“The success of Notre Dame football is a symbol of the presence of Catholicism in the United States, its leavening of the general culture, its aspiration to excellence in this life and the next.”
-- Ralph McInerny, former Notre Dame philosophy professor and author of the Father Dowling mysteries, in 1991
"We have been hampered industrially by an unfair picture of Alabama as a state of undersized weak people living in swamplands full of malaria and tuberculosis. It's inconceivable anyone could continue to embrace that idea."
-- Alabama Gov. Bibb Graves, after Alabama beat Washington State 24-0 in the 1931 Rose Bowl
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MIAMI -- It’s trendy, in sports, to call a team’s fan base a Nation. That’s Buckeye Nation filling up the sports-talk lines, or Longhorn Nation venting on the message boards, or Gator Nation buying all those T-shirts from the campus bookstore.
This is understandable shorthand, and wrong. In college football, there are two nations, and only two: Notre Dame and Alabama.
Both teams carry the weight of cultures bigger than their sport and bigger than their universities. Notre Dame football stands for the Catholic immigrant’s struggle to be accepted in the United States. Alabama football stands for the South’s struggle to claw its way back from the Civil War.
Not all Catholics root for Notre Dame, and not all Southerners root for Alabama. (On that second one: God, no.) But they are the flagships – the two college football teams that have shaped not just sports history but American history.
And on Monday night, they play for the national championship.
The last time they played each other for the title was 1973. Near the end of that Sugar Bowl, with Notre Dame up one and hanging on, Howard Cosell said this on the ABC broadcast: “At Notre Dame, football is a religion. At Alabama, it’s a way of life.”
Howard Cosell was responsible for a lot of hooey in his career. But right there, he wasn’t far off.
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None of this is likely to matter to you on Monday night when Alabama running back Eddie Lacy cuts into the Notre Dame defensive line, or Irish quarterback Everett Golson tests the Tide’s secondary. It most definitely will not matter to the players and coaches. The weight of history means nothing next to the weight of a 320-pound lineman who would love to separate you from oxygen.
But Notre Dame-Alabama provides one answer to that long-lingering question: Why do sports matter? They matter, in part, because of identity. Maybe you root for a team because it’s near where you grew up, or because it’s the one your daddy loved, or just because you like a winner. The teams you choose help tell your story.
The immigrants from Ireland and Italy and other parts of Europe flooded into this country in the 1800s and early 1900s. They met with the ugly resistance that most of our immigrants do. The Catholics among them had an especially hard time in a nation that was, back then, dominated by Protestants. But they found work, and made families, and raised tough children. Some of those children played football.
Notre Dame won its first big game a century ago, in 1913, when the Irish beat Army 35-13 at West Point, using a newfangled idea called the forward pass. Knute Rockne signed up as coach a few years later, and football separated Notre Dame from the other Catholic universities that had sprung up around the country. In a brilliant move, the school allowed radio networks around America to broadcast Notre Dame games for free. (The Irish were the Grateful Dead of their day.) That meant millions of Catholics could listen to the team – their team – take on, and whip, Texas and Penn State and Nebraska and Georgia Tech.
The anti-Catholicism of the day came all the way to campus – in May of 1924, Notre Dame students fought with Klan members in a three-day riot in South Bend. But in the football season that followed, the Irish beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl for Notre Dame’s first national title. As we like to say today, scoreboard.
The Southern states that lost the Civil War were still hurting half a century after Appomattox. The war was not even past; the South was populated by former Confederate soldiers, and their children who had heard the stories. Black Southerners had begun the Great Migration north, looking for jobs and tolerance. The rest of the country was better-educated, richer, industrialized. There was not a whole lot to be proud of. But there were tough kids growing up on those farms, and some of them played football.
In the summer of 1925, the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee embarrassed the South even more. But that fall, in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama football team pushed Darwin off the front page. The Crimson Tide outscored its nine regular-season opponents 277-7. Still, the conventional wisdom was that teams from the South couldn’t compete with the rest of the country. When the Rose Bowl invited Alabama to play unbeaten Washington, columnist H.L. Mencken led the laughter at the idea that the South could beat anybody at anything. Then Alabama – led by running back Johnny Mack Brown, who went on to star in Westerns – beat Washington 20-19 and took home its first national title. It stunned the rest of the country. And it made the South feel like a vital part of America again. Alabama started taking out ads in Northern papers, and students flooded in to study. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal called the game “another reminder that the South in its manhood, as in other things, is a great section of this great country of ours.”
Two teams, representing two cultures, won their first titles on the same Rose Bowl field in back-to-back years. They have won pretty much ever since.
Notre Dame, in its media guide, claims 11 national titles. Alabama claims 14. (This is a murky area; we’ll get to that later.) They are the two most successful programs in college football, and because of that, the most despised. Just five years ago, Alabama finished 7-6 (officially 2-6; five wins were later vacated as part of an NCAA penalty) and Notre Dame finished 3-9. For the rest of us, those were good times.
But the hate now is not the same hate it used to be. People don’t root against Notre Dame because it’s Catholic; it’s more about the notion that Touchdown Jesus (Catholic or whatever) blesses the Irish with a late fumble recovery now and then. People don’t root against Alabama because it’s from the South; hell, most Alabama haters live in the South. It’s more about the notion that coaching perfection began with Bear Bryant and has been reincarnated in the person of Nick Saban.
