By Steve Kornacki
Each day leading up to Saturday's (Sept. 6) Michigan-Notre Dame showdown in South Bend, Ind., MGoBlue.com will count down U-M's most memorable wins in the historic rivalry. The 1978 matchup, in which quarterback Rick Leach led the Wolverines to victory over Joe Montana and the Fighting Irish, kicks off things at No. 5 in our countdown.
Date: Sept. 23, 1978
Score: Michigan 28, Notre Dame 14
Rick Leach recalled Michigan coach Bo Schembechler recruiting him and other members of his class by telling them they would be the ones to rekindle the Notre Dame rivalry in 1978, and Leach ended up being the star of what has come to be known as the "Reunion Game," the one that reconnected the football giants after 35 years of separation.
Wolverines athletic director Don Canham and his Fighting Irish counterpart, Moose Krause, saw to it that the glamour game was rescheduled and the rivalry continued. But before the game two years ago, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon an envelope carrying the announcement that the Irish would opt out of the home-and-home series arrangement after the 2014 game.
And so at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the final game between these two in the foreseeable future of what has been a captivating series Michigan leads 24-16-1, will be played at Notre Dame Stadium.
"It breaks my heart," Leach said in a phone interview Monday from his home in northern Michigan. "And I think that people across America look forward to this game. But the politics of college football took over, and then their AD gives our AD a sealed envelope before that game. And that is how we found out it was over."
Does Leach think it will come back by popular demand at some point in time?
"No," he said, "I think Michigan is already well on its way to a home-and-home series with other strong programs. It's time to move on."
The Wolverines have a game scheduled with Florida and home-and-home series with Oklahoma, UCLA, Washington, Arkansas and Utah coming up. And schools such as Brigham Young, Colorado, Oregon State and Virginia Tech are on schedules over the next decade.
Gators, Sooners, Bruins, Huskies and Razorbacks will provide the non-conference pizzazz in the future. But 36 years ago, the buzz was all about the Wolverines and Irish meeting again.
"It's the most important non-conference game we have played at Michigan," said Schembechler, who emphasized each and every word in that sentence, according to Ann Arbor News sports editor Wayne DeNeff.
It was a matchup of the two most storied college football programs, and one that loomed big in that season's national championship picture.
It also had all the pageantry that could be desired with the two best fight songs providing a battle of the bands, and arguably the two best college quarterbacks that season -- Leach and Notre Dame's Joe Montana. Irish coach Dan Devine added to the hype by allowing his players to don the green jerseys they had worn the year before while blowing out Southern Cal.
Most Memorable U-M Wins vs. ND
No. 1: Released on Saturday
No. 2: Released on Friday
No. 3: Released on Thursday
No. 4: Released on Wednesday
No. 5: Leach Bests Montana, 1978
Montana struck first, with a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Grindinger, and Notre Dame had a 14-7 halftime lead in the game at South Bend, Ind. Leach's 4-yard run got Michigan on the scoreboard, but he was only 3-for-14 in the passing department at the half.
Leach did not practice the week before the game with an ankle injury that he said kept him from participating in everything except the Friday walk-through practice.
"I was held back a half hour after everyone else left after practices that week and had to exit a back door so nobody saw that I was hurt," Leach said. "Bob Ufer, our legendary announcer, was around, and I told him I wouldn't be able to play. And Bob cried! But I was just pulling his chain, and I told him I would find a way to play. I loved Bob. He gave me that nickname: 'The Guts and Glue of the Maize and Blue.' "
Leach was a four-year starter entering his senior year, and Schembechler went with him.
"Bo had a rule that if you did not practice on the hard days of practice during the week," Leach said, "you couldn't start. But he went with me. And I was not sharp and played a mediocre first half. At halftime, he took me into that little coaches' office at Notre Dame and basically called me every name in the book. He said, 'If you are worth your salt, you will perform. But if you aren't after the first two series of the second half, I will go with someone else.'
"Bo left that door cracked for a reason. Everybody on the team heard him, and they all came to me and gave me a hug. They said, 'To hell with them -- let's go after it.' And I went out and played better."
Leach ran the triple-option to perfection and maximized the results of six pass attempts by completing all but one of them and connecting for three touchdowns.
"We didn't play well at all in the first half," Schembechler said after that game, "but we came back and played excellent offensive football. We don't often trail at halftime like that. The thing was to come out and keep at 'em.
