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January 6, 2013
Alabama, Notre Dame rich in history
Alabama football is Johnny Mack Brown and Don Hutson, Joe Namath and John Hannah, Derrick Thomas and Julio Jones.
Notre Dame football is the Four Horsemen, Johnny Lujack and Paul Hornung, Joe Montana and Tim Brown.
Alabama is Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, Gene Stallings and the latest great to walk the sidelines in Tuscaloosa, current coach Nick Saban.
Notre Dame is Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly, the coach who has awakened the echoes in South Bend, Ind., in his third year as head coach.
Alabama is handprints in the concrete at Denny Chimes, Bryant's tower overlooking the practice field and the Walk of Champions.
Notre Dame is Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome and players touching a sign that says "Play Like a Champion Today" as they exit the locker room.
Alabama's legend includes the wishbone surprise against Southern Cal, the goalline stand against Penn State, Van Tiffin's kick to beat Auburn and Terrence Cody's blocked field goal against Tennessee.
Notre Dame's memorable moments include winning one for the Gipper, Tom Clements passing out of the end zone against Alabama, Rudy and the Catholics vs. Convicts win over Miami.
Between them, the University of Alabama and Notre Dame claim 25 national championships, both dating back to the 1920s - the Crimson Tide with 14 and the Fighting Irish with 11.
That total will be increased by one tonight when Alabama and Notre Dame engage in a titanic clash in Miami Gardens, Fla., in the BCS National Championship Game.
This is the Mother of All Bowl Games, in keeping with the rich histories and traditions that will collide on the turf of Sun Life Stadium. If college football had a Mount Rushmore, the only sure thing is that Alabama and Notre Dame would each have a place on its face.
"They're both on it for sure," said Rece Davis, a college football analyst for ESPN since 1995 and, incidentally, a UA graduate. "You've got two teams that are among the ethereal realm of programs all-time."
For all their national championships, all their Hall of Fame players and coaching greats, Alabama and Notre Dame have crossed paths relatively few times. And it is Notre Dame that has the edge head-to-head, five wins to one.
The first meeting, naturally, was epic. Notre Dame defeated the Crimson Tide 24-23 on Dec. 31, 1973, in the Sugar Bowl to end a season in which each team, ironically, won a national championship.
Alabama was awarded the United Press International title, voted by coaches, in the final year that voting took place before the bowl games. The Fighting Irish, by virtue of winning the showdown of undefeateds, finished No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll.
A game that saw six lead changes was sealed in the final minutes when Clements, on third-and-8, passed out of his end zone for a 35-yard gain to tight end Robin Weber.
UA came up short again in the Jan. 1, 1975, Orange Bowl, which Notre Dame won 13-11, and in 1976, with the Fighting Irish taking another close victory by a 21-18 margin in South Bend, Ind.
Alabama lost 7-0 at Birmingham's Legion Field in 1980 before UA finally got the upper hand in the next meeting. It came on Oct. 4, 1986, with Alabama winning 28-10 in Birmingham in a game highlighted by Cornelius Bennett's crushing sack of Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein.
The Fighting Irish bounced back to win 37-6 the next season on their home field in the last meeting between the teams until the Bowl Championship Series set up tonight's matchup.
While the two college football titans have spare head-to-head history, they do have an important figure in common. Frank Thomas, who coached Alabama to two national championships, played quarterback at Notre Dame under Rockne.
"I don't say this lightly, and I'm not a hype guy," said Doug Walker, UA's associate athletic director for communications and a former Notre Dame football media relations director, "but the history of these two programs, and really the linkage of these two programs, you have two programs with that complete mixture of factors - not just great traditions on their own and great championship heritages on their own, but there's linkage there. 'Bear' Bryant is in the Knute Rockne family tree because of Frank Thomas. It's remarkable."
Mal Moore, a longtime UA assistant coach and now the school's athletic director, served as an assistant coach at Notre Dame from 1982 to '86. He recalls fondly in the 2001 book "I Remember Paul 'Bear' Bryant," by late former Tuscaloosa News sports editor Al Browning, how he was given a tour that included a stop to see a letter Bryant had written to Notre Dame after the historic 1973 national championship showdown, congratulating the Fighting Irish and paying homage to the winning traditions at both schools. The framed letter was on display at the athletic department's Heritage Hall, under a photo of Bryant. Moore also remembered the school's president at the time showing off a houndstooth hat given to him by Bryant.
