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Tears for my champions

Gary Caruso | Thursday, January 17, 2013

This writer is among a select few who personally witnessed every Notre Dame-Alabama football clash, including the Discover BCS National Championship game roil earlier this month at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Initially at the 1973 Sugar Bowl – in those days simply labeled “Sugar Bowl Classic” unlike today with an onslaught of commercial sponsorships – Alabama first faced Notre Dame in what would become a handful of cultural, religious and political clashes masked in the form of football contests. The Irish Sugar Bowl win inaugurated a string of several national championship “steals” perpetrated against the Alabama Crimson Tide. So this month’s brutal snatching of the title from Notre Dame is, for Alabama fans, a deserved payback.
 Beneath the niceties of both universities lie great football traditions and an evolution of student bodies. Notre Dame morphed from a fledgling coeducational and substantially blue-collar student body in the early 1970s to a more homogenous, “The North Face” fashionable affluent Catholic finishing school. Alabama maintained its longtime public coeducational institutional stature, but now includes a markedly increased racial minority makeup from that of the late 1960s. The most notable difference this year compared to 1973 – and an amazing testament to our nation’s civil rights strides – was the large number of African-American fans following both Alabama and the Irish throughout South Beach. Four decades ago, only a few fans of any non-white heritage roamed Bourbon Street in support of either team.
 Back in the 1970s both fan groups overtly displayed stereotypical disdain for each other. After the 1973 win, Notre Dame fans greeted the new year by twisting the lyrics of an Alabama cheer: “Roll Tide, Roll. ‘Round the bowl and down the hole. Roll Tide Roll.”
 In the days leading up to the 1980 game at Birmingham Legion Field, Alabama held “Red Day” on campus with bumper stickers proclaiming “The Mighty Crimson Tide will Forever Shame the University of Notre Dame.” A local newspaper headlined, “We’ve got to beat those Damn Yankees.” However, Alabama lost in a 7-0 shutout before their home crowd.
 Irish defensive lineman Scott Zettek told the Tuscaloosa News the negative barbs gave the team an extra motivation. “Their fans brought out the hate in us and made it … a holy war,” Zettek noted. “It ended up bringing out the best in us. Alabama has a class team, but I’m a little suspect of their fans [who] are a little to be desired. They lose sight that it was just a football game. No one died today. This was a shut-up game for their fans and should keep them quiet.”
 Ironically, legendary coach Bear Bryant never beat Notre Dame for the same reasons Alabama dominated the Irish a week ago. Describing his 1980 loss that knocked Alabama out of national championship contention, Bryant said, “It would be an understatement to say the best team won. We are not used to playing anybody as big and strong as Notre Dame.”
 It may be too simplistic to characterize this year’s BCS participants by saying football is a way of life for Alabama and a religion for Notre Dame. But football is a way of life at Alabama while at Notre Dame football is part soul. Alabama fans live their football experiences like a concert pianist superbly caresses the ivory keys. They are technicians very skilled at executing their specialities. Irish fans enjoy football like a classical composer brilliantly crafts an iconic melody. They are creative masters very skilled at constructing their specialities.
 Nonetheless, a way of life becomes routine while still serving its pleasantries. A spiritual revival, conversely, is a rare opportunity to seize the moment a long time in the making. The bands embodied it when the Alabama band walked silently onto the beach for their pep rally before hundreds while the Notre Dame band drummed and chanted “Here come the Irish” for blocks to face thousands. The football programs also demonstrated their passions differently. The upstart Irish program saw firsthand how ‘Bama operates at a well-refined championship level – which actually is a way of life for Alabama.
 Coach Nick Saban, his players and the Alabama fans had come to finish their task like they had done the previous year and three years prior. They needed nothing more to take care of business. Notre Dame fans were absorbed in emotion and zeal. While Lou Holtz – the only coach to lose to Alabama in a gallant effort during his first year of rebuilding a flailing program – extolled the virtues of playing for Our Lady without adulation, my classmate had tears streaming down his face.
 “The Notre Dame I know,” he said, “offered us the possibility to go beyond our working class backgrounds to one day become successful. I’m afraid that most of today’s students are from successful families so Notre Dame no longer champions as many opportunities.”
 His tears swelled for a champion of our era, an expectation far removed from football crowns and crystal trophies.
Gary Caruso, a 1973 graduate of Notre Dame, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at:
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    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.