I may be the first person in history to sit on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and enter into the car GPS the address for The University of Alabama. The distance, in case you’re wondering, is 678.9 miles or 9 hours and 43 minutes.
That considerable distance doesn’t begin to tell the philosophical differences between two universities that are known first and foremost for their decades of success in college football.
I spent most of Saturday in South Bend before driving directly to Tuscaloosa for a Sun- day engagement. It would be hard to overstate the difference. Even on a June weekend, two things are clear about these two football meccas: First, both communities love college football. Second, they have very different views of how that love fits into the overall view of who they are and what their universities represent.
Tuscaloosa is similar to almost every major university in the South, with its massive stadium that is on campus but is not really of the campus. The same is true at most of the SEC schools, including Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as serious football schools such as Clem- son and Florida State.
As soon as a visitor pulls onto University Drive in Tuscaloosa, majestic Bryant-Denny Stadium is clearly visible from miles away.
Notre Dame Stadium is in the center of campus but isn’t even visible from most of the campus. It’s an impressive structure, but no more so than standing in front of the famous golden-domed administrative building or Hesburgh Library or famous grotto (that’s Latin for a bunch of rocks piled up in a pretty way).
The famed Touchdown Jesus painting that is ubiquitous during television coverage of every Notre Dame game is only a straight par-5 from the Knute Rockne entrance to the stadium. I wondered if students in the quiet library where I was standing could study on a fall Saturday without knowing there were 80,795 fans cheering on the Fighting Irish such a short walk away. So I asked the first friendly face I saw wearing a Notre Dame badge. She said, “I don’t know. I’ve never been in here while a game was going on.”
Her answer was only funny after I realized who I had randomly flagged down to have a conversation. It was Paqui Kelly, the wife of head football coach Brian Kelly.
She asked where I was from, commented on my U.S. Tennis Association shirt and asked if I needed her to help me find a tennis partner while I was in town. She then proceeded to walk with me out of the building and spend the next 10 minutes as my personal tour guide. As she turned to walk back to the library and send me on my site-seeing way, I told her I was a journalist and I might want to include her name in my reporting because she was so helpful. That’s when she told me that she was “nothing official,” but she runs a family foundation on campus and, oh by the way, her husband is Brian Kelly.
She told me that at Notre Dame they say the priorities are “God, Country and Notre Dame.” The fact that the Touchdown Jesus mosaic on the front of the library towers over the football field and not the other way around indicates that maybe she had that order correct.
She told me that the football stadium has become the center of activity on campus only since the new student center and other structures were added to the sides of the stadium.
I can’t imagine new construction at Bryant- Denny Stadium that wasn’t strictly football related. For one thing, that construction would take away valuable parking and tailgating space. But that doesn’t seem to be the top priority at Notre Dame.
I’m not here to pass judgment on the right
away to have a championship program coexist and enhance a great college experience for students and fans. Both Alabama and Notre Dame were in the College Football Playoff last year, so it’s hard to be critical of either.
The pressure is not limited to winning games but also includes winning championships. Alabama has been better at that than anyone over the past decade, so there’s no way to argue with the approach taken in Tuscaloosa. Notre Dame has been very good, as well, but hasn’t won a national championship in 30 years.
But my trip to Notre Dame did open my eyes to how differently fans and the university leaders view the role of football in the overall college experience.
There’s a reason why Alabama almost never wins or loses a recruiting battle with Notre Dame, even though both programs are searching nationwide for the best players. It’s because there’s no comparison to the experience on one campus compared to the other. Not better or worse, but certainly different.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3 – 6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station. Follow him on Twitter @Kennedy_Randy
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