ND football lesson: Respect thy enemy

Author: Liam Farrell '04

Liam Farrell, alumni editor

In the late hours of Oct. 26, 2002, several Notre Dame marching band members walked down the side of a road in Alabama, suffused with the good feelings of an 8-0 start to a football season punctuated that day with a triumphant Fighting Irish victory over Florida State.

The hours upon hours it took in a bus to get from South Bend to Tallahassee, and the fact that the trip involved leaving almost right after the game, did not dampen the mood. Nor did the less than attractive overnight stop in a hotel off the highway, and the walking it took to find a place to eat.

As a 20-year-old who liked irony and being a smart aleck, I had decided that it would be a great time to adopt local custom. My knowledge of Alabama was small, but I knew the Crimson Tide had soundly beaten Tennessee that evening, and there would never be a better opportunity to shout “Roll Tide” at every passing car.

There is only so long, however, one can shout “Roll Tide” without starting to do it less out of ironical enjoyment and more out of sincere appreciation. Especially when every shout is returned with equal enthusiasm.

Something strange and spellbound must come out of those Alabama pines.

Before this weekend, that was my closest brush with Alabama football, beyond reading accounts of the 1973 Sugar Bowl and seeing the glorious slow motion replays of Tom Clements lofting the ball to Robin Weber to seal a national championship.

In the last few weeks, I tried to learn a little more about Alabama’s football history — call it, “Know Thy Enemy” — and consulted Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer by Warren St. John and Talk of the Tide by John Forney and Steve Townsend.

When reading about college sports history, I always have the Notre Dame précis in my mind: learning the game by playing a University of Michigan team, a source of much antipathy in years to come; being isolated by many collegiate teams and forcing its way into relevance by barnstorming; achieving prominence with upsets and innovation and the rallying cries of Catholics and immigrants from coast to coast.

And not much searching is needed to find the similarities in Alabama’s own underdog creation myth. The game of football was brought to campus by a law student who had learned it, from all places, at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Two of the most important games in the program’s early history were defeating Penn at Philadelphia in 1922 and defeating Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl, two contests tinged with North-South tensions and disrespect.

“I think it’s significant that the Alabama-Penn game was played less than 60 years after Appomattox, and the idea of a Southern group going north was not all that commonplace,” Talk of the Tide recounts.

More interesting to me, however, was the tale of Frank Thomas, who coached the Tide for 15 years and won two national titles (One of these, in 1941, is part of the long-running debate over the legitimacy of Alabama’s national title claims. These have been well-dissected in other places, like here, and Notre Dame fans are probably worn out trying to get the Tide’s banner down for 1973).

Thomas was a Notre Dame graduate and had played under Knute Rockne before heading into the coaching profession himself. He brought Notre Dame’s “box” offense to Alabama and coached Paul “Bear” Bryant, who obviously went on to iconic status when he came back to his alma mater.

If you look long enough in the histories of two institutions like Notre Dame and Alabama, you will come across coincidences and similarities, such as the passionate ardor the football teams inspire in non-alumni and even the extended time periods when the programs have gone to but failed to win bowl games.

And, inevitably, you will come away with respect.

Right before you smugly smile to yourself that Bryant never did, in fact, beat Notre Dame.

Roll Tide? Never again.

Go Irish.

Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine.