SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Even though I knew years ago that Miami (Ohio) University was slated to visit Notre Dame on Saturday, this is weird. This is my College Football Game from Hell.
In the deepest part of my soul, I'm a Notre Dame guy, which means I nearly faint whenever I see Touchdown Jesus, but I'm also a Miami (Ohio) guy, which means the Beta Bells from its breathtaking campus always ring in my ears. Now both schools will match all of their considerable football glory wrapped around magic against each other. They'll meet for the first time since 1909 during what the weather folks say will be pleasantly warm conditions at Notre Dame Stadium on a clear evening, and I'll know a slew of people in Miami (Ohio) or Notre Dame paraphernalia in the stands, and I'm guessing the marching bands for both schools will never sound better, and I'm already exhausted.
Friends say I can't lose, but you know where I'm going.
I can't win.
So maybe I'll spend the whole thing in the press box with my eyes closed and my ears covered, just hoping at the end the football gods will change the rules and declare victory for both teams. I'm guessing that won't happened, which means here's the bottom line: I hate this matchup, and I haven't a clue about how I'll feel from the opening kickoff through the final horn.
The same goes for Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin, and not just because he spent four years as an assistant under Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State in Michigan through the 2003 season. Seven years later, they reunited at Notre Dame after Kelly took over the Irish and hired Martin for an impressive run that lasted until the mentee accepted a huge pay cut in 2014 for his own gig in Oxford, Ohio.
All of that's interesting, but here's mostly why Martin is conflicted: He grew up less than a two-hour drive from Notre Dame in Park Forest, Ill., where he was part of an Irish Catholic family whose mission was to cheer like crazy for the Irish whenever the leaves began turning.
"Standing on the visiting sideline at Notre Dame Stadium, like I've told many people, I'm almost 50 years old, and I've never not rooted for Notre Dame a day in my life," Martin told reporters this week in a conference call, trying to imagine his feelings during the game. "On Saturday at 5 o'clock, I'm going to be rooting against Notre Dame. That will be awkward for me."
No question about that. For verification on how Martin cherishes everything around here, ranging from the drive down Notre Dame Avenue toward the Golden Dome to the solitude of Saint Mary's Lake, just listen to Kelly, a lifelong Notre Dame fan himself courtesy of his Irish Catholic background in Boston. When somebody asked Kelly if he ever had an assistant coach hug the Irish as much as Martin, he said of the former Millikin University athlete, "If you take away those that played here, the Powluses and the Autry Densons and the Todd Lyghts, who absolutely bleed -- for somebody that never went to Notre Dame, Chuck Martin has got to be at the top of the list."
I agree, so I understand Martin's dilemma. Still, with apologies to the coach who is flirting with bringing Miami (Ohio) back to its Ben Roethlisberger days of national prominence and to Greg Crawford, the university's president who came to Oxford last year after serving as a top administrator at Notre Dame, you can put their mixed emotions together, multiply them by the number of candles lit for miracles at The Grotto on campus each day, and it wouldn't match all of the churning in my stomach over this game.
Let's start at the beginning, and I mean literally. Not only was I born and raised within these city limits of maybe 90,000, but I took my first breath inside of the same Saint Joseph Hospital, where George Gipp (you know, as in Win One For The Gipper) died. My mom purchased certain types of Notre Dame sweatshirts for my two brothers and me since she said they resembled the ones Ara Parseghian wore on the sidelines while coaching the Irish. I spent my youth during the 1960s memorizing the numbers worn by each Notre Dame player, along with the two verses and chorus of "The Victory March." Of my 42 first cousins, most of them live within a punt or two of the famed tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium, and if you haven't guessed by now, I sort of bleed blue and gold.
There's that, but there's also this: If there are those who hug Miami (Ohio) more than me, I haven't seen them. It's my alma mater. I've been on the alumni board for the past six years, which entails a trip back to lovely Oxford every quarter, and I'm on the advisory council for the main library. I'm a visiting professor in the journalism department each fall semester, and as you've guessed by now, returning to this 208-year-old college, whose charter was signed by somebody named George Washington, never gets old for me. After my first glance of Miami (Ohio), with its Georgian-style buildings of red brick, sitting in the midst of ancient trees on the most perfectly manicured lawns you'll ever see, I was hooked for life. Plus, there was this: Parseghian is my favorite sports person ever. So when I arrived at Miami (Ohio) as a freshman in the fall of 1974, I knew he went there, played there and coached there. Before long, I realized Miami (Ohio) was Notre Dame since they both feature highly acclaimed academics with overwhelming charm and a nearly unrivaled sports history.
Among the Notre Dame legends, you have the Four Horsemen, and quarterbacks from Johnny Lujak to Terry Hanratty to both of the Joes (Theismann and Montana), and their Big Four coaches of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Parseghian and Lou Holtz, and The Rocket, and a bunch of national championships and Heisman Trophy winners. Kelly said this week the Irish have "arguably the greatest college football tradition," and except for "arguably," he's correct. It's just that Miami (Ohio) has the greatest football tradition of any university in the universe, including Notre Dame.
I mean, how much time do you have?
Paul Brown was the founder and the original head coach of two NFL franchises in the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, and that was between the guy inventing a bunch of things still used in football. Nobody tops Bo Schembechler on Michigan's all-time list of coaches. Carmen Cozza retired from Yale in 1996 as the winningest coach in Ivy League history. Weeb Ewbank coached in The Greatest Game Ever Played, when his Baltimore Colts of Johnny Unitas beat the New York Giants for the 1958 NFL title, and in the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, when his New York Jets of Joe Namath took the third one in 1969 over the Colts. Earl "Red" Blaik led those powerhouse Army teams of the 1940s. Paul Dietzel coached LSU to its first national title in 1958. Bill Arnsparger invented the 3-4 defense along with the zone blitz while skippering the famed "No Name" and "Killer Bs" defenses of the Miami Dolphins.
Those I just mentioned were all Miami (Ohio) graduates. Then there is Ohio State icon Woody Hayes who didn't go there, but he started his career there at what is known as The Cradle of Coaches. Oh, and Miami (Ohio) is the only university with two active NFL head coaches as alums. I'm talking about John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams. McVay's grandfather, John, was the hidden force behind that San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s as the general manager over Bill Walsh, Montana, Steve Young and the rest of those Pro Football Hall of Famers.
John McVay also is a Miami (Ohio) alum.
That's just some of the football people from The Cradle. In baseball, Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston graduated from Miami (Ohio), and it is the school of NBA greats Ron Harper and Wally Szczerbiak. They dribbled after Miami (Ohio) graduate Wayne Embry became the league's first African-American general manager after his playing career.
But back to Miami (Ohio) football, which was led at quarterback around the turn of the 20th Century by Marvin Pierce, later the publisher of Redbook and McCall's magazines and the father of Barbara Bush, the former First Lady. And did I mention Miami (Ohio)'s history of upsets? When I was there in the 1970s, the Redskins, before they were the RedHawks, were 32-1-1, with shockers in consecutive years over Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. In 1986, Miami (Ohio) stunned the Death Valley crowd during a night game by manhandling eighth-ranked LSU. In 1997, Miami (Ohio) won at Virginia Tech, and Northwestern's only loss during the 1995 regular season along the way to the Rose Bowl was to, well, yep.
Enough of Miami (Ohio) and sports for the moment. What about Miami (Ohio) and everything else? President Benjamin Harrison was a graduate, and the same went for the first director of the CIA. The school is home to the first fraternities, and US News & World Report has spent seven consecutive years naming Miami (Ohio) as the best public school for undergraduate teaching. There also are more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies with undergraduate degrees from Miami (Ohio) than almost any other university. Ginger from Gilligan's Island went to Miami (Ohio), and so did the person who invented Gumby.
I can't root against all of that Saturday, especially since the Miami (Ohio) fight song begins with "Love and Honor."
Notre Dame? Well, the Irish and I are joined at the heart. Just as they were for Parseghian, Miami (Ohio) Class of '47, and the two of us often discussed our marriage with most things South Bend and Oxford. Parseghian died last month at 94, and Notre Dame officials will honor his memory Saturday with a pregame tribute and video clips throughout the game. They'll feature the Ara of Notre Dame and the Ara of Miami (Ohio), and I'm sure I'll enjoy them all.
Probably more than the game.