Column: Alabama has impressive tradition, but it isn’t Notre Dame

By Andrew Owens

Notre Dame and Alabama. The matchup alone boasts a ring to it unlike any previous BCS National Championship Game, even the epic Texas-USC duel following the 2005 season.

The two universities are the most famous in college football lore, but which program is perched atop the sport’s pecking order?

If you simply look at how many national championships the two schools claim, you’d say Alabama. But that’s by no means an accurate measure.

First off, the Tide claim 14 and the Irish 11. Alabama, however, has taken heat from fans and college football historians for its methods of claiming championships. Essentially, any time any poll thinks Alabama is the nation’s top team, the Crimson Tide claim it. A couple examples:

Wallace Wade’s 1925 Alabama squad finished 9-0-0, but the two polls the Tide use to justify their claimed championship didn’t exist until years later, giving them a retroactive championship.

In 1973, Notre Dame finished 11-0 after a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. But the Tide, who finished fourth in the Associated Press poll, claim a championship from 1973 because the UPI poll rated them No. 1 heading into the bowl games and did not release a post-bowl ranking. That’s enough for Alabama.

Advantage: It’s a wash. They’re the two best programs, and it’s hard to make a distinction for one over the other.

When you look at individual achievements, amazingly, Alabama has only won one Heisman trophy in program history (Mark Ingram in 2009). Notre Dame has won seven, though none since Tim Brown in 1987.

Advantage: Notre Dame

As far as iconic coaching legends go, the names “Rockne” and “Bear” say it all. Knute Rockne is responsible for the growth of college football and revolutionized the game on and off the field. Paul “Bear” Bryant won six national championships and 13 conference titles in 25 seasons at Alabama, a stretch that won’t be matched anytime soon, though Nick Saban could make a run at it if he stayed with the Tide long-term.

It’s when you continue down the list of Alabama and Notre Dame coaches that you see the depth the Irish boast: Leahy. Parseghian. Devine. Holtz. (Kelly?) For Alabama, Nick Saban, Gene Stallings and Wade all won championships in Tuscaloosa but, outside of Saban, the names aren’t as iconic as Notre Dame’s.

Advantage: Notre Dame

In national name recognition, it’s game over. Notre Dame has earned a national following matched by no other program.

No one is more qualified to talk about that than Ara Parseghian, who coached at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern before taking the Notre Dame job.

“The magnitude of its recognition nationally [separates the program],” he said. “I had been in the Big Ten for years and when you got outside of a radius of 500 miles, the interest and knowledge of Northwestern diminished. I came to Notre Dame and it was coast-to-coast, North, South, East and West. It was remarkable.”

Notre Dame sits aside the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Lakers on the mantle of iconic teams. When the Irish play, people watch.

November’s classic between then-No. 1 Alabama and then-No. 5 LSU — a national championship rematch — drew an impressive 7.0 overnight rating. Three weeks later it was blown out of the water when No. 1 Notre Dame beat unranked USC to clinch its berth in the BCS National Championship Game with a 10.3 overnight rating. More viewers watched that game than last year’s Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl.

No other program can claim the national footprint, sustained success and iconic coaches and players the Irish can.

Alabama is a college football behemoth, but Notre Dame is college football.

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