TIM DAHLBERG,AP Sports Columnist
Brady Hoke was talking the way football coaches do, the way university presidents can’t. Imagine, if you will, the snickering in academia if Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman, a biochemist by trade, accused her counterparts at Notre Dame of chickening out on a science fair.
Might as well go all the way and tell them their pocket protectors are two pens shy of a full load.
But when you’re the football coach at Michigan you can say pretty much anything you want to say — as long as you beat Ohio State more often than not, that is. So when Hoke suggested the other day — perhaps only half-jokingly — that Notre Dame was chickening out by abandoning its football rivalry with the Wolverines, a lot of Michigan faithful could only smile and nod in agreement.
“They’re still going to play Michigan State, they’re going to play Purdue, but they don’t want to play Michigan,” Hoke said. “I don’t know how they made that decision.”
Well, Brady, nobody really knows how Notre Dame makes any of its decisions. But dropping a rivalry against the university that played the Irish in ND’s first-ever football game in 1887 would seem to be a mistake at first blush. The university pretty much does what it wants when it comes to football, without even bothering with a hint of white smoke coming from the stadium to signal what was done.
Still, it seemed pretty clear that with major commitments to meet as a new, though limited, member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame’s dance card was increasingly full and something had to go besides traditional games against Boston College and Pittsburgh. It sure wasn’t going to be the annual tilt with Southern California that is so important to Notre Dame’s recruiting.
Turns out, the Michigan contract was the easiest one to cut. Nothing more than a business decision, as most everything is in big time athletics these days.
Maybe it was just the way the Irish went about it that got Hoke talking.
One arrogant football powerhouse dismissing another arrogant football powerhouse. No thank yous for past games, or promises of future rewards.
Just a letter from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed to Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon about an hour before last year’s game in South Bend. Brandon was so focused on the game he didn’t even read it until the next morning, when the Wolverines were headed home.
“Because I am providing you with this notice prior to the commencement of this year’s football game on September, 22, 2012,” Swarbrick wrote, “there is no liability to Notre Dame for cancelling those games.”
With that, Notre Dame got itself off the hook, financially. A bit sneaky, sure. But college football is a business, no matter what the cabal behind the bowl system formerly-known-as-the-BCS wants you to believe. And there is no one that does football business better than Notre Dame, which even in its leanest years was always on Saturday afternoons on NBC under a lucrative contract other schools could only dream about.
The Irish are headed to the ACC with a sweetheart deal no other school could get, either. But it comes with a catch — ND must play at least five football games against ACC opponents each year, even as it retains its status as an independent.
The Notre Dame schedule is still loaded with big games because it is Notre Dame and that’s what the alumni expect. But when you’re so powerful you can pick and choose, there’s no reason not to pick and choose.
“The math is pretty simple for us,” Swarbrick said Wednesday at the ACC spring meetings.
It’s not just Notre Dame, of course, that’s messing with tradition. Conference realignments have either diminished or eliminated some rivalries, including the matchup between Texas and Texas A&M that stretched 118 years until last season. The frenetic search for every last dollar in the college arms race has forever altered football and basketball, and not necessarily for the better.
There is nothing pure about college football anymore; little left to separate it from the pro game except the players don’t get paid. It’s a business, and the best businesses are the ones that generate the most cash.
But the idea that Notre Dame is afraid to play Michigan is absurd, as Hoke himself surely realizes. Almost as absurd as saying the termination of the series is in revenge for Michigan canceling it in the first place in 1910 after, accusing the Irish of using ineligible players. Save for a couple of wartime games, the series didn’t resume until 1978, so it’s not as if the two teams have been battling each year since Michigan won the inaugural game in 1887 by an 8-0 score.
Yes, college football would be a better sport if Michigan and Notre Dame continued to square off every year. And, yes, Michigan probably had its feelings hurt by being summarily brushed aside by the Irish with little explanation.
But, no, Notre Dame didn’t chicken out of a game with Michigan. If anything, what the Irish did was sell out to the highest bidder.
Unfortunately, this isn’t 1887 anymore. And that’s the way college football works these days.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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