Craig Chval ‘15
While walking around Ann Arbor last year, I’m not sure I saw a Michigan fan who didn’t make some sort of chicken sound.
It was invariably accompanied by a guffaw and high fives from surrounding bros as if they had just nailed an SNL monologue. Who would have thought that fan base would so uniformly latch onto a juvenile sound bite?
And of course everyone remembers the “Chicken Dance” celebration played at the end of last year’s game. The phrase and its ubiquity in Michigandom began when head coach Brady Hoke told a group of fans in Grand Rapids that Notre Dame was “chickening out” of the series.
Notre Dame fans are familiar with the way the ending of the series was announced in 2012, with Jack Swarbrick giving Dave Brandon a letter on the sideline exercising the option to cancel future matchups after 2014, a provision of the teams’ contract.
Despite facts to the contrary, the storyline became that Notre Dame “chickened out.”
Let’s examine that claim.
The chain of events that led to the cancellation stretches well before 2012, and starts with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. It all began in December 2009 when he announced the Big Ten was looking to add a 12th member.
That new school turned out to be Nebraska, and in August 2011 the Big Ten announced a move to a nine-game conference schedule. That December Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon reaffirmed an immutable attachment to a seven-game home schedule.
“‘We have a clear scheduling principle of having a minimum of seven home games each year,’ he wrote. “‘And that will not change.’”
Having a huge imbalance of home games is a Michigan tradition they would never abandon. In its history Michigan has played 773 home games and 434 road games. That is a 64/36 split. No wonder they have the second highest win percentage in college football despite not winning a consensus national championship since 1948.
(Despite playing considerably fewer seasons of football, Notre Dame has actually played more total road games than Michigan.)
The problem with a seven-game home schedule is this: when you play nine Big Ten home games, some years you will have five conference road games. That leaves no room for a non-conference road game, which means you can play one team at home that year and play that same team on the road the next year.
You can offer no return home games to your other two non-conference opponents, so they must be progams satisfied with a large money guarantee in lieu of a return game at their stadium. With a nine-game Big Ten schedule and seven-game home schedule, Michigan can only play one major non-conference team a year.
This makes Michigan money, but also creates the problem of having a home schedule that causes attendance problems. This year, the visitors to Michigan Stadium (before the Big Ten’s move to nine games) are Appalachian State, Miami (OH), Utah, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana, and Maryland.
Having the same decent non-conference team on the slate for all eternity probably wouldn’t sit well with Michigan, especially if said opponent is in a neighboring state. As Michigan taught us when they got the other Big Ten schools to boycott us in Rockne’s days, playing a national schedule can be pretty advantageous.
So the continuation of the series looked dubious at best before the Big East imploded. In early 2012 – before Notre Dame joined the ACC – the prospects looked pretty bad.
"What I personally know at this point is that we’re going to play for the next three years," Brandon said. "I don’t have any control over what Notre Dame may be thinking moving forward beyond that. And the world is changing pretty rapidly. All I can assure you of is we’re going to play them the next three years."
Complicating the matter was Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany’s hope that Notre Dame would finally join his conference, winners of 1.5 national championships among its various teams since 1970. Notre Dame itself has, of course, won twice as many.
When the ACC deal happened instead on Sept. 12, the chances of a series renewal were essentially zero, with the final games of the current contract in doubt. If Notre Dame canceled the series by that year’s game 10 days later, the final matchup would be in 2014 at Notre Dame Stadium. If Swarbrick waited – or let Michigan cancel the series – Michigan would host the last game in ’15.
The cancellation was pretty much a fait accompli, and Swarbrick was the one to officially cancel the remaining games due to the timing of the contract. He also didn’t “end the series” – he canceled the games from 2015-’17.
For the sake of argument…
…let’s say that Michigan had no plans to cancel the series. Let’s say on September 23, 2012, Michigan was completely willing to renew the contract for 100 years.
By dropping Michigan, Notre Dame was actually upgrading their schedule.
Since Jack Swarbrick abandoned Kevin White’s own seven-game home schedule in 2011, Notre Dame has averaged three historically top programs** on its schedule.
2011: Michigan, USC
2012: Michigan, Miami, Oklahoma, USC
2013: Michigan, Oklahoma, USC
2014: Michigan, Florida State, USC
Obviously, Michigan’s a staple on that list. What about after this season?
2015: Texas, USC
2016: Texas, Miami, USC
2017: Georgia, USC, probably Florida State
2018: USC, possibly Miami
2019: Texas, Georgia, USC, possibly Miami
2020: Texas, USC, possibly Florida State
Notre Dame is still looking at around three top teams on its schedule each year. That doesn’t include Stanford or Clemson, two historically second-tier programs that have played very well in recent years.
Texas, Georgia, Miami, and Florida State will fill the void left by Michigan. Their combined record over the last six seasons? 215-100 (.683). Michigan’s? 41-35 (.539). That also doesn’t include the future series with Ohio State.
From 2015-2024 Michigan is currently scheduled to play one nonconference game against college football’s top teams - a neutral site matchup with Florida in 2017.
Why play Texas and Georgia when you can play Minnesota and Indiana at home every year?
Yeah: we’re “chickening out.”
**If we go by win percentage among major teams, the historically top college football programs are Notre Dame, Michigan, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas, Alabama, Nebraska, USC, Tennessee, Florida State, Penn State, LSU, Georgia, Miami, Auburn, and Florida.