Alabama, Notre Dame present classic matchup
MIAMI — At a time when college football was generally considered the domain of eastern blue bloods, Notre Dame and Alabama were upstart teams that gave blue collar fans a chance to tweak the elite.
About 90 years later, the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide are the elite — two of college football's signature programs, set to play a national championship game Monday in Miami that could break records for television viewership.
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 1 Notre Dame. Even casual sports fans understand this is a college football classic.
“I think it's basically because they've won more national championships than anybody else, and they've been doing it since the '20s,” said Dan Jenkins, an award-winning sports writer and author who is also the historian for the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. “Plus they've had a bunch of gods coaching them.”
He's right. And to understand just how Notre Dame and Alabama became touchstones for their uniquely American sport, you have to look back to the 1920s, when beating an Ivy League team was a huge deal, and there was nothing bigger than playing in the Rose Bowl.
“Up to that point college football was important but only in the fall,” said Murray Sperber, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written two books about the history of Notre Dame football. “The fans tended to be only alumni of the schools and local middle class people.
“And that was true of Notre Dame before Rockne became coach.”
Knute Rockne was a Norwegian-born former end for Notre Dame, who helped his school to a head-turning upset of Army as a player and then took over as coach in 1918. He was media savvy, and intent on turning the football program into a national power. Part of his strategy: turning recent immigrants to the States, many of them Catholic, into Notre Dame fans.
Notre Dame was the college football team for the people who didn't go to college.
Yet for all the mythology and folklore around Notre Dame football, the biggest reason for its popularity was quite basic.
Few programs have won like Notre Dame. Alabama is one of them.
The Tide made a similar breakthrough in the 1920s under coach Wallace Wade. The Tide's big victory against the Ivy League came in 1922 against Penn.
“Back in those days, Alabama beating Penn was as surprising as if Penn were to beat Alabama today,” said Kirk McNair, who worked as sports information director for Alabama during the 1970s and now runs Bama Magazine.
The Fighting Irish went to the Rose Bowl in 1925 to play Stanford. Notre Dame beat Pop Warner's Stanford team, 27-10.
Alabama won the 1926 Rose Bowl, 20-19, against Washington, went back to California in 1927 and tied Stanford 7-7. The Tide then won three more Rose Bowls from 1931-46, losing one.
Alabama hit hard times in the mid-1950s, but fixed its problems by bringing home one of its own. Under Bear Bryant, Alabama dominated the SEC and won six national championships between 1961-79.
And Bryant remains one of the most well-known figures in American sports. And you don't have to be from Alabama to know “Roll Tide” is more than just rally cry.
But he never beat Notre Dame in four tries. Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said that always stuck with Bryant.
Holtz won Notre Dame's last title in 1988 and two years later the school inked a television contract with NBC to become the first school to have its own network television deal.
Both Alabama and Notre Dame went through hard times in the 1990s and early 2000s, trying to find the right coach to restore the magic.
Nick Saban arrived in Alabama in 2007, and the Tide have won two of the last three national championship and could become the first program to win three in four years since the BCS was implemented in 1998.
“I know there's a lot of national interest here because of two great programs that have tremendous tradition,” Saban said as he stepped off Alabama's plane in Miami. “We certainly respect that on both sides.
“It's really a special game to be a part of.”
Brian Kelly took over in South Bend three years ago, and like Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz before him, he has a chance to win a national title in his third season — against Alabama, no less.
The Fighting Irish against the Crimson Tide, a marquee matchup in any era.