It’s also about arrogance. Fans of both schools will be happy to tell you that every great college player really wanted to play for their team, except (in Notre Dame’s case) they couldn’t handle the academics and (in Alabama’s case) they were led astray in recruiting. Alabama gets to claim Harvey Updyke, poisoner of Toomer’s Oaks; Notre Dame gets to claim the classy folks who printed the “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirts before the epic Notre Dame-Miami game in 1988. (Those shirts have been revised for Alabama as “Catholics vs. Cousins.” Just as classy.)
The point is, all this is mostly football hate. It’s not the kind of hate that says you don’t belong in our country. It’s a progressive kind of hate. Notre Dame and Alabama have already won the most important game.
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Over time, the issues get richer, more complex. A lot of people think Bear Bryant booked a game with USC in 1970 to overcome Alabama fans’ resistance to the integration of the football team. (Alabama had one black player, but he was a freshman and couldn’t play under NCAA rules back then). Whatever the reason, USC was the first fully integrated team to play at Alabama. The Trojans won 42-21, a black fullback named Sam “Bam” Cunningham ran for 135 yards, and the resistance fell. Alabama started loading up on black players the way they had always loaded up on white ones. Today, about two-thirds of Alabama’s roster is black.
Notre Dame has had non-Catholics on the team almost from the beginning – Knute Rockne himself was a Lutheran before he converted. Manti Te’o, the Hawaiian linebacker and star of this year’s team, is a Mormon. But Notre Dame is still a strongly Catholic school. The team holds a Mass before every game. After the Mass, each player – Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, atheist – gets a medal devoted to a saint and blessed by a priest. The message, through football, also goes outward; former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz is doing commercials for Catholics Come Home, an effort to bring lapsed church members back to Mass.
This is the country we have always been, mixing and blending, holding onto traditions – good ones and bad ones – even as change washes over us like waves at high tide. The tide always wins, eventually. Roll, tide.
Notre Dame and Alabama have used football to stand out and to fit in. They’ve come to symbolize the whole of the sport itself. When you close your eyes and think of college football, what do you see? Maybe Rudy, or Reagan as the Gipper. Maybe Forrest Gump, or an old man in a houndstooth hat.
Since those first breakthrough seasons nearly 90 years ago, Alabama and Notre Dame have run on parallel tracks, winning games and stacking titles. Their recent history is different. Alabama is going for its third title in four years (and the seventh straight for the SEC). Notre Dame hasn’t won a championship since 1988. On Monday night, in the swamp air of south Florida, there’s one more to fight for.
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It’s odd, given all that history, that the two schools have played each other just six times. The biggest conflict between them came in a year they didn’t play. In 1966, when top-ranked Notre Dame played No. 2 Michigan State in what was called the “Game of the Century,” Irish coach Ara Parseghian had a chance to go for the win in the fourth quarter but settled for a tie. He correctly gambled that the polls would keep his team No. 1 over an undefeated and third-ranked Alabama team. One author wrote an entire book about that season from the Alabama perspective. It’s titled “The Missing Ring.”
The two teams played for the first time seven years later, in that 1973 Sugar Bowl, the one with Howard Cosell. This time Alabama was ranked No. 1 and had the automatic spot in the Sugar Bowl from winning the SEC. Oklahoma was No. 2 but on probation. Notre Dame was No. 3. Bear Bryant made it known that he wanted the Tide to play the Irish, and Parseghian accepted. They met in old Tulane Stadium on New Year’s Eve. The game got a 25.3 Nielsen rating, which, best I can tell, makes it the highest-rated college football game in history. (The USC-Texas title game in 2006 is the highest-rated in the BCS era; it got a 21.7.)
The game earned the rating. There were six lead changes. Notre Dame scored on a 93-yard kickoff return. Alabama went ahead in the fourth quarter on a throwback pass to quarterback Richard Todd. But Bama missed the extra point, and Notre Dame kicker Bob Thomas kicked a 19-yard field goal to put the Irish up 24-23 with about four minutes left.
Alabama couldn’t move the ball, but the Tide’s punt pinned Notre Dame at the one. That led to a third-and-eight at the Notre Dame three, the crowd screaming, Alabama expecting to get the ball back for the win, Cosell making his pronouncement about football and religion and life.
Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements dropped back and threw deep left. Backup tight end Robin Weber looked back over his shoulder. Weber had caught one pass all season. He caught this one for 35 yards. Notre Dame ran out the clock for the win.
Here’s the funny thing about that season. The Associated Press poll, as you’d expect, named Notre Dame national champion. But the United Press International poll – just as prestigious at the time – picked its champion before the bowls, and chose Alabama. So both schools count 1973 as one of their national championships.
If that happened today, it would break the Internet. So it’s for the best that Monday night we’ll end up with a clear winner. But I am openly rooting for overtime, or at least a one-pointer like they had back in ’73.
Notre Dame and Alabama aren’t meant to blow each other out. For all these years, they have been so, so close.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. You want to know the record for those six games, right? Notre Dame leads 5-1.