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.

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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