GRIDIRON

01.06.13

Notre Dame vs. Alabama: College Football's Epic Rivalry

When Notre Dame and Alabama face off Monday night, the epic rivalry will be the most-watched college football game ever played. Allen Barra previews the clash of the titans.

Last May, at New York University's Skirall Center, The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell and sportswriter Buzz Bissinger debated FoxSport.com's Jason Whitlock and former football-player-turned-author Tim Green on the subject of whether or not college football should be banned. According to audience members, Gladwell-Bissinger, who argued for a ban, won a narrow victory.

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David J. Phillip/AP

(Note to Malcolm and Buzz and every other critic of college football: I'm with you on just about every major reform that needs to be made in the college game, but if you're going to ban college football, then you'd also better ban high school football, upon which the college game feeds, and pro football, which couldn't exist without the college game.)

Now let's see Gladwell and Bissinger enforce their decision. I suggest they show up among the tailgating thousands at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Garden Monday night when No. 2 Alabama plays No. 1 Notre Dame for the BCS national championship in what will almost surely be the highest-rated college football game ever played.

Gladwell and Bissinger had better be at their silver-tongued best because they will encounter an audience slightly more skeptical than the NYU crowd —fans who support their teams with a religious fervor that makes pro-football fans seem like agnostics. 

Just about everything you regard as good or bad about college football will be on display in the game, most notably superstar coaches who are paid millions while their players are officially classified as amateurs. (As I wrote in a New York Times op-ed a couple of decades ago, "Major college athletes are professional in every way but one: they don't get paid.") On the plus side—and the sophisticated are ill advised to sneer at this concept— you'll see traditions that go back more than a century. 

Alabama and Notre Dame have, arguably, the two greatest traditions of any team in college football, which is another way of saying they have been the most successful. At any rate, that's how they're ranked by the College Football Data Warehousez, which utilizes a point system based on victories, postseason bowl games, national championships, and quality of opposition among other factors.

It's not surprising to find Notre Dame rated among the top two since the game of football as we know it comes from South Bend, Indiana. Both on the field (in terms of the quality of play) and off (in terms of promotion and image building) Knute Rockne showed that football could do wonders for the prestige of a university, taking Notre Dame from a small, unknown Catholic school in the Midwest to national and then international fame, leveraging its football fame to appeal to Catholic minorities.

Alabama and Notre Dame have, arguably, the two greatest traditions of any team in college football.

On January 1, 1926, the University of Alabama won one of its legendary games, a 20-19 victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl, and President Mike Denny determined to use the victory to turn his school into the Notre Dame of the South, i.e. to transform Alabama from a regional to a national institution. When Denny came to Tuscaloosa in 1911, enrollment was just over 400 students; when he retired in 1937 there were more than 5,000, including many Northern boys from Jewish families, lured south by ads in big city newspapers boasting that Alabama, unlike many Northern universities, had no "quota" on Jewish students. The ad campaign was paid for with profits from football. Denny was one of the first Southern university presidents to grasp the importance of a professionally run athletic department

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David J. Phillip/AP

Needless to say, on the field the Fighting Irish, with its innovative forward pass and progressive strategies and practice techniques, became the model for every forward-looking football program in the country. When Alabama went looking for a new and vigorous football coach in 1931 they chose Frank Thomas, who had been one of the second-string quarterbacks on Rockne's famed "Four Horsemen" team. One of Thomas's star players—and as it turned out, Thomas's star pupil—was Paul "Bear" Bryant. Notre Dame and Alabama have been running neck-and-neck in football ever since.

Almost neck-and-neck, that is. Though the Crimson Tide can lay some claim to all or part of 14 national titles—before the BCS was instituted in 1998, a  number of organizations, from AP and UPI to the MacArthur Bowl foundation, conducted their own polls—and Notre Dame to 11, over the past two decades it really hasn't been much of a contest. Being a small Catholic school in a cold climate finally caught up with Notre Dame; over the last 18 seasons Alabama has been winning bowl games while Notre Dame, when postseason time came around, was being asked by their fans not to win for the Gipper but to win one for a change.

This year's resurgence by the Irish under Brian Kelly has put a charge back into college football, illustrated by the fact that they're playing Alabama, certainly the dominant power in college football today with victories in two of the last three BCS championship games. And the fact that both schools have such huge, loud, obnoxious fan bases—just ask Fighting Irish fans if Alabama fans are obnoxious, and then ask Crimson Tide fans what they think of Notre Dame fans —means a large portion of the country is going to get at least some satisfaction no matter who wins—or loses—Monday night.