ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The reaction was simple, from Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon all the way down to former Wolverines players. When Notre Dame made the decision to pull out of the Michigan series for the foreseeable future, one thought kept popping up.
“I’m kind of disappointed that’s the direction they went,” former Michigan defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said. “I think it’s a great rivalry for the players to play in, the fans to get into it. We’re two of the most nationally well-known teams in the country and for that game not to be a part of college football is going to take away, I think, from both programs especially when it comes to strength of schedule out of conference [for Michigan].
“There are going to be a lot of negatives that ultimately outweigh the positives of the decision.”
For fans and families of players, it was an easy drive compared to some of the travel in the Big Ten or potential other non-conference destinations, such as Dallas this season or Oregon a few years back. For the athletic department, it signifies the end, for now, of a game between like-minded institutions that was an easy attention-grabber nationally and a good gauge for where a team might be in a given season.
For recent graduates, the Notre Dame-Michigan game ended up being one of the most exciting on the schedule. The past four games in the series have all been decided by a touchdown or less. Prior to Saturday’s 13-6 Notre Dame win over the Wolverines, Michigan had beaten Notre Dame in the final minute by four points in each of the prior three seasons.
“First night game at Michigan, comeback win with two seconds left on the clock,” Van Bergen said. “I feel like I’ll be able to turn on the TV when I’m 50 years old and it’ll be on somewhere, ESPN Classic. It’s one of those games, it’ll always be remembered and always be relived.”
But when Van Bergen is 50, there is a chance those playing at Notre Dame and Michigan will not play each other. Unfortunately, it is just the way college football has been trending since realignment started shuffling schools all over the place the past three years.
“It’s definitely something, as an alum, I don’t want to see,” said former receiver Greg Mathews, who caught a game-winning touchdown pass from Tate Forcier to beat Notre Dame in 2009. “I have vivid, vivid memories of many plays that players like Steve [Breaston] and Mario [Manningham] and other players have made in these rivalries.
“A lot of rivalries are getting lost within the landscape of college football and the conferences changing. I’d hate to see the rivalry go, but it is also an opportunity for a new rivalry to begin. But I’m definitely sad to see that one go. That’s a huge rivalry, man, and I have great memories of it.”
Not every alum had the same reaction. Former Michigan standout LaMarr Woodley wrote on his official Twitter page: “I guess notre dame is scared!!! cant (sic) blame ‘em.”
While it is likely more about Notre Dame’s move to the ACC in other sports and the five guaranteed ACC opponents the Irish will have to face this year than any sort of fear, there are other concerns.
If the shift in college football could end this rivalry, what else could happen throughout the sport.
“Subtle changes like this, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people but I think subtle changes like this make the game less recognizable for the people who have played,” Van Bergen said. “Guys who are 40, 50 years old and have always seen Michigan and Notre Dame play each other, to not have that anymore might cause disinterest in either program.
“It’s almost like the game is changing and it isn’t respecting what tradition is and what has happened in the past.”