Staying power doesn't always last


So I flip on "SportsCenter" on Thursday morning, and there's No. 16 Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, live from the ESPN bus, talking about the last showdown with unranked Michigan on Saturday night.

This is an emotional rivalry in a sport fueled by emotion. I've covered quite a few of them on both campuses. I was there when Rocket Ismail proclaimed his stardom with two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 1989. I was there 20 years later when Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier threw the winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds to play.

We keep saying that college football is an oligarchy, ruled by the few over the many. Oklahoma has won the Big 12 eight times in Bob Stoops' 15 seasons.

Alabama stormed the palace in 2008, took it in 2009 and refuses to leave. In fact, the Crimson Tide leaves only when Auburn defies logic (coming back from 24-0 in 2010) or time (the Kick Six with :00 showing on the clock last season) to win the Iron Bowl.

Sounds right. The powerful stay in power.

Until they don't.

There's plenty of evidence to indicate that the majority of programs that have established themselves atop the sport throughout its history are coming up short these days. As far as staying power is considered, a decade may as well be a century. As we pointed out above, the Sooners have remained a power in their conference since 2000. But they are an exception.

Take Miami, which won five national championships in 19 seasons (1983-2001). The Hurricanes brought credibility to the Big East when they joined and took credibility away when they left. Miami joined the ACC in 2004, and the Hurricanes have yet to win the conference title. In fact, they haven't played in any of the nine ACC championship games. And if Monday's 31-13 loss to Louisville is any indication, they won't be playing in No. 10.

USC, the predominant power of the last decade, has yet to play in a Pac-12 championship game. Ohio State didn't make it to a Big Ten title game until last season, when they got run over by Michigan State. Granted, there have been only three such games in each conference. And both programs have suffered from the effect of NCAA punishment. But they are known as perennial powers in their respective leagues, and USC hasn't won a conference championship in six years, Ohio State in five.

All of which brings us back to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night. The Fighting Irish and the Wolverines conclude a stirring 35-year rivalry with a lot of fanfare and not much else. Tickets on the secondary market are more expensive than ever, an economics lesson in artificial shortage. If the Irish and Wolverines were playing next season, tickets wouldn't be so costly.

I'm like everyone else. I wish Notre Dame hadn't pulled the plug on the rivalry. There may come a time in the distant future when this rivalry is resumed, when more than bragging rights are at stake. But the truth is, Notre Dame and Michigan are groping about for national relevance.

It has been 26 years since Notre Dame won a national championship, nearly a decade longer than the previous longest drought (1949-66). How long ago? In 1988, Irish coach Brian Kelly was an assistant coach at Grand Valley State. How long ago? Four days after the Irish completed the regular season at 11-0 by defeating No. 2 USC 27-10, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was born.

Notre Dame stayed nationally relevant into the mid-1990s under Lou Holtz. They came back to the top five as recently as two years ago. But they have yet to make it clear they will stay.

It has been 17 seasons since Michigan won a national championship and that's not even the jaw-dropper. It's been 10 years since Michigan won a Big Ten championship. In the 10 years before that, Michigan won four Big Ten titles. In the 10 years before that, Michigan won six. In the 10 years ... you get the point.

So we say that college football is an oligarchy, because we know that the last 40 national championships have been won by only 22 schools. But there are some different names among the powers that currently be. Yes, Oklahoma and Alabama are there. But so are Oregon and Stanford. So is Baylor. Florida State has just returned to the top after a decade in the wilderness.

Michigan and Notre Dame will play for the last time in many years on Saturday night. It's a blow to anyone who likes neighborhood rivalries. But the national news being made has more to do with the end of an era than it does the top 25.

I hope that changes. College football is more fun when Notre Dame and Michigan are near the top. Trust me. I'm old enough to remember.