With the college football championship on the line Monday, it may take a coin toss to decide the more fanatical fan in South Florida: Notre Dame’s Federico Moreno or Alabama’s James Cohn.
Both men are respected federal judges who proudly proclaim the superiority of their teams. Just ask and they’ll tell you.
“I bleed blue and gold all over the place,” said Moreno, the Miami-based chief judge of the U.S. District Court, who was born in Venezuela, went to high school in South Bend, Ind., and graduated from Notre Dame in 1974.
In his senior year, Moreno is quick to point out, the Ara Parseghian-coached Fighting Irish nipped the Crimson Tide, 24-23, in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.
Unfazed, Cohn retorts that Alabama has won nine national football titles, to Notre Dame’s eight, during the post-1936 era of wire-service and coaches’ polls.
“I’ve been an Alabama football fan my whole life,” said Cohn, who was born in Montgomery, raised in Tuskegee and graduated in 1971 from the state university in Tuscaloosa.
“When [legendary coach] Bear Bryant came to Alabama in 1958, I was 10 years old. He was a god-like figure in Alabama,” Cohn said.
In his Fort Lauderdale chambers, he displays an autographed picture of the current Alabama coach, with the inscription: “To Judge Cohn, Roll Tide, Nick Saban.”
On Monday night, Moreno will be watching the epic Notre Dame-Alabama game live at Sun Life Stadium, along with his three children, all of whom have attended ND as undergrad or law students. The judge said he paid face value for his tickets, without revealing how much, while expressing amazement that some were fetching up to $5,000 apiece.
Cohn will be taking in the high-stakes football showdown on TV, though the judge said he saw Alabama beat Georgia for the 2012 SEC championship in Atlanta.
It’s hard to say which fan has more bragging rights, but one thing is abundantly clear: Moreno’s cavernous chambers on the 12th floor of the ship-shaped federal courthouse in downtown Miami is like a shrine to his alma mater.
In the lobby to his office hangs a framed poster of the movie Rudy, autographed by his former college pal, Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger. It reads: “To Judge Moreno, My Best Friend and #1 Inspiration … Ya Da Best, Rudy.”
The 1993 movie is about Rudy’s 27 seconds of fame during his one-game career as a fifth-string Fighting Irish defensive end. He beat all the odds to get into Notre Dame and onto the football team — thanks, in part, to Moreno.
The pair lived in adjacent dorm rooms in 1973 and ’74, while Moreno attended Notre Dame and Rudy was going to a nearby junior college, Holy Cross. Moreno, who majored in government and international relations, tutored Rudy in math, English and Spanish. Rudy was eventually admitted into Notre Dame, and the rest is history.
In the movie, Hollywood took some artistic license with Rudy’s script and portrayed the “tutor” on the big screen as a nerd who wore two watches and depended on Rudy to get him dates.
“It’s 90 percent accurate,” Moreno quipped to a Miami Herald reporter and court security officers last week. “Except the tutor is not as nerdy.”
Moreno’s office, with spectacular views of Biscayne Bay and Miami’s skyline, features a Fighting Irish rug, a computer with screen-saver image of Notre Dame’s iconic golden dome, and an oversized chess set with wooden figurines of both ND and University of Miami football players. (Moreno graduated in 1978 from UM’s law school, where he met his future wife, Cristina.)
There’s also a framed picture of the judge with Rudy and one of Moreno’s daughters, Victoria, who graduates from Notre Dame in the spring.
Moreno said that Fighting Irish fans are in the “super minority” in South Florida, because it’s mostly “ ’Cane and SEC country.”
Still, he rattled off the names of other Notre Dame alumni who sit on the bench in South Florida, including another federal judge, William Zloch of Fort Lauderdale. Zloch played quarterback for the Fighting Irish after the departure of Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte in 1965.
During a tour of his chambers, Moreno was asked if he wanted to make any predictions about the championship game.
“You know I can’t gamble as a judge,” Moreno joked, showing off his blue blazer with “ND” and “Irish” sewn into the lining of the jacket, a gift from a law clerk. “But if I could, it would be stone crabs with Judge Cohn.”
Asked what he would wager, Cohn said: “He could send me some barbecue ribs from Dreamland in Tuscaloosa.”