About 90 years later, the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide are the elite — two of college football’s signature programs, set to play a national championship next Monday in Miami that could break records for television viewership.
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 1 Notre Dame. Even casual sports fans understand this is a college football classic.
“I think it’s basically because they’ve won more national championships than anybody else, and they’ve been doing it since the ‘20s,” said Dan Jenkins, an award-winning sports writer and author who is also the historian for the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. “Plus they’ve had a bunch of gods coaching them — Rockne, Leahy, Ara in South Bend, and Wallace Wade, Bear Bryant, and now Saban at Alabama.”
He’s right. And to understand just how Notre Dame and Alabama became touchstones for their uniquely American sport, you have to look back to the 1920s, when beating an Ivy League team was a huge deal and there was nothing bigger than playing in the Rose Bowl.
“Up to that point college football was important, but only in the fall,” said Murray Sperber, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written two books about the history of Notre Dame football. “The fans tended to be only alumni of the schools and local middle class people.
“And that was true of Notre Dame before Rockne became coach.”
Knute Rockne was a Norwegian-born former end for Notre Dame, who helped his school to a head-turning upset of Army as a player and then took over as coach in 1918. He was media savvy, and intent on turning the football program into a national power. Part of his strategy: turning recent immigrants to the States, many of them Catholic, into Notre Dame fans.
“They had trouble getting opponents, in part because of the anti-Catholicism of the Midwest,” Sperber said.
In 1923 — an era so long ago the nickname “Ramblers” competed with fan favorite “Fighting Irish” in press reports — Notre Dame won two landmark victories that help cement its place as America’s team.
First, it beat Army 13-0 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn as its rivalry with the Cadets blossomed into one of the fiercest in sports. The next week, the Fighting Irish won at Princeton 25-2.
“This became one of the great moments for the fans,” Sperber said. “It was Yankee, snooty Princeton against working class Notre Dame. Notre Dame had a lot of first generation-American players.
“This was played up by the press and the press loved it.”
Notre Dame was the college football team for the people who didn’t go to college. Rockne became an American hero, with his “Win One For the Gipper” speech (to inspire a 1928 victory over, you guessed it, Army). His death in a 1931 plane crash was a national tragedy, prompting statements of sympathy from President Herbert Hoover and the king of Norway.
Yet for all the mythology and folklore around Notre Dame football, the biggest reason for its popularity was quite basic.
“An absolutely crucial element is winning,” Sperber said.
Few programs have won like Notre Dame. Alabama is one of them.
The Tide made a similar breakthrough in the 1920s under coach Wallace Wade. The Tide’s big victory against the Ivy League came in 1922 against Penn.
“Back in those days, Alabama beating Penn was as surprising as if Penn were to beat Alabama today,” said Kirk McNair, who worked as sports information director for Alabama during the 1970s and now runs Bama Magazine.
“It started to put southern football on the map,” he said.
Trips to the Rose Bowl marked the next step for both schools.
The Fighting Irish went to the Rose Bowl in 1925 to play Stanford. The team traveled by train and, as Sperber said, “at every stop there is a public parade.”
Notre Dame beat Pop Warner’s Stanford team, 27-10, and the trip from South Bend was “like a pilgrimage there and back,” Sperber said.
After the 1925 season, Alabama was invited to make the trek from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Pasadena, Calif., for the Rose Bowl — a decision that was met with derision by some in the media and around college football, McNair said.
Regional pride ran high in those days, when the Civil War was still within memory for some, and there were hard feelings on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
In the Northeast, people “felt like there was just going to be a bunch of ragamuffins coming out there,” McNair said.
“In those days southern football was not quite so mean and nasty as it is today, and Alabama was carrying the banner for the entire South.”
Alabama won the 1926 Rose Bowl, 20-19 against Washington, went back to California in 1927 and tied Stanford 7-7. The Tide then won three more Rose Bowls from 1931-46, losing one.
When Wade left Alabama, he was replaced by Frank Thomas, a former Notre Dame quarterback who played for Rockne. “That was pretty big to get a guy from Notre Dame even then,” McNair said.
Alabama hit hard times in the mid-1950s, but fixed its problems by bringing home one of its own. Bear Bryant played for Thomas in the 1930s and became a coaching star at Kentucky and Texas A&M. Under the Bear, Alabama dominated the Southeastern Conference and won six national championships between 1961-79.
“He was the face of college football,” McNair said.
And Bryant remains one of the most well-known figures in American sports, the houndstooth pattern of his famous hat turning up on just about everything in Tuscaloosa. And you don’t have to be from Alabama — or even from the Deep South — to know “Roll Tide” is more than just rally cry.
But he never beat Notre Dame in four tries. Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said that always stuck with Bryant, recounting a conversation he had with the late Hall of Fame coach when Bryant retired.
“He said, ‘Aww, Coach, I’ll be the guy that goes down as the guy that couldn’t beat Notre Dame,’” Holtz said. “He wanted to beat Notre Dame so bad and he could never do it.”
The Irish kept on winning after Rockne. Four national titles in the 1940s, including three under Frank Leahy. Two more under Ara Parseghian (1966 and ‘73) and another under Dan Devine in 1977.
Holtz won Notre Dame’s last title in 1988 and two years later the school inked a television contract with NBC to become the first school to have its own network television deal.
Notre Dame still is the university of college football for many Americans, its symbols and landmarks giving the school a high profile even as its teams stumbled in recent years: the so-called “Touchdown Jesus” mural looming over the north end zone of the football stadium; the golden helmets to match the golden dome atop the administration building. And, with “Knute Rockne All American” and “Rudy,” Hollywood has helped immortalize Notre Dame folklore.
Both Alabama and Notre Dame went through hard times in the 1990s and early 2000s, trying to find the right coach to restore the magic.
Nick Saban arrived in Alabama in 2007, and it’s as if the Bear was back. The Tide have won two of the last three national championship and could become the first program to win three in four years since the BCS was implemented in 1998.
“I know there’s a lot of national interest here because of two great programs that have tremendous tradition,” Saban said as he stepped off Alabama’s plane in Miami. “We certainly respect that on both sides.
“It’s really a special game to be a part of.”
Brian Kelly took over in South Bend three years ago, and like Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz before him, he has a chance to win a national title in his third season — against Alabama, no less.
The Fighting Irish against the Crimson Tide, a marquee matchup in any era.