Skip to content

Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry has always been complicated

Sep 5, 2013, 8:55 PM EDT

Knute Rockne

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


  1. bernhtp - Sep 5, 2013 at 9:46 PM

    This is why Swarbrick played it exactly right in slipping the cancellation envelope at the last minute. Had it been me, I might have wiped with it too.

    • nudeman - Sep 6, 2013 at 8:36 AM

      You never know … maybe he did wipe with it.

      Let’s move on …

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      i wish he would have just sent a text, something like “btw, we cancel because ur a bunch of turds. lmfao, lol, rofl.”

  2. dickasman - Sep 5, 2013 at 10:15 PM

    So I was right, BK was being like obama and lying….History? History? what history??? ***jim mora playoff voice***

    • NotreDan - Sep 5, 2013 at 10:28 PM

      You remind me of the bigot Yost with your Obama talk. Take your racist tea party pot smoking bullshit elsewhere… or, just talk about football.

      • dickasman - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:35 PM

        Dan, you got me pegged to a T. youre so smart like a typical nd supernerd fan.i am straight up ol school republican. And yes sometimes i may have a lil riley cooper in me when they rob, cheat, steal, murder and transfer. BTW, Who is this great yost you speak of?

      • irishaggie - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:46 PM

        Relax NotreDan. You sound like the typical left-wing person. Getting your feelings hurt and such. Dick was talking about football. BK coaches football, and Jim Mora coached football. An analogy doesn’t make his comment non-football related. People like you is why everything has to be so politically correct.

      • dickasman - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:14 AM

        Haggie, I’d Totally French kiss you but I would be committing a sin and since I am a notre dame fan and I am a CATHOLIC and do not believe in gay marriage, I won’t and will just move on.

  3. goirishgo - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:19 PM

    I understand the history but would still rather see UM on the schedule than MSU. It’s by far the better rivalry over the last 30 or so years.

    • dickasman - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:15 AM

      I agree

    • wisner74 - Sep 7, 2013 at 3:37 PM

      I grew up during the long hiatus with UM, so I completely understood where BK was coming from. From my perspective, there has never been an ND/Mich game as important as the ’66 ND/Mich St. game that ended in the 10-10 tie. That truly was one of the games of the century. I would hate to see us stop playing MSU. As far as I’m concerned the Wolverines have always been a sometimes foe.

  4. jerseyshorendfan1 - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:50 PM

    Good story Keith. This is partly why we honor our traditional rivalries with Navy and USC. I knew of the bad blood but never really realized there was such a long drought between 1910 and 1977. They say you shouldn’t visit the sins of the father upon the son and I know Michigan has changed with the times to the point where they even admit…..gasp……African Americans and Jews. But I say we show these Skunkbears our real arsenal of weapons and go out on top in these last two games.

    As an aside, whenever I think of the KKK, I am reminded of the story where Morris Dees, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Alabama KKK for the wrongful death of an innocent young black boy that they had lynched in a tree as a protest against the change of venue of the trial of a black man who had allegedly raped and killed a white woman. Dees recovered a multi-million dollar verdict for the boy’s mother and when the Klan couldn’t pay the judgment, he executed on their real estate and took title to an office building they owned in Montgomery. Last I heard, the NAACP had installed their offices in the building as a kind of poetic justice. In the end, hatred and intolerance always lose.

    Bern, loved your comment by the way!

    • ibleedirish - Sep 7, 2013 at 9:14 AM

      Good story. What became of the rape victim or the animal that was responsible? Couple months in jail cause he had a rough childhood?

  5. irishaggie - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:55 PM

    I was doing my NFL scouting homework today on previous and future drafted players from these two schools. There are 14 players predicted to be drafted in the first 7 rounds of next spring’s NFL draft from this game.

    Todd McShay and Mel Kiper from ESPN have Ishaq Williams as a mid-round draft pick. I was as shocked as anyone to see that since he doesn’t even start. They must really love his size.

    The other Irish players are; Bennett, Prince, TJ, Zach, Chris, and the obvious; Stephon and Louis.

    • nudeman - Sep 6, 2013 at 8:34 AM

      I saw a projection yesterday by the guy on Bleacher Report (so, TIFWIW) that Nix, Tuitt and Lynch would all go in the mid 1st round. Imagine if Lynch hadn’t flamed out.

      BTW, I have been an ND fan since the early 60s and have never considered Michigan to be a rival in the way that USC and MSU and even Navy are rivals. Today, I’d even consider Stanford to be a better rivalry with the inter-sectional nature, its commitment to academic excellence and the ascending excellence of its football program.

      USC is #1. I detest that fuc**ng horse, the way they play the fight song after every 3 yard gain and their less than upstanding way they’ve run their program over the years. But some of my greatest memories are ND/USC games.

      Navy is #2 because of the bond between the schools. MSU is #3 (the 1966 game was epic) and Stanford is #4. Michigan comes in at #5, so losing them is not a big deal in my mind. Easily replaced.

      • mcirish27 - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:11 AM

        I’m reminded of this article from a few years ago that has stuck with me since.

        Notre Dam’s Rival, Its Enemy, and its Friend –

      • oldestguard - Sep 6, 2013 at 1:37 PM

        Mc ….thats a great link. Thanks !

        Tommy will be the best QB on the field tomorrow night.

      • wisner74 - Sep 7, 2013 at 3:41 PM

        I’m late again to a conversation, but Nude I agree with you 100%. My only additional thought is that I would not like to see us drop Purdue. Lots of good history there, too.

