FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – There were some dark days at Notre Dame and Alabama, dark years really, during which two of college football’s proudest programs flailed and foundered.
Notre Dame won the national title in 1988, then spent much of the next two decades running through coaches — four if you count the guy who never coached a game — and drifting between mediocre and good.
Alabama won the national championship in 1992, then spent the next 15 years running through coaches — four if you count the guy who never coached a game — and drifting between mediocre and pretty good.
As the 21st century dawned, the Fighting Irish and the Crimson Tide were old news, stodgy remnants of a glorious past, not moving fast enough to keep up with the times, and searching for someone to lead them back to the top.
“It parallels Notre Dame to a tee,” said Paul Finebaum, who has covered Alabama as a reporter and radio host for more than 30 years. “The attitude was ‘We’re Alabama. We don’t have to do what others are doing. We’ll win because of our tradition.’ Finally everyone passed Alabama.”
And Notre Dame.
Then along came Nick Saban and Brian Kelly to knock off the rust, fine-tune the engines and turn the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish into the sharpest machines in college football again.
No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama meet Monday night in Miami in a BCS championship between two titans not all that far removed from tough times.
“The pendulum swings,” said Gene Stallings, the last Tide coach before Saban to bring home a national title. “You don’t stay good forever. You don’t stay bad forever.”
Of course, Alabama and Notre Dame fans aren’t real comfortable with the first part of that statement. The Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish were perennial contenders for decades.
For Alabama, replacing Bear proved difficult. Paul Bryant won six national championships in 25 years and when he stepped down the Crimson Tide felt compelled to bring back one of his boys to replace him. Ray Perkins was hired away from the New York Giants, and spent four years at Alabama before going back to the NFL.
Alabama tried going outside the family and hired Bill Curry. He lasted three years, before leaving for Kentucky.
“You follow somebody like Coach Bryant, it’s an extremely difficult situation,” Stallings said.
Stallings played for Bryant at Texas A&M, coached under him at Alabama and even sounded a bit like the Bear. He found success and relative peace in seven seasons as coach of the Tide.
“I told Coach Bryant stories. I wasn’t in competition with Coach Bryant,” Stallings said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I was, quote, accepted by the Alabama people.”
After Stallings left in 1996, things started to get ugly at Alabama. School leaders tried again to keep their prized job in the family, hiring Mike DuBose, a former lineman for Bryant. That didn’t work, so Alabama swung the other direction by hiring Dennis Franchione, who skipped town after two seasons for Texas A&M, and Mike Price, who brought a whole new level of embarrassment to Alabama. Not long after he was hired away from Washington State, Price was fired after a night of drunkeness became public.
Alabama reverted back to old form, going with one of its own in former Tide quarterback Mike Shula. Like DuBose, he wasn’t up to the task. On top of everything else, the NCAA slammed Alabama, wiping all its victories from the 2005 and ’06 seasons off the books.
Meanwhile, over the years, Alabama had fallen behind others in the Southeastern Conference when it came to facilities and support staff. Big-time college football is an arms race of sorts, and the Crimson Tide weren’t investing like the competition — like LSU had while winning a national title under Saban, for example.
“The program lost its compass,” Finebaum said.
When it came time to hire another coach in 2006, Alabama courted Saban and Steve Spurrier. Spurrier wasn’t interested and Saban had an NFL season to finish. When the Tide was turned down by Rich Rodriguez, who opted instead to stay with West Virginia, it was rock bottom.
“It was the darkest moment I can ever remember in Alabama history,” Finebaum said.
As it turned out, it was one of the best things to ever happen to Alabama.
“You’ve got to have some luck,” Stallings said.
As luck would have it, Saban was ready to get back to college football.
Alabama lured him away from the NFL with a $4 million a year contract and gave him the power and support to run the program the way he wanted.
“Alabama finally hired someone who has not afraid to tell everybody to get out of the way,” Finebaum said.
For Notre Dame, it is a similar tale. Lou Holtz won that title in 1988 but by the end of his tenure, Notre Dame started to slip and the people in charge were resistant to changes needed to keep up with the competition.
The Irish promoted Bob Davie. In five seasons he never won more than nine games and went 0-3 in bowls.
Davie, now the coach at New Mexico, doesn’t make excuses for his record at Notre Dame, but he does note that the school has been willing to make the type of changes in recent years that he sought back in the late 1990s.
“Their salaries for coaches are competitive with everybody in the country. They are accepting early graduates (from high school),” he said.
“I know the dynamics there very well and there’s a lot of people who think you don’t have to do that at Notre Dame. It’s proven now that you do have to do those things.”
Former athletic director Kevin White was the catalyst for many of those changes, but he was also the man who hired George O’Leary, who was caught fibbing on his resume and stepped down, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. The Weis hiring in 2004 was especially telling.
Notre Dame wanted Urban Meyer, who was then at Utah and the hottest commodity on the coaching market. Meyer worked at Notre Dame under Holtz and had called being Fighting Irish coach his dream job.
And he turned it down to coach Florida because he realized it would be easier to win a national title with the Gators than with the Irish. He won two with Florida in six years.
The Irish hired Weis, the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator who had never been a head coach but did graduate from Notre Dame. He was gone in five years.
This time when Notre Dame went looking for a coach, the hottest candidate was Kelly. The difference was the hottest commodity also wanted Notre Dame.
Kelly has continued to push Notre Dame into the 21st century, implementing a training table to make it easier for the players to eat healthy. He pushed for music to be pumped through the PA system at Notre Dame Stadium to rouse a fanbase that had started to sit on its hands.
“It’s flashier,” Davie said. “They are a lot more like everybody else is but that’s what’s making them competitive.”
Now what separates both Notre Dame and Alabama from the competition is their coaches.