"I don't think a day passed that I wasn't asked about Coach Bryant," Moore told Browning. "The people at Notre Dame constantly expressed love for Coach Bryant."
If Alabama fans of a certain age harbor long-held resentments against Notre Dame, however, it has more to do with two seasons when the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish didn't even play.
In 1966, Alabama capped an undefeated season with a 34-7 whipping of Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, but finished third in the final rankings. The national title was split between Notre Dame and Michigan State, who had played to a 10-10 tie in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in November, leaving Crimson Tide fans frustrated with the voting of sports writers and coaches alike.
Those frustrations were compounded when Notre Dame leapfrogged Alabama in the final poll to win the 1977 national championship in a season where the top five ranked teams all finished with one loss. The Fighting Irish were ranked No. 5 in the last regular-season AP poll and Alabama was ranked third. UA defeated No. 8 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but Notre Dame vaulted to the top spot in the final rankings after beating No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
The quantifiable difference between Alabama and Notre Dame lies not in distant history, but in what has happened lately - or, in the case of the Fighting Irish, what hasn't.
Of Notre Dame's 11 national titles, seven came before 1950 and the most recent occurred in 1988, when Holtz coached the Fighting Irish to an undefeated season.
Starting with the 1920s, Alabama has won at least one national title in every decade except for the 1950s and 1980s. Alabama's 1992 national championship bridged the three-decade gap between Bryant's last title team in 1979 and the arrival of the Saban era, with UA's current coach capturing his first crystal trophy at UA in 2009.
Saban, of course, didn't stop there. Alabama won again last season and is going for its third crown in the last four years.
"Certainly, Notre Dame's tradition and history is unparalleled, but right now they are striving to meet a championship standard as Alabama does," ESPN's Davis said. "They are trying to accomplish the same thing that Alabama has been accomplishing.
"Alabama is the measuring stick in college football, and they have been for a period of time now under Saban."
While Notre Dame is looking for a national title win to seal its return to the mountaintop, the Crimson Tide has the opportunity to stamp its current period of success alongside the greatest in the history of the sport.
In short, Notre Dame is playing for relevance while Alabama is playing for dynasty status.
"It's an unbelievable run," Davis said. "They deserve to be mentioned among the modern-day dynasties like the Nebraskas from the 1990s and Southern Cal (in the early 2000s).
"If they beat Notre Dame, it would surpass what USC did. It would be more like the Miami programs in the '80s and '90s. It's hard not to notice that should Alabama win this game against Notre Dame, three championships in four years would put it beside just a couple of programs in the history of modern college football."
If anything can surpass the histories and traditions represented by the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish, it is the hype that surrounds this game.
Larry Wahl, vice president for communications for the Orange Bowl committee, which is hosting the game, has been in the business for 35 years. He worked for the New York Yankees for a span that included two World Series championships, and for the Miami Hurricanes for three national title runs.
None of that prepared him for this game.
"I haven't seen a game that has had this amount of interest in it," Wahl said. "I've never seen anything like it in terms of hotel demand, media interest or ticket demand."
Some 1,200 media credentials have been issued for the game. The bowl committee ran out of hotel rooms at its Fort Lauderdale media headquarters and had to search two adjacent counties to handle the overflow.
"Just the fact that you're dealing with two iconic brands, maybe the two most well-known programs in college football, you knew from the get-go that this was going to be something special," Wahl said.
The convergence of all that history makes the game big. Alabama's status atop the current pantheon of college football programs, and Notre Dame's absence from the national championship scene for so long, only enhances the spotlight.
"The name Alabama carries a great deal of weight both in the present and the past of the sport," ESPN's Davis said. "It would be a big deal if Notre Dame was in the game against anybody, but because Alabama is of somewhat similar stature historically, it's off the chart in terms of anticipation and interest."
It is worth nothing, however, that not a single player on either team was born when the two teams last met. The players, of course, are more concerned with what happens tonight than with all the folklore that Alabama and Notre Dame have accumulated.
"Basically, I don't know very much," UA tight end Michael Williams said. "I know both teams have great history, I know both teams have great tradition.
"Just two great teams going against each other, that's all I really know."
When kickoff arrives tonight, that is all that will matter.
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