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Brian Kelly is Right: UM-ND Is Overrated

By Chris Mahr

College football traditionalists want no business hearing this, but Brian Kelly is right.

Notre Dame’s head football coach told the Chicago Tribune on Sunday that he doesn’t view the Fighting Irish’s games with Michigan as “one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries” but rather as “one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played” (he later backtracked).

The Irish’s decision to suspend the series after 2014 has been blasted by, among others, Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke. ESPN talking heads Mark May and Skip Bayless deemed Kelly certifiably insane for downplaying the game - albeit while getting their facts wrong.

But are we giving this “all-time great rivalry” more credit than it deserves?

Kelly didn’t completely undersell the games staged between college football’s two all-time winningest programs. Not even he can deny the great moments that transpired between the two schools.

There were Reggie Ho’s five field goals for the Irish in 1988. The next year, there were Rocket Ismail’s back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns. There was Desmond Howard’s 1991 4th down catch. In 1994, Remy Hamilton made himself a Wolverines hero for life with his game-winning, 42-yarder with two seconds left. In the series’ four most recent installments, we’ve been treated to heroics from Tate Forcier (2009), Denard Robinson (2010 and 2011) and Manti Te’o (2012).

But a great rivalry needs more than great moments. It needs to count for something more. And I don’t completely blame Kelly for not seeing that extra something.

Especially when you consider the following three factors:

No. 1: Lack of History

 

On Tuesday, both May and Bayless blasted Kelly for his disregard of the rivalry, with both mentioning how they “grew up watching the game.” This despite the fact that neither May nor Bayless did. When Notre Dame and Michigan met in 1978 — at which point May was 19 and Bayless was 26 — it had been 35 years since they had played one another.

It might feel like the Irish and Wolverines have played each other forever, but they haven’t. While the first installment of the rivalry was all the way back in 1887, the two teams have only played each other 40 times since then — all the while many rivalries around the country have enjoyed their 100-year anniversaries.

In fact, this upcoming hiatus marks the fifth time that Notre Dame and Michigan have opted to take a break from one another. Does that sound like something that rivals would do to one another even once, let alone five times?

No. 2: Timing

 

The best college football rivalries always have a make-or-break quality to them. That’s because they’re more often than not scheduled on the last week of the regular season.

Michigan has such a rivalry ... but with Ohio State. Their annual-for-now “grudge match” with Notre Dame has customarily been staged in September, before the season starts to truly warm up. While neither side likes to relinquish bragging rights to the other with a loss, their seasons are far from ruined if they suffer defeat.

When there’s nothing to play for other than bragging rights, how can this be considered a great rivalry?

No. 3: Lack of Hatred

 

Have you ever heard a Notre Dame fan express all-out hatred toward Michigan or vice versa? They are far from bitter rivals.

Perhaps more than any other sport, college football is fueled by the enmity rival teams and their fan bases have for one another. We live for those types of matchups when the players are yapping at one another, when the coaches are trash-talking via the media in advance of gameday and when fans get into scuffles in the stands.

The Irish and Wolverines don’t fight with one another in that regard, they fight over which program boasts more tradition because they are so similar. And it’s the same arguments every year. Rockne or Yost? Ismail or Howard? “Victory March” or “Hail to the Victors”? Golden domes or winged helmets? Notre Dame Stadium or “The Big House”?

Every year, the focus is more on the past than it is on the present. That’s not what a true rivalry should be.

It’s obviously sad to see an end to any rivalry game. It doesn’t feel right that Oklahoma no longer plays Nebraska, Texas no longer plays Texas A&M and Pitt no longer plays West Virginia. But unlike Notre Dame-Michigan, those rivalry matchups (and others) were bound by despising one another and high-stakes games in addition to being rich in history.

Brian Kelly’s rationale may be unpopular, but it was spot-on. Should we be mourning the loss of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry when, in many ways, it’s not a rivalry to begin with?

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.

Top Photo Credit: Matt Cashore/USA Today Sports

 
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