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January 4, 2013

Kelly, Saban have led programs out of the wilderness

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 championship 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 pretty 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 newspaper reporter and radio show 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 former Alabama coach 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 national championship contenders for decades.

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