UM, ND fighting to return to prominence
Sixteen years ago, No. 6-ranked Michigan upset No. 3 Notre Dame 26-24 on Remy Hamilton's 42-yard field goal with two seconds left at Notre Dame Stadium.
While it might seem hard to believe, it was the last time the Fighting Irish and Wolverines played when both teams were ranked in the top 10.
On the day Hamilton's kick knocked Notre Dame out of the 1994 national championship race, Brian Kelly and Rich Rodriguez were coaching teams in college football's lower divisions.
Kelly was in the fourth season of what would be a 13-year career as coach of Grand Valley State, a Division II school in Allendale, Mich.
Rodriguez was in his fifth season at Glenville State College, an NAIA school in Glenville, W.Va.
Neither coach enjoyed a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, but Kelly and Rodriguez are now in charge of restoring pride at two of college football's most storied programs.
Kelly is in his first season as Notre Dame's coach; Rodriguez is in his third season at Michigan.
The winner of Saturday's game between the Fighting Irish and Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium will take a big step toward bringing back one of the sport's traditional powers.
"I think there is a definite sense of urgency around this place that everyone kind of identifies with," Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist said. "We don't have time to sit around and wait and see where this thing can go in a couple months or couple years. Everyone on this team wants to win right now. The coaches want to win right now."
Kelly and Rodriguez have more in common than their small-school roots. Each coach is considered one of the game's brightest offensive innovators and employs a spread attack. Kelly won multiple league championships at his previous two schools, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Rodriguez had West Virginia on the brink of playing for a national championship before leaving for Michigan.
The coaches even share the same financial advisor.
"I'm sure coach Kelly would tell you the same thing: It was invaluable coaching at the small school level because you get an appreciation for all of the stuff that you have to do running a college program," Rodriguez said. "Back then, my wife was in charge of painting the logo on the field and putting together the video highlights for the team. The assistant coaches were also the strength coaches and the equipment managers, as well."
More than a decade later, Kelly and Rodriguez awake each morning facing as much pressure as any coach in the country.
When Kelly was hired as Notre Dame's coach in December, he immediately talked about a "five-minute plan" in rebuilding the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988 and hasn't won a New Year's Day bowl game since defeating Texas A&M 24-21 in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.
But Notre Dame's recent struggles haven't diminished its fans' expectations. After Kelly guided the Fighting Irish to a 23-12 victory over Purdue in last week's opener, he was asked about being a white knight who would return the program to national prominence.
"Oh, yeah, exactly," Kelly said. "I couldn't put it any better.
"What is a white knight anyway? Look, I took on the challenge at Notre Dame because I want to see this program back to where I believe it should be, and that's amongst the elite of college football. We've got some work to do. We are not there yet, believe me. Trust me. But we took a step today, and we are going to keep pounding at it and working at it."
While Kelly's "five-minute plan" has Fighting Irish fans already brimming with confidence, Rodriguez's first two seasons at Michigan seemed more like five years. Rodriguez's teams went 8-16 the past two seasons combined, and the Wolverines are awaiting punishment from the NCAA for alleged rules violations committed under his watch.
But for one week, at least, the frustrations of Michigan's struggles the past two seasons were forgotten. The Wolverines routed Connecticut 30-10 in last week's opener, and their offense finally resembled the high-powered attack Rodriguez used while leading West Virginia to five consecutive January bowl games from 2003 to '07.
In his first game as Michigan's starting quarterback, sophomore Denard Robinson had 383 yards of offense and scored two touchdowns. His 197 rushing yards set a single-game record for a Wolverines quarterback.
"Denard Robinson is looking just like Pat White," Notre Dame cornerback Darrin Walls said, comparing Robinson to the former West Virginia quarterback.
Robinson's debut at least gives Michigan fans hope that Rodriguez's third season will be better than the first two.
"I have a lot of concerns because we are so young still and we are still getting beat up and we are still losing guys," Rodriguez said. "We have not even got into the Big Ten portion of our schedule, so we have a lot of concerns."
Rodriguez remembers all too well how fast high hopes can be dashed. Last season, the Wolverines won their first four games, including a 38-34 victory over Notre Dame in Ann Arbor, before losing seven of their last eight games.
The Fighting Irish won four of their first five games in 2009 before losing five of their last seven. Former coach Charlie Weis was fired after finishing 6-6 in his fifth season.
"Obviously, if you look back on the last couple seasons we've been here, we've come out fast in our first game, and even the second game," Notre Dame junior tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "We've always had kind of a bump in if the road early in the year, and this will be a great opportunity for us to get things rolling and build momentum into the season."
On Saturday, one of college football's greatest rivalries takes center stage once again.
The winner moves closer to returning to national prominence again. The loser takes yet another step back.
"We understand the rivalry and how big it is, but we're focused on another game and just beating Michigan," Walls said. "It's not about the rivalry; it's about us and winning, so I think that's where our minds are."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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