In the 1940s, if you asked an average American what was the greatest rivalry in college football, he likely would have said ND and Army. The teams played a lot over the prior twenty years and the game decided the national championship in many seasons, Forward pass, Gipper speech, Four Horsemen, they played the biggest game in the history of the sport in 1946. The series had lore and stakes higher than any other. Then it ended and people were stunned and appalled. And life went on.
In the 1980s ND and Miami was considered the most-heated rivalry in football. It was real hate between two excellent teams with huge stakes. It was a rivalry so big that it riveted the nation and ESPN still devoted a huge chunk of a documentary to it twenty years after the fact. It was all anybody talked about. Then it ended and people were angry and bemoaned its loss. And things went on.
Last year we learned how deeply Oklahoma thinks about Notre Dame's role in its history and how much they wanted to beat us. In the 1950s, at the height of its dominance, Oklahoma and Bud Wilkinson went 1-3 against Notre Dame, bookending their 47 game streak. There was a six year period during which Oklahoma's only losses were to ND. We had played Oklahoma once since 1968, yet their fans were more fired up for this game than any other. The papers ran for days in Oklahoma about its history with Notre Dame. Despite playing Oklahoma twice since the Johnson administration, Oklahoma clearly sees itself as having a special football relationship with ND.
The same with Alabama, against whom ND has played with three national championships at stake and with some classic regular season games. Likewise, Texas and ND have played with three national championships on the line and Texas folks remember those games and there is an important historical link between those two schools. That relationship is about to be redeveloped with who knows what future result.
In the 1970s into the mid 1980s ND and Pitt was one of the most important games in the nation, with the teams winning two NCs and each finishing in the top twenty most years. At that time it was one of the most-anticipated and watched games of the year. If you checked with Pitt, it would, in honesty, tell you ND is the main game on its schedule now that Penn State does not play them.
Navy. although they hardly ever beat ND and the series is completely lopsided, considers Notre Dame its biggest rival other than Army (and if you hooked people up to lie detectors, you might get a different answer from a lot of people). Boston College considers Notre Dame its number one rival.
Michigan State and ND have a special football relationship - it was one of the top rivalries in the nation from the late forties to the mid-sixties and they played one of the most famous games in history. They consider it a game they always want to keep.
Of course, there is USC, about which there is no doubt, and with whom we share a rivalry that has produced more national championships, Heisman winners and All-Americans than any other, along with five of the ten most-watched college football games in history. WIth less hate, parochial obsession and conference bile than Michigan-OSU or Alabama-Auburn, it towers over others in terms of actual historical impact.
Now Notre Dame is ending, at least temporarily, its series with Michigan. It has been a great rivalry with great games, great teams and a lot of hate. Like the series we have had and ended with Army and Miami, like the series we have with USC and MSU and like the series that have come, gone and come again with Oklahoma, Alabama, and Pitt.
The lesson to draw from all of this? Notre Dame creates great rivalries and historical connections with other schools because of our unique brand, historical quality and independent status. Some of these rivalries were planted over eighty games, some over thirty, some over ten, but all have history and heft and meaning and all stem from ND's unique and ever-changin profile as the lone independent national football school. No other team in the country can point to so many heated, significant and legendary relationships with so many other top football schools. It is what I like about our unique status. I am sure Michigan feels the end of this series as a loss, because other than Ohio State, they have not had a series of great rivalries/relationships with other top programs as ND has (with the possible exception of MSU, but many Michigan people I meet tell me that is not a rivalry).
In the end, Brian Kelly -- who has been a head coach for twenty-three years and should know -- nailed it. This is a rivalry that has had great games between great teams. But it is not one of those great historical rivalries for ND like USC, Navy or MSU that has been played for years and years. It is not a game we should or need to guarantee special protection for all time. It will go away for a while like Army or Miami and may come back in the future. Were ND to guarantee such protection to every series that was intense and a rivalry in a given period, then we would not have developed the historical profile we have as we have continually changed and added new and different opponents.
I think Swarbrick sees this as consistent with ND's history and important to our future, especially with the diminution of the midwest as a football, economic and demographic engine. ND will reignite old rivalries and develop new ones in its dynamic schedule - FSU and Texas look on the brink of creating a lot of history going forward with us. And we will continue with USC, which will be back on top soon enough and we will continue the developing rivalry with Stanford.
It will be harder for Michigan to get a game like Notre Dame -- one that is both so challenging and has such meaning for and interest to its fans. But that is why we are Notre Dame and they are not.