be followed up shortly afterward by a visit from faculty representative and secretary of the Notre Dame athletic board Dean McCarthy, who would discuss matters with faculty members and athletic boards of the conference schools. Rockne reported back that all the visits had gone well, except for one—his visit to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. Time had not healed old wounds. Yost, known for his anti-Catholic sentiment, still harbored hostilities toward Notre Dame. In short, Rockne and Yost agreed to disagree on just about everything concerning football and athletics. McCarthy reported back in with even less optimism. He believed that Big Ten animosity and jealousy of Rockne were the principal obstacles to Notre Dame’s entry into the conference.

It is hard to imagine today just how prevalent and intense anti-Catholic sentiment was in the 1920s, much of it stemming from fundamentalist anti-immigrant emotions. The Ku Klux Klan was flourishing across large swatches of the nation, spreading a vitriolic message denigrating Catholics. To the Klan, the Pope was worse than Kaiser Wilhelm because the Pope already had “foreign emissaries” operating in the United States in the form of parish priests. Stories circulated that every time a Catholic family had a newborn male child, the Knights of Columbus donated a rifle to the Catholic Church; and that the reason that steeple on Catholic churches were so high was so that they could rain gunfire down on Americans when the Pope declared war against the Protestants. One rumor even suggested that the sewer system at Notre Dame was actually a gigantic arsenal filled with explosives and heavy artillery. Few Catholics, especially those in the Hoosier state, found these outlandish stories funny. Of all the states in the nation, Indiana became a strong foothold for the Klan, with membership eventually reaching 400,000 by 1923.  It was estimated that 30 percent of Indiana’s white native-born male population were Klan members.

At Notre Dame, President Walsh decided to switch strategies in leading the school’s efforts to break through the prejudice and join the Big Ten. Instead of submitting a formal application, Walsh asked the conference members to appoint a committee to visit Notre Dame and to investigate all matters academic and athletic at the university. Walsh said that Notre Dame would abide by the findings of this committee as to whether or not to submit an application in December for admittance. The majority of Big Ten schools said no, and to avoid any apparent bad publicity associated with Notre Dame’s application for admission, the Big Ten voted 6-4 against any expansion of the conference. Walsh was deeply disappointed and tried to resolve the matter by meeting with the presidents of the Universities of Chicago and Michigan, the main opponents of Notre Dame’s application. When he visited them, he was genuinely surprised by the presidents’ reluctance to intervene concerning the decisions made by their schools’ coaches and athletic directors. He came away with a clear understanding of how deep the hostility of Michigan’s Yost and Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg was toward Rockne and the Catholic school. Walsh, however, went through with the December application at the Big Ten meetings. The application was denied. Privately, Rockne attributed the rejection to Yost’s undisguised anti-Catholicism, calling Yost a “hillbilly” who was forever grinding a religious ax against Notre Dame.

It was only after Yost’s retirement as Michigan athletic director in 1940 that conversations resumed with Notre Dame, resulting in a pair of games in 1942 and 1943—in which each team won on the other team’s field. But just as quickly, the series was again halted, this time until athletic directors Don Canham and Moose Krause got together to resume the rivalry in 1978. So, in the 67 seasons from 1910 through 1977, Notre Dame and Michigan played exactly twice.

With the popularity of college football at an all-time high right now, we tend to forget that rivalries exist throughout generations, not just the past 20 years of non-stop television coverage, and 365-day internet coverage. But as we continue to discuss this rivalry and everyone hopes to find a way for these two schools to continue to battle on the field, Lefebvre does a great job of reminding us that the history between these two schools in long and complicated.


Lefebvre will be signing copies of his book at the Hammes Bookstore on campus on September 28. You can buy a copy of Coach For a Nation here


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.