Alabama and Notre Dame, two of college football’s most historically relevant programs, will have their “sitdown” in the Jan. 7 Bowl Championship Series final. They will settle the 2012 season’s national championship, but emotions around Miami’s Sun Life Stadium will have as much to do with history as this season.
Emotions leading up to the game — as shown by the surge of insulting T-shirts, concocted by both fan bases — have as much to do with history as this season.
The two programs have long histories of chasing well-earned national prestige, and each can’t help but envy the other’s share of the spoils.
Meanwhile, third-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly admits he has patterned his efforts to bring the Fighting Irish back to prominence after those of Alabama and other SEC programs.
These two titans, which play in two of college football’s most iconic uniforms, are becoming more alike, not less. Just don’t ask some to admit it.
Bring up Notre Dame to Alabama fans, and expect the recitation of Crimson Tide facts,
notably 14 (odds say going on 15) claims to national championships.
Bring up Alabama to Notre Dame fans, and expect a dish of 11 Irish national-title claims plus a 5-1 record against Alabama and seven Heisman Trophy winners to Alabama’s one.
Mention Notre Dame coaching greats Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz to Alabama fans, and expect to hear about Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant, Gene Stallings and Nick Saban.
Mention the television exposure and riches that Alabama and other SEC schools enjoy through CBS and ESPN, and expect Notre Dame fans to cough out three letters --- N-B-C. Both sets of fans might even call it the Notre Dame Broadcasting Company, Irish fans as a boast and Alabama fans mockingly.
Yes, Notre Dame gets to live the independent life, has enjoyed its own TV contract with NBC since 1991 and has its very own seat at the table of college football’s power structure.
If it were all about championships, Alabama fans might say, such privileges would be Alabama’s. Before this season, one could hear fans on Alabama airwaves, asking why the “Notre Dame rule” still exists in the BCS, given the Irish’s mediocrity in the BCS era.
So, there’s all of that.
Throw in clashes of Upper Midwest and Deep South cultures plus Protestant and Catholic religions, and one has … well, twins separated at birth?
Each growing a legacy of greatness in a country big enough for both to do it but too small for their egos to coexist?
These two programs not only coexisted through eras of greatness but also commiserated.
Alabama won just one national title between Bryant’s last in in 1979 and Saban’s first at Alabama, in 2009. From 1997-2007, the Crimson Tide suffered a decade of mediocrity stemming from coaching turmoil and the reaching effects of NCAA sanctions.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, endured nearly two decades of relative mediocrity, starting after Holtz’s 1993 team went 11-1. The program suffered its first NCAA probation in 1999, with some violations dating back to Holtz’s tenure.
As for coaching turmoil, Notre Dame had its run of Gerry Faust, Bob Davie, George O’Leary, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Alabama suffered Mike DuBose, Mike Price and Mike Shula and a quick exit from Dennis Franchione, his jump to Texas A&M linked to severe NCAA sanctions arising from violations that preceded his two-year tenure.
Like Price at Alabama, O’Leary never coached a game at Notre Dame. Price was fired in May of 2003, after reports of a wild night involving a strip club in Pensacola, Fla. Resume inaccuracies sank O’Leary’s 2001 hiring.
Factor in Alabama’s and Notre Dame’s parallel eras of NCAA problems and coaching sanctions, and no wonder it took almost to the end of the BCS era, which started in 1998 and will end in 2014, for them to meet for the BCS title.
Then, along came Saban, a Midwesterner, Catholic and the ultimate program rebuilder. In his sixth year at Alabama, has Tide on the verge of its third BCS title in four years. Alabama can become the first (and likely only) repeat BCS champion.
Saban is a Don James/Bill Belichick disciple but recently admitted to borrowing a lot from Bryant and Parseghian, whom Saban followed through his teens and early 20s.
Kelly, a New Englander and Catholic with 199 wins in 22 years as a head coach, needed just three years to get Notre Dame to its first BCS final. He did it by the model that helped SEC teams win the last six BCS titles, prioritizing defense in recruiting and staff hires.
Just look at Notre Dame’s defensive line. It looks and plays a lot like an SEC defensive line, and defensive line strength has long been seen as the hallmark difference between SEC teams and those in other conferences.
Starting ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Louis Nix even came from SEC states and were recruited by SEC schools. They key a 3-4 scheme, same as Alabama’s fronts under Saban.
It’s scary, how much alike Alabama and Notre Dame are. It’s scary, how much alike Alabama and Notre Dame have always been.
There are differences, but Alabama and Notre Dame are more alike than apart. Just don’t ask fans of either side to admit it, especially as their beloved teams ramp up to one of the most anticipated BCS finals ever.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.