Perhaps Howard Cosell, the legendary orator of some of sport’s largest moments, summed it up best. "At Notre Dame, football is a religion," Cosell remarked. "At Alabama it’s a way of life."
Some 40 years later here in the post New Year's balm of South Florida, Cosell's commentary still rings true as two again mighty programs have endured through their droughts of mediocrity and landed back at the doorstep of greatness.
For Notre Dame, a program rich in history, but thin on recent success, 2012 has been a renaissance. After suffering through three un-popular and ultimately unsuccessful coaches since Lou Holtz left in tears following the 1996 season, this season's 12-0 effort is nothing short of a miracle in the eyes of Irish fans.
“A lot of us are still in shock,” said 2011 Notre Dame graduate Kelly Paulius of Pittsburgh as she waited Wednesday at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Jet center for the Irish to arrive in preparation of Monday’s BCS National Championship game. “We really got kind of used to losing for a while. Now it’s a whole different feeling. Now we know we’re going to do something to win.”
It is different again. A program that claims 11 consensus national championships won its last title in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl. Not a single player on the Irish roster was alive for that golden moment in Notre Dame history.
Third-year coach Brian Kelly said he could sense this resurgence back in August on the heels of back-to-back 8-5 seasons. Is he surprised that the Irish are suddenly on the verge of restored glory under the Golden Dome after hearing continued whispers the past decade of their irrelevance in the broader college football landscape?
"Well," Kelly said, "I didn't think we couldn't do it."
Then there is the Alabama Crimson Tide, a program that counts 14 national championships on its football office stationary. The 80s calmed the Tide after football coaching God Paul "Bear" Bryant retired following the 1982 season. Bryant won five national titles, six if you include 1973 when the UPI crowned Bama national champs before it lost to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
Gene Stallings led Bama back to its perch with a championship run in 1992. The rest of the 90s was a downward slide that continued into the ought’s. Then came Nick Saban, a coach on the verge of winning his fourth national championship and third with the Crimson Tide. All he needs is a win over the Irish on Monday and Bama will have dynasty of three titles in four years.
Still, wins over Notre Dame have proven allusive for Alabama in the past, especially when it is favored over the Irish, as is the case this time to the tune of 10-plus points. As good as Bryant was, he was 0-4 against Notre Dame.
There’s no skirting the fact that Notre Dame and Alabama are two of the most prominent blue bloods of the sport. Just seeing the two names together someone stirs a nostalgic quiver. Their first meeting in the 1973 Sugar Bowl was one of the greatest college games ever played in the minds of many. Even in defeat Bryant called it the way football should be played.
Times are different now. Dusty old black and white photographs and graining game reels have given way to high definition television and elaborate ESPN College Game Day sets. The five-minute pre-game introduction of yesteryear has blossomed into nearly six weeks of non-stop cyber banter, hyperbole and sports talk fodder.
The media that assembled for the two teams’ arrivals in the Miami area Wednesday was absurd. It was also a testament to what these two programs mean to the college game.
In this game of giants, the power of the past helps fuel the magic of the moment. It means something as it meshes college football's romantics with the overindulged followers of this modern game. It’s a game that seems to have everything, and that’s all we want nowadays.
Go Irish and Roll Tide. That says so much.
Michael Wanbaugh is managing editor of The Goshen (Ind.) News. He can be reached at michael.wanbaugh@goshennews.