Title game steeped in passion, history
When Notre Dame is atop the polls, the hot dogs are tastier, the popcorn is fresher and even the December sky is a little more blue-gray. And when No. 1 Notre Dame will play No. 2 Alabama for the BCS national championship, it pretty well checks off all the boxes, doesn't it?
Think Celtics versus Lakers or Tiger versus Phil. It doesn't happen often. But when it does, America responds. Check the TV ratings. Check your pulse. There are other methods of checking. If the measuring stick is Associated Press national championships, the trophy valued for the longest time, then Notre Dame and Alabama are the top programs in the sport. Since 1988, Notre Dame has been stuck on eight. Alabama, with two in the past three seasons, also has eight.
If the measuring stick is scoring defense, the Fighting Irish are first (10.33 points per game); the Crimson Tide are second (10.69). And if the measuring stick is historic touchstones, the Irish and the Tide are ready. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will try to join Frank Leahy (1943), Ara Parseghian (1966), Dan Devine (1977) and Lou Holtz (1988) as Irish coaches who win the national championship in their third season.
The math for Alabama head coach Nick Saban is a little less circumstantial. The Tide are in line to become the first team since Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997) to win three national championships in four seasons, not to mention extend the streak of No. 1s from the Southeastern Conference to seven.
But Notre Dame and Alabama have even more in common. For instance, no two schools stir more passions than the two that will play at Sun Life Stadium in Miami on Jan. 7. If fans aren't tired of Alabama being at the top, they are at wit's end with listening to the chants of "SEC! SEC!"
Notre Dame's return to prominence has revived the long-ago geographically incorrect term Subway Alumni, describing the fans who never attended class beneath the Golden Dome. But the Irish's march to the top of the BCS also has rekindled the fire beneath the legions of haters and dismissers who have had so little to revile during the Irish's nearly two decades of mediocrity.
Alabama fans shouldn't be included in that latter group. The dislike of Notre Dame among Alabama fans is rooted in history. Those who recall the '60s and '70s can confirm, to quote noted sports writer William Faulkner, that the past isn't even past.
Alabama coaching icon Bear Bryant went 0-4 against Notre Dame, four losses by a total of 13 excruciating points. It began with the 1973 Sugar Bowl, the first game between the two schools, when the No. 3 Irish defeated the No. 1 Tide 24-23.
"(I)f you saw the game," Bryant wrote in his autobiography, "you had to believe you were seeing football the way it ought to be played, college, pro or whatever. I don't really consider it a loss. We just ran out of time."
The Irish came from behind three times to win the game, sealing it when Tom Clements completed a third-and-8 pass out of his own end zone to reserve tight end Robin Weber for 35 yards in the final two minutes. Birmingham sports writer Herby Kirby -- yes, that was his name -- filed his story and collapsed, dead from a brain aneurysm.
Notre Dame won again 13-11 in the Orange Bowl a year later in Parseghian's last game. The Irish won a home-and-home between the two schools in 1976 and 1980. Alabama broke through to win in 1986, and the series stands 5-1 in favor of Notre Dame. That tally doesn't include the defeat that still galls Tide fans because it didn't happen on the field.
In 1966, when No. 1 Notre Dame played No. 2 Michigan State to a 10-10 tie and won the national championship, the team that felt most cheated was 11-0, No. 3 Alabama. Author Keith Dunnavant wrote a book about that season in 2006. It is called "The Missing Ring."
Dunnavant wrote that Alabama and Notre Dame had more in common than most fans realized. Each school had used football to overcome prejudices. In the first half of the 20th century, much of America didn't like Notre Dame because it was Catholic, and didn't like Alabama because it was Southern.
"Despite the common thread, however," Dunnavant wrote, "the two institutions occupied starkly different positions in American society in 1966, symbolizing the cavernous divide between North and South, between integration and segregation, between the scorn of the dominant media culture and the embrace of the dominant media culture."
Those aren't the echoes that Notre Dame meant to wake up. But they will add to the noise that will reverberate across the college football landscape for the next five weeks. Notre Dame and Alabama haven't played each other in 25 years. It's about time.