Alabama's hatred of Notre Dame runs long, deep

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Jeremy Pike is a 37-year-old native and resident of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Like all proper fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide, he maintains an abiding hatred of Southeastern Conference rivals Auburn and Tennessee.

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But there is a third member of his unholy fan trinity, and always has been.

"Oh, I hate Notre Dame," Pike said. "I never pull for them."

On Nov. 3, Pike and about 50 other Alabama fans were in Louisiana getting ready to watch the Tide play LSU – the most anticipated game of the year. But before the game, they were glued to the TV screaming for Pittsburgh to upset Notre Dame. All of them.

"Notre Dame, Auburn and Tennessee, I can't pull for them ever," Pike said. "I can't put them in order; it just depends on the year and what's at stake."

[Related: SEC's bowl showings should give Notre Dame a boost against Alabama]

What's at stake next week is the national championship, and the opponent is the Fighting Irish. So for now, they are No. 1 on Pike's Enemies List.

He has a lot of company.

For two schools that haven't played each other in 25 years, and have met just six times in history, there is a very active contempt between the powerhouses. And for a whole host of reasons that extend far beyond this particular matchup, the hate seems to flow with particular fervor from South to North.

This is in part a reaction to Notre Dame's position of historical primacy, a position that rivals, if not exceeds, Alabama's. But that's not all. It's also a matter of sociology and hagiography. The roots go beyond mere football, extending to cultural and possibly even religious divides.

"There is a real defensiveness in the South in general, but Alabama in particular, about everything north of the Mason-Dixon Line," said Wayne Flynt, the founding editor of the Encylopedia of Alabama and professor emeritus of History at Auburn. "And that includes Notre Dame, which is a huge image of success in America.

"When you rank in the bottom five in the nation … in almost every quality-of-life category, and get hammered in the national media about how backward you are, you sort of get a 5,000-pound chip on your shoulder. We don't excel in almost any other category than college football – and we're kind of gangbusters in that.

"There's one team that vies for supremacy with Alabama in college football. That's Notre Dame, which is the ultimate example of ‘The Other,' to use a sociological term."

From the Southern viewpoint, here is why Notre Dame was "The Other": It was the media darling, the golden program, literally and figuratively. The Irish were the glamour boys with a far-flung fan base, a showcase of academic excellence coupled with football power. Alabama was the standard bearer for the downtrodden, undereducated, underappreciated South, striving to show that the region could look the rest of a disdainful nation in the eye and not blink.

Fighting Irish fans undoubtedly stoked the fires of Southern defensiveness with the popular T-shirt leading into this game: "Catholics vs. Cousins." The shirt is a derivative of the famous "Catholics vs. Convicts" T-shirt of 1988, which was Notre Dame's shot at the lawless Miami Hurricanes.

This one takes aim at the last semi-safe stereotype to lampoon in America: the ignorant white Southerner. The shirt includes the Jed Clampett-ish image of a classic Southern bumpkin, just the kind of guy who would marry his cousin, right? Get it?

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They got it in Alabama. And failed to laugh. To many, it's just one more example of Notre Dame smugness and Northern contempt for the nation's poorest region.

"A lot of Southerners migrated to the North and have been the butt of jokes and putdowns, for their accents and other reasons," Flynt said. "A lot of them have adopted Alabama football, even if they're not from Alabama, because it kicks Yankee butt."

Alabama memorably kicked Yankee butt when it beat Penn State and Joe Paterno in the 1979 Sugar Bowl to win the national title, the fifth of six championships claimed under program icon Bear Bryant. (There is some creative accounting that goes into 'Bama's 14 national titles.)

Bear kicked plenty of other non-Southern butts, walloping Ohio State, UCLA, Nebraska and Oklahoma in bowl games during his dominant Alabama tenure. But the one Yankee program he couldn't beat was the most glamorous of them all: Notre Dame.

Bryant was 0-4 against the Irish, including what almost certainly were the two most painful losses of his career in the 1973 Sugar Bowl and '75 Orange Bowl. The Sugar, which marked the first meeting of the two super powers, is considered one of the greatest games in college football history. The Orange was a major upset in Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian's final game.

Total margin of defeat in the two games was three points. Both losses cost the Crimson Tide national titles.

"They were so close," Flynt said. "They did turn on a single play. A whole series of plum breaks went Notre Dame's way."

When the Irish later won two regular-season matchups by a total of 10 points, it was almost unbearable for some Alabama fans who worship Bryant in a way few (if any) fan bases revere a coach.

"Bear was the greatest coach at Alabama, and it was always a shock to me that he never could beat them," said Jeremy Pike, the avowed Notre Dame hater. "He probably couldn't stand that he never beat them."

The roots of Alabama anger toward Notre Dame actually predate the bowl losses, dating back to 1966. That was the year the Irish's perceived Favorite Son status with the media cost Bear another title.

In another of the sport's most famous games, Notre Dame tied Michigan State 10-10 that season, with Parseghian timidly playing to preserve the deadlock long before college football had overtime. The game was played Nov. 19, and Parseghian gambled that with his team ranked No. 1 and playing the No. 2 Spartans, they would not lose the top spot. After routing USC the next week, he was proved correct.

Notre Dame, despite the tie and not playing in a bowl game (that was the school's custom at the time), was voted No. 1 and the national champions. Michigan State finished No. 2. Meanwhile, 11-0 Alabama was frozen out and finished No. 3.

And the people were displeased. Many wondered whether the state's largely disgraceful resistance to civil rights at the time was held against the football team by the voters.

"The biggest thing was '66," said Pike, who said he was well-versed in 'Bama lore by his father. "I believe also in '66 Alabama had an all-white team, and that might have come into play, too.

"If we beat them this time, it would feel like a lot of revenge for those guys in '66, trying to get that championship back for them."

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How much of Alabama's dislike of Notre Dame is post-mortem payback for the Bear and how much is a Southern inferiority complex is anyone's guess. But Flynt does not believe historic anti-Catholic feelings in Alabama and around the South are a factor.

In 1919, Alabama had a law on the books that allowed authorities to search convents without a warrant to make sure no one was being "involuntarily confined" there, according to the Birmingham News.

In 1921, a Catholic priest was shot to death outside his house in Birmingham. The accused killer was a protestant reverend who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and he was acquitted by a jury that included several Klansmen. The reverend's legal expenses were paid for by the Klan, and his defense attorney was Hugo Black, who would go on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Black later reportedly joined the Klan, but renounced it before joining the Supreme Court and ultimately becoming one of its most liberal members.

Flynt, for one, dismisses any suggestion that Notre Dame's famed religious affiliation has anything to do with Alabama fans rooting against the Irish football team.

"There is historical anti-Catholicism in evangelical Christians," Flynt said. "I think that's a thing of the past. I don't think that matters anymore."

As noted, the dislike in this non-rivalry doesn't just go one way. Irish fans tend not to think too fondly of the Tide, either. Don Hawes is a sports anchor at the Birmingham NBC affiliate who used to work in South Bend and actually did the pregame and postgame shows from 1993-95 with Lou Holtz when he was the coach. He's seen it from both sides.

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"When I was at Notre Dame, I used to hear a lot about how much they did not like Alabama," he said. "I think Alabama fans became bored with Notre Dame because they were losing."

Ratings on the station for Notre Dame games were "horrible" for several years, Hawes said. A 12-0 record and No. 1 ranking has changed all that, as Crimson Tide backers tune in to root against their Northern nemesis.

"The Notre Dame haters," Hawes said, "have definitely come back."

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