    • dickasman - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:22 AM

      Dam nude you’re that old? I thought maybe you were in your late 30s but maybe it’s because you’re so dam handsome?

      Anyways I had USC #1, Michigan #2 Army/Navy Surplus Store/Air Farce #3. I’m not a fan of losing Michigan rivalry but if it means we get to play one of those hillbilly teams down south for recruiting purposes, so be it.

      • irish4006 - Sep 6, 2013 at 2:55 PM

        “…if it means we get to play one of those hillbilly teams down south for recruiting purposes, so be it.”

        The 1% of the time when you make people LOL.

      • wisner74 - Sep 7, 2013 at 3:43 PM

        5 thumbs down? C’mon guys, when dick actually comes up with a funny one (1% of the time) he really should get credit for it.

  6. jommy995 - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:59 PM

    I like it when posters criticize other posts instead of discussing ND football. That’s what makes this site so great. Sarcasm alert.

    • dickasman - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:24 AM


  7. dermmite - Sep 6, 2013 at 1:35 AM

    I didn’t read this article, but fuck it, it had to be good. On another side note we win Tomorrow 31-10. This game aint even going to be close. And you know what! Fuck all you haters who think I need to explain why we win with that score. Bitches always talkin shit!

    • dillonbigred - Sep 6, 2013 at 9:08 AM

      Good hearing from you!

    • dickasman - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:26 AM

      Dermmite, eazy on da fity sack soooon!

  8. yaketyyacc - Sep 6, 2013 at 6:43 AM

    so, we see that Notre Dame’s history is not only about football, but how the unexplainable success
    of a small Catholic university should cause such ill feelings, and promote a strong following among so many others.
    Fortunately, the ensuing years have seen the biting prejudice and bias melted by the sun of love and tolerance, so that Michigan-Notre Dame has become what is was meant to be, a contest between two very good academic universities.
    so may the best team win, and of course, that will be Notre Dame.

    • dickasman - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:30 AM

      Yekkety, you said it right there “small catholic”. Do you think we had any gay marriage/abortion approving/food stamp supporting fans back then as much as we have now?

      • irish4006 - Sep 6, 2013 at 2:57 PM

        You mean logical, reasonable people?

      • wisner74 - Sep 7, 2013 at 3:46 PM

        Are you drunk ALL of the time?

  9. joeymagarac - Sep 6, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    Per the article, “One rumor even suggested that the sewer system at Notre Dame was actually a gigantic arsenal filled with explosives and heavy artillery.”

    That one is actually true.

  10. bb90grad - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    So THAT’s why the heated tunnels under the quads kept snow from collecting in places (1985-1990). I thought it was just to keep the grubby Physical Plant workers out of sight (like Disneyworld)…

  11. ctfivula - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:35 AM

    I myself remember the very first ND football game I ever watched.
    I remember seeing “Rocket” run that punt back and getting so excited only to have the rug pulled out from under my feet in the end when it was called back.
    By now you all know what game I am referring to you know how long I have been a fan.
    That being said I would like to give my top rivalries for the Irish.

    #1- USC. No explanation needed, it was as if I was born to hate them.
    #2- Michigan. I just love this game. It is actually very close to number 1 for me. It may be that I grew up during a time when this game has had a lot of coverage but I just love it.
    #3- MSU. My hatred for sparty really started to take off during the Plaxico days.
    #4- Penn State. I know they haven’t played nearly enough games to constitute a rivalry for most people but there was just something about that snow bowl that made me want to see these two teams match up every year. Not to mention the last meeting between the two was my first ever live college football game. It was also Jimmy Clausens first game as a starter.
    #5- Navy. I grew up not really caring about this game but then all of a sudden they won a couple and I started to pay attention. I was also at the debacle in the Meadowlands a few years back. Awful Awful day. Pregame was pretty cool with the cadets and the flyover.

  12. irishdog80 - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    Going forward, every year we should play two games against B1G 10 foes on a rotating basis from a group comprised of Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan and Northwestern with one game being at home and the other on the road.

    • wisner74 - Sep 7, 2013 at 3:48 PM

      I’d love to see us play Bucky Badger once in awhile.

  13. seadomer - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    2 thoughts occupying me this week abt ND football

    1, Keith or anybody here that is close to the program, can you PLEASE contact the necessary person/s that plans for pregame meals. We want the same stuff served before the Oklahoma game and NOT the stuff before the NCG or the Purdue game last year.

    2. Also some surfing has led me to many “experts” that safely predict the score to be around the 20s with UM on top. eg 27-24, 24-21. The caveat is that most of these predictions come with TR throwing an interception plus another turnover somewhere. So I conclude that if we limit TO to 1 or less, it is our game to lose. Why has nobody predicted a UM TO?
    Besides super powerhouses Pitt and Bama, nobody cracked the 20s on us right? Good

    D: secondary is up, can the LBs hold the scrambling QB, front line still there.

    O: Looking promising in the sense that we are better … huh? Answer: DD, TJ, Troy, Cam, Amir and Gunz Bryant

    SO check this … 31 – 9 Defense comes to play this time!!!!!

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:45 AM

      i like it. if rees can spread the touches around, keep the LB(s) honest, I think Big Martin and Watt put the hurt on their side of the field.

      i seem to remember last year for the OK game ND getting no love from anyone, with even the most optimistic speculation calling for a close loss, and well, we know how that one turned out.

      i actually think it’s not even going to be as close as 31-9.

      • seadomer - Sep 6, 2013 at 7:53 PM

        Yeah …. I was going for 34 but seeing how we might miss a FG, left it at 31

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!