MIAMI (AP) — At a time when college football was generally considered the domain of eastern blue bloods, Notre Dame and Alabama were upstart teams that gave blue collar fans a chance to tweak the elite.
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.Continued...