Greg Cote: All mesmerized by Alabama-Notre Dame matchup for the ages

 

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

Notre Dame vs. Alabama in college football’s BCS National Championship here Monday night looks like top-of-the-marquee ideal, like the best and most we can ever hope for from sports: A Perfect Game.

We should know.

Miami gets called a bad sports town for all the wrong reasons, for the small stuff. We get knocked because Marlins crowds mirror meager payrolls, or because the Dolphins don’t fill stadiums for a seemingly endless parade of 7-9 mediocrity. We get derided because SoBe-chic Heat crowds tend to sashay in ever-so-fashionably late.

This is not a bad sports town, this is a BIG sports town. An event town. We get excited when there’s something to get excited about. Like now.

Some perspective is required, a brief history lesson, to place Fighting Irish vs. Crimson Tide in some context. And if what follows sounds like a bit of parochial boasting, that’s OK. It is.

Monday will mark the 20th college football national championship decided in our backyard, three of those involving the hometown Miami Hurricanes. We have hosted 10 Super Bowls, more than any other city. The Dolphins’ 22 home playoff games have included six to decide the AFC championship. We have hosted seven Marlins World Series games, six Heat NBA Finals games and two Panthers Stanley Cup Finals games.

That makes it more than five dozen times the national spotlight has swung on Greater Miami when championships were in play at the highest level of sports.

A lot of attention

And that’s only team sports. National attention has otherwise regularly found South Florida from the first Clay-Liston fight in 1964 to NASCAR’s season finale just a few weeks ago. In between we have seen Tiger Woods break attendance records at Doral, and taken for granted the world’s best tennis players on Key Biscayne every year. International soccer matches some of us could not care less about draw 40,000 here.

From the Dolphins’ Perfect Season to the current reign of LeBron James and the Heat, we have grown comfortable with the highest plateaus sports can offer.

So Monday night isn’t too big for us.

But Monday night is big — even for us.

I can’t recall a more anticipated game ever played here not involving a local team, and that includes Super Bowls.

Fighting Irish vs. Crimson Tide is that delicious, for so many reasons, from so many angles.

“It’s Rudy vs. Forrest Gump,” suggested Notre Dame receiver Robby Toma, evoking the names of iconic movies featuring Irish and Tide football, respectively.

The two schools have met but six times and not for a quarter century.

The idea of this matchup alone is so tantalizing, the game itself will be hard-pressed to live up. It might take a 58-yard field goal that ricochets off the crossbar and caroms good off the left upright as the scoreboard clock strikes :00.

Notre Dame-Alabama looks perfect from a vantage broad and national, and also from a view more local, more personal.

There are not two bigger, more storied programs in major college football. Period.

Alabama has nine national championships since the poll era began in 1936, and Notre Dame has eight. That ranks 1-2. (The recognized all-time titles are 14 for the Tide and 11 for the Irish, based on other counts.)

The Fighting Irish are a true national team, inspiring both fans and haters — inspiring passion — from coast to coast. I think only the New York Yankees are that to a similar degree. Maybe the Dallas Cowboys used to be. Notre Dame defines tradition for this sport, from Knute Rockne to the Golden Dome. Now the current coach with the perfect Irish name, Brian Kelly, has the university resurgent and one win from its first national title since 1988.

“This is about restoring Notre Dame to glory,” receiver T.J. Jones said the other day, augustly, but accurately. “People expect greatness from Notre Dame.”

Great tradition

The Crimson Tide can also boast great tradition — embodied by legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant in that iconic houndstooth fedora — but Alabama also is about right now. It is the defending champion and a second consecutive national crown (it’s favored) would be its third in the past four seasons. You get to call that a dynasty.

“We’re going for a place in history,” as coach Nick Saban puts it.

I have gone this long not mentioning Saban because I try to not cause my readers any more indigestion than is necessary.

Which leads us to the reasons this game is so personal and inspires so much passion and interest within South Florida in a way no other matchup would unless it involved Hurricanes or maybe Gators.

Start with Notre Dame. Miami Hurricanes fans despise the Irish and have since the 1980s, when the rivalry flamed hottest back when Lou Holtz and Jimmy Johnson were running things. I covered UM fulltime then and have never felt more volatility between sets of fans. I’ll never forget walking the campus in South Bend before the 1988 game and seeing all the bed sheets painted with “Catholics Vs. Convicts” and dubbing Johnson “Pork-Faced Satan.”

The schools hadn’t played since 1990 before this past fall, when, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Notre Dame traipsed across Miami 41-3 en route to Monday night.

So, yeah, Canes fans have a visceral interest in this game, and it probably is in seeing the Fighting Irish beaten. Badly, if at all possible.

Back to Saban. He is why plenty of others in South Florida will be rooting not so much for Notre Dame as against Alabama. Saban lied before the left the Dolphins for Tuscaloosa around this time in 2007, and fans have not forgotten or forgiven. I know, because they told me. I asked in a poll in my blog this week, and 71 percent said they continue to despise him for the way he left.

So, yeah, Dolfans have a visceral stake in Monday night, too, and it’s in seeing the Tide (or more accurately, Saban) lose. By a lot, if possible.

Visitors rooting for Alabama or Notre Dame to win figure to be about evenly split Monday night, while the South Florida fans hosting them will be rooting for the miracle of both to lose — all the while mesmerized, no matter what.

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