Immersed in more than a century of rich history, U-M embraces Notre Dame rivalry

Football

In 2011, Roy Roundtree made his only reception against Notre Dame count.

With Michigan trailing, 31-28, quarterback Denard Robinson dropped back for one last shot to the end zone. He planted his back foot, looked Rountree’s way and threw a ball he knew only the redshirt junior receiver could catch.

Roundtree delivered. He hauled in a 16-yard touchdown pass on his back shoulder with two seconds left, propelling the Wolverines to a historic win in an age-old rivalry against the Fighting Irish. The catch erased a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and sent Michigan Stadium into a frenzy.

“(Roundtree’s catch) an icon in Michigan history, in the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry,” said fifth-year senior offensive lineman Jon Runyan. “There’s a lot of people that watch this game, and it’s something that kind of gives you chills when you think about it.”

As a capacity crowd of Michigan fans frantically waved their maize rally towels in celebration, Notre Dame walked off the field with heads hanging. Ed Warinner,  the Wolverines’ present-day offensive line coach, watched the legend unfold from the opposite sideline as a member of the Fighting Irish coaching staff.

“I remember being in that locker room across the hallway there in the tunnel and how we all felt after that,” Warinner recalled. “That was something. That was one of the greatest college football games of all time. … Man, what a great play. For the rest of his life, (Roundtree) is a hero.”

Today, the first thing Michigan players see upon walking into their own locker room is a framed portrait of Roundtree’s game-winning catch. Roundtree, now an assistant wide receivers coach with the program, works with Warinner on a daily basis eight years after making his heart sink.

For two schools whose history dates back to when U-M taught Notre Dame how to play football in 1887, the moment is an all-time icon. 

The rivalry didn’t truly begin until 1907, when Fielding Yost and his Wolverines left the Big Ten for a decade. Because of a rule that prevented Michigan from playing Big Ten teams while it wasn’t a member of the conference, U-M began playing games against the likes of Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State. The Wolverines eventually re-entered the conference in 1917, but not before forming a trio of new rivalries.

While the Buckeyes and Spartans ultimately joined the Big Ten, Yost became the reason the Fighting Irish did not. Nearly two decades after the rivalry first began, Yost infamously barred legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne from joining the conference after he sided with Illinois in a track and field argument against Michigan.

In response, Notre Dame established itself as a national brand by playing games in popular metropolitan areas across the country. As the Fighting Irish developed a reputation by playing local teams in cities like Los Angeles, Boston and New York, Catholic boys were raised with a desire to play football for Notre Dame. Never has there been a more effective recruiting pitch.

When the two nationally-ranked programs take the field on Saturday night, the latest chapter of a long history will be written. With the contract set to expire at the end of this season, it’ll be the final installment for the foreseeable future. No future plans have been finalized, though Harbaugh and multiple players voiced their support to extend the series on Monday.

To sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, that only raises the stakes.

“There’s a lot of tradition to it,” Hutchinson said. “We’re both traditional teams, we have a lot of rich history. It’s two top top teams in the country playing under the lights at the Big House — the stage doesn’t get bigger than that.”

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