Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry has always been complicated

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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 CoachForANation.com, 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


 

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.