Whether Notre Dame is chickening out or selling out for bigger and better; whether Michigan is sore for losing its third-biggest rivalry or sore that it's getting burned by an old foe, one thing is true: This game does matter.
This is Notre Dame, shrouded in its Touchdown Jesus and golden dome, against the University of Michigan and its liberal ways, its hash bash and its boldness. It's good versus evil, and the line could be drawn so many different ways.
It's Bo Schembechler deciding to kick to Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. It's Fielding H. Yost accusing Knute Rockne of using ineligible players. It's last-second touchdowns followed up by six-turnover games. It's a profound respect coupled with severe hatred.
These are two teams so deeply intertwined that even if they never play again inside Michigan Stadium after Saturday it will be one of the biggest rivalries college football has ever seen.
Michigan and Notre Dame first met in 1887. According to Notre Dame and Michigan student publications of the time, the Michigan football team taught Notre Dame how to play and explained the rules and regulations (after admiring the artwork of Notre Dame, of course). U of M, still new to college football and its own understanding of the game, traveled to South Bend on a whim while waiting for another game to be rescheduled.
The Wolverines won, and Michigan's paper, The Chronicle, remarked, "The grounds were in very poor condition for playing, being covered with snow in a melting condition, and the players could scarcely keep their feet. Some time had been spent in the preliminary practice; the game began and after rolling and tumbling in the mud for half an hour time was finally called, the score standing 8 to 0 in favor of U of M."
The two teams ate dinner together that night and Michigan went on its way to play Harvard -- then considered a much more suitable foe -- in Chicago the next day.
Sport is sport whether it is 1887 or 2013. Competition existed, and even in the early stages of a team there was a desire to win. So when Notre Dame wanted its first coach in 1894, it looked no further than the one who had taught it everything it knew, Michigan manager Charles Baird.
"We would be glad to have you come down and coach our team, say for a period of ten days," Notre Dame manager T.D. Matt Jr. wrote in a letter. "We have good material and only require the service of a good coach to make a first-class team. Believing that you will fill the requirements we address ourselves to you."
Baird, who acted in many regards like an athletic director, was just beginning his second year as the Wolverines' manager and chose not to leave Ann Arbor. Instead he sent one of his former players, James L.D. Morrison, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound tackle from Morrisonville, Ill. He was one of three tackles on Michigan's 1893 squad -- a team that went 7-3 but outscored its opponents 278-102.
Off Morrison went. Notre Dame paid him $40 for his services, and as the first true coach of Notre Dame football, Morrison led his team to a 3-1-1 record in 1894.
On Oct. 7, 1894, the day after he arrived in South Bend, he reported back to Baird.
Thanks old man for this position. I arrived here yesterday morning, and found about as green a pack of Foot ball [sic] players as ever donned a jacket. And I am afraid it will be a very hard matter to get up a good team. You can imagine the kind of a crowd it is when I tell you that Rosenthall that big lump of guts that was at Michigan last year is the most promising candidate at center. I am informed however that there will be some good men here during the week we play our first game next Saturday with Hillsdale, Mich. I am afraid we will get swiped mercilessly as I have as hard set to train as they want to smoke. And when I told them they would have to run and get up some wind they thought I was rubbing it in on them. Why yesterday I started them to chopping on the ball and one big strong cuss remarked that it was to [sic] much like work. Well maby [sic] you think I didn't give him hell. I bet you a hundred no one would make a remark like that again. But Charley I wish I could describe this place to you. It is about as darned a place as I ever fell into. But to tell you the truth I am in love with it. The college is about three miles from town. And I don't intend to go outside the grounds while I am here. I have a contract with them for two weeks at $40.00 + expenses. If you can give me any pointers in regard to plays be sure and do so. Give my love to all the old boys and tell them we who are not so fortunate to be with them expect wonders of them.
Your old friend,
The two friends had no idea what the game would eventually become -- a benchmark for coaches and players.
They could not have predicted it would be a relationship that would span generations. Yes, some it would skip, but for those fans who did not grow up watching it, their parents or grandparents did. And because it has always come back, eventually, there is still a belief it will never really be gone.
The schools, the academics, the history, the Midwest -- it's a bit of a mirror at the end of the day. Now, more than 100 years after Baird sent Morrison to South Bend, Brian Kelly and Brady Hoke -- two men brought up through the ranks of the MAC who know each other well -- will meet at midfield of Michigan Stadium one last time.
Because the rivalry is just like Morrison's first impression -- it can hardly be described. It is as darned a game as any college football fan has ever fallen into. And even if it's not played for five, 10 or 20 years, people will be in love with it.