Michigan-Notre Dame latest casualty in conference realignment game

Six years ago, long before anyone had even heard the term "conference realignment," Jim Harbaugh reached inside his desk and pulled out a CD.

"Want to hear something kick ass?" Harbaugh asked in his first year as Stanford's coach, sliding the disc into his computer.

For the next 20 minutes, Bo Schembechler's voice boomed from back in 1988. It was a stunning and inspirational audio peek behind the scenes of one of the greatest college football rivalries.

"You let the crowd yell. Let Knute Rockne come down from the heavens. You let them all come. You remember, you are Michigan. There is no greater tradition in college football today than the uniform that you wear."

Former Michigan assistant Cam Cameron (now at LSU) had secretly recorded Bo's pregame speech before that year's Notre Dame game. Thank goodness.

"I always get chills up and down my spine," Harbaugh said that day.

Notre Dame won 19-17, but the result hardly matters. Part of that history and tradition -- those chills down Harbaugh's spine -- are slowly fading away. Notre Dame and Michigan will meet for the 41st and second-to-last time in the current series Saturday night in the Big House. The series was interrupted -- to be stopped for the time being after the 2014 game -- when Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick notified his Michigan counterpart Dave Brandon he was opting out of the contract.

A rivalry that goes back to 1887 was suddenly over until at least 2020. In its latest iteration, the teams have met each year since 2002 and regularly since 1978. No one knows for sure when they will play again, just that they won't on a regular basis after next season.

Michigan-Notre Dame, then, becomes the latest victim of that realignment, an unintended consequence of the league hopscotch that cost TV rights-holders millions of dollars in renegotiated deals and the commissioner/puppeteers who directed it, some of their dignity.

Already gone, if you haven't noticed, are Oklahoma-Nebraska, Texas-Texas A&M and Missouri-Kansas. There are no immediate plans for Miami and Florida to meet again after Saturday's game at Sun Life Stadium. From 1983 through 2008, those schools met 10 times and combined to win eight national championships. There are others but the fact remains those rivalries have been tossed aside like fast-food wrappers on the highway to realignment.

Do you care? Brian Kelly seemingly didn't when he called Michigan-Notre Dame "a big regional game." Notre Dame's coach tried to correct himself in his Tuesday press conference but the damage had been done.

"Coach Schembechler, when he was alive, would always say, 'This [Notre Dame game] is how you gauge your team,'" Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.

"No doubt about it," former coach Lloyd Carr said, "[Bo] wanted that game because he understood the history of it."

College football's traditions have taken a big hit since Jim Delany's December 2009 memo declaring the Big Ten was exploring expansion. That touched off a round of realignment that -- just this season -- involved about 20 teams changing leagues in FBS conferences.

"I don't think we foresaw the impact it would have as far as scheduling," Carr said. "It was done because of financial reasons. I think most people felt when they realigned it would make the intersectional games and rivalry games stronger."

Now it seems all future scheduling is based on a still undefined "strength of schedule" component to be considered by the still unnamed playoff selection committee. In essence, ADs and coaches are scheduling up for a system they don't completely understand.

It was a nice story in Week 1 with those eight FCS teams winning over FBS schools. But that should only serve as notice for some programs not to schedule them in the future.

It seems that once these traditional rivalries end, a whole new game begins: The blame game. Hoke famously said earlier this year that Notre Dame was "chickening out of" the Notre Dame series.

Kansas can't say it wants to play Missouri again because, in the Jayhawks' view, it was the much-hated Tigers who left them for the SEC.

"I love the rivalry," KU hoops coach Bill Self said as Missouri was contemplating its move, "[but] I can't imagine, why would we continue playing?"

And so, they haven't -- and won't for a while.

The end of Notre Dame-Michigan has a soulless, corporate feel to it. ND needed to clear its schedule because it is going to be playing five ACC teams annually in a scheduling agreement beginning in 2014. Traditional, ahem, rivals Stanford, Navy and Southern California are staying on the Irish schedule.

The final indignity for Michigan: The Wolverines are being dropped in favor of the likes of Wake Forest and Virginia.

The ACC gets a strength of schedule boost with the Irish matriculating through the league. Meanwhile, ND retains its independence.

"It's not a good trade-off because college football is built on those rivalries," Carr said. "The question down the road its, what does that do?"

It means that no rivalry -- none -- is safe in future realignment. The SEC has tried mightily to protect its traditional games. The 6-1-1 format remains in effect until at least 2016 pending a review. It gets way more complicated if, say, the league continues to expand.

A part of the game won't ever be the same. College football began in the second half of the 1800s as a meeting of like-minded universities within close proximity. Football -- and athletics in general -- was seen as a way to build the body and expand the mind for a nation with more time and disposable income on its hands. A concept called "Muscular Christianity" pushed the game along.

But these days geography -- that proximity that caused the game to thrive -- is out the window. West Virginia travels approximately 1,000 miles for its closest conference game in the Big 12. Those loyal Nebraska fans will be traveling almost 1,300 miles by car to Rutgers in the future. Chill, Huskers. It's only 1,200 miles to Maryland. The American Athletic Conference -- the football split of the Big East -- was once contemplating a coast-to-coast league that would stretch from San Diego State to UConn.

A rivalry formed in hate and familiarity in football-mad Texas shows no signs of being resuscitated. It seems almost ridiculous that Texas and Texas A&M, separated by only 107 miles, don't play anymore. The schools lasted through two conferences (Southwest, Big 12) but that hate finally became too much. Upset at Texas' perceived control of the Big 12, A&M bolted for the SEC in 2012.

Retired former A&M AD Bill Byrne is now so over the Texas rivalry that he believes a new antagonist has replaced the Longhorns.

"I don't sense any urgency [to play] any longer," Byrne said. "I hear from a few of them, our fans, right now. Texas A&M-LSU is going to be the rivalry game. That's a pretty damn good game."

So much for 118 years worth of history.

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