They may be good, bad, glorious or depressing. But you have to admit, the Michigan-Notre Dame game will always give you memories.
Gary Moeller has memories. Five memories from five autumn afternoons when it seemed like the whole world was watching. Moeller was head coach of U-M from 1990 to 1994, which was the last time the Wolverines and Irish met.
A lot has changed since then. Neither Moeller nor Lou Holtz is in charge of those teams anymore. Neither man left under happy circumstances. Both will be working other jobs when the two football teams reunite Saturday.
But the memories, well, they never go away. And so I called Moeller at the Silverdome, where he now works as a linebackers coach with the Lions, and sure enough, we weren’t talking 10 seconds before he remembered everything — even the crowd noise.
Here then, on the eve of the return of a wonderful rivalry, some snapshots from the last man to lead the Wolverines against the Irish.
1990: Notre Dame 28, Michigan 24.
It was Moeller’s first game as Michigan coach. He began with a fumble.
“It was a handoff to Jon Vaughn in our new, no-huddle offense, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what am I trying to do here?’ ” he says. “We fumbled on our first play? I’m telling you, I was ready to junk the no-huddle right there. I finally decided to give it one more series.”
What if you had fumbled on the next series, I ask.
“Then the no-huddle would have been junked!”
Instead, the Wolverines began racking up yards and charged to a 24-14 lead. But the Irish came back and turned the tide on a late interception thrown by Elvis Grbac just as the Wolverines were about to score. The fans at Notre Dame Stadium rushed the field in celebration.
Moeller had seen first blood drawn.
1991: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 14.
Moeller returned the hurt in Year Two — thanks to a single play that Michigan fans have seen a million times.
Fourth quarter. Fourth down. One yard to go. Grbac takes the snap and, instead of handing off, he throws a high arching lob to the end zone. Desmond Howard hurls into the air, makes a diving catch, and 100,000 fans go nuts.
Now, the truth about that play.
“It was supposed to be a handoff,” Moeller says. “Just an off-tackle play. But Elvis knew that if they put too many men (up to stop the run) then he should throw a quick hitch to Desmond instead.
“But then he saw the cornerback rolling up. That almost never happens on that defense. So Elvis just changed the play and went over the top. I couldn’t see what was happening. At first, I expected the handoff, then, when he didn’t do that, I expected the quick hitch, then, when he didn’t do that it was like, no, no, nooooo …great play!”
1992: Michigan 17, Notre Dame 17.
Grbac seemed prone to interceptions in his games against Notre Dame, but none was harder to swallow than the one that sealed the fate of this clunker.
The Wolverines had blown a 10-point lead, but they had a chance to win in the fading minutes. They reached the Notre Dame 30 and were simply trying to get good position for a field goal. Then, disaster.
“It was supposed to be a bootleg in the flat to the tight end,” Moeller says.
“Instead, Elvis threw over the middle — and he didn’t have anyone there.”
The ball flew right into the arms of Notre Dame safety Jeff Burris — and with it went any hope of Moeller’s doing one thing he had yet to do: Win at Notre Dame Stadium.
1993: Notre Dame 27, Michigan 23.
The biggest disappointment of Moeller’s tenure. The Wolverines were behind, 24-10, by halftime, and seemed lax, dispirited and disorganized on defense. They were much higher ranked than the Irish (No. 3 vs. No. 11), but they played as if it were the opposite.
“It was our poorest outing against Notre Dame,” he says. “And it sort of set the tone.”
U-M finished 8-4 and out of the AP Top 20.
1994: Michigan 26, Notre Dame 24.
Moeller had always wanted to beat Notre Dame on the road, to make up for the crushing defeat U-M suffered in South Bend in Moeller’s first year back under Bo Schembechler in 1980.
Here, in what would be his final season as coach, he got his wish. Michigan came from behind in the final minute, drove downfield behind the confident arm of Todd Collins, and kicked a 42-yard field goal by Remy Hamilton to win the thing by two points.
“Just before the field goal, Notre Dame called time-out to try and ice our kicker,” Moeller says. “You’re not supposed to do that in college, but, heck, I would have done the same thing myself.
“I remember watching it go through, and that stadium got so quiet. And it felt so good, because back in 1980, when they beat us in the final minute, I never heard a stadium that loud. Never! And now here it was so quiet . . .
“Man, it felt good.”
You can hear Moeller smiling as he says that. Smiling, even though that was the last time he would get that feeling — smiling — even though it has to be bittersweet.
When people ask you how fierce this rivalry is, that’s your answer right there. Just the memory of winning can make the corners of your lips turn upward.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” from 7-8 tonight at B. Dalton’s in Westland Mall. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.