"There were a lot of kids out there who played their guts out that second half -- a lot. We will not wilt physically. All I know is we played Notre Dame, and we won."
And the left-handed quarterback who was one of Schembechler's all-time favorite players made the difference.
Leach hit tight end Doug Marsh for a 5-yard touchdown on a third-down play to tie the score in the third quarter. That opportunity came after Wolverines co-captain Jerry Meter, whose father played for Notre Dame in the last meeting between the schools in 1943, intercepted Montana and returned it 14 yards to the Notre Dame 34-yard line.
Then Leach connected with Marsh on a 17-yard pass over the middle to give the Wolverines the lead for good on the first play of the fourth quarter. Leach later hit speedy wingback Ralph Clayton for a 40-yard touchdown on a perfectly-timed post pattern route.
The quarterback's pleading with offensive backs coach Don Nehlen, who later led West Virginia to national prominence, brought about a change in strategy.
Leach said, "I told Don Nehlen, 'They are playing eight in the box!' Let me show run and go with some play-action passes.' He finally convinced Bo that it was the way to go, and all three of those touchdown passes came off play-action fakes."
Having running backs such as Harlan Huckleby (game-high 96 yards rushing) and Russell Davis and a strong line led by guard Jon Giesler, who was drafted in the first round by the Miami Dolphins the next spring, made it all possible.
Gregg Wilner's point-after attempt was blocked after one Michigan touchdown, and a two-point conversion play failed. However, tackle Curtis Greer, one of the finest defensive linemen in school history, tackled Montana in the end zone for a two-point safety to bring about the final score.
Greer also recovered a fumble as the Irish were driving for a possible touchdown in the third quarter that would've resulted in a two-touchdown lead for Notre Dame.
Montana ended up completing 16 of 29 passes for 192 yards, while Leach had eight completions in 20 attempts for 110 yards. But it was Leach who made the passes count, as Montana ended up factoring into only one touchdown.
Neither of the quarterbacks would win the Heisman Trophy and neither went high in the NFL Draft. Montana was the last pick of the third round by the San Francisco 49ers, and Leach went in the fifth round to the Denver Broncos.
However, Montana blossomed under the tutelage of San Francisco coach Bill Walsh and led the Niners to four Super Bowl wins while becoming one of pro football's greatest quarterbacks.
Leach ended up signing with the Detroit Tigers after they selected him in the first round of the baseball draft, and he played 10 years in the majors but never reached 300 at-bats in any single season. The outfielder-first baseman batted .268 with 460 career hits.
He didn't have much of a future in the NFL as an option quarterback, but did make the American Football Coaches Association All-America Team in 1978. Montana wasn't a first-team All-American on any of several teams selected, while Penn State's Chuck Fusina was the consensus All-America quarterback that season.
Montana and Leach didn't get a chance to talk after their game in the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry, but did become friends during preparation for the Hula Bowl All-Star game.
"We all played in that game -- me, Joe Montana and Chuck Fusina, who finished second to Billy Sims for the Heisman Trophy," said Leach, who placed third in Heisman voting. "And you can Google to see who the MVP was. But I think you are talking to him."
Leach laughed heartily after that punch line. He and North Carolina State running back Ted Brown were co-MVPs of that Hula Bowl.
Montana and Leach got to know one another better during the week leading up to San Francisco's first Super Bowl appearance and win at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1982. Niners offensive guard Walt Downing played with Leach at Michigan, and was looking for a place to get away from the madness of the week.
"So I had some of them over to my house in Farmington Hills," Leach said. "We had a great time. I told Joe, 'Just so your teammates know, I kicked your ass at Notre Dame!' Joe laughed and said, 'Well, one thing is for sure. If you were such a good football player, you would not be playing pro baseball right now.'"
Still, Leach will always having bragging rights on Montana.
"Ever since I played," Leach said, "Michigan players are asked about how they did against Notre Dame and Ohio State. And what I am most proud of is that I was the quarterback in 1978, when we went to Ohio State and beat them. And we went to Notre Dame, and beat them."
No. 5 Most Memorable Notre Dame Win, 1988: Reggie Ho's fourth field goal with 1:13 to play makes the Irish 19-17 winners after U-M's Mike Gillette misses a 48-yard field goal on the final play.