By MICHAEL WANBAUGH
THE GOSHEN NEWS
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla —
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly stood on the tarmac Wednesday afternoon and jokingly wondered about his safety.
“Do you see that,” Kelly said to his athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, as he gestured toward the tidal wave of camera-toting media assembled for his arrival here in South Florida. “I’m not going in there,” he added with a laugh.
But as he has done the past five months, Kelly dove in and talked the talk of how is No. 1 Fighting Irish are keeping their nose to the grindstone and will be prepared to walk the walk for their next game.
The next game this time, though, is Monday’s BCS National Championship game against No. 2 and defending national champion Alabama, a game that begs a little more attention than a mid-September afternoon contest against unranked Purdue.
“We’re going to get our work done and we’re going to enjoy our time here and we’re going to get the proper rest necessary,” Kelly said as he was swarmed by reporters shortly after emerging from the team’s charted jumbo jet. “You don’t go 35 days and condition your team to come out and blow it for three days. We’ve had plenty of fun, we’ll enjoy our time here, but we’re here to win a football game.”
That is a formidable challenge for the Irish who – while ranked No. 1 as the nation’s only undefeated FBS program – are a double-digit underdog against the SEC champion Crimson Tide.
But it’s not like Notre Dame has been a perennial favorite throughout this season. It was not ranked when the season began and faced what seemed like a meat-grinder schedule. The Fighting Irish were decisive underdogs against Michigan State and Oklahoma, yet came away with 20-3 and 30-13 wins respectively.
“I think we’ve played a lot of games as underdogs this year,” said Notre Dame senior wide receiver Robby Toma, the only player the media was allowed to speak with after the Irish arrived at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International jet Center Wednesday. “A lot of people doubted us. Nothing’s going to change. We’re going to compete for four quarters. We’re not going to guarantee a win. We’re just going to go out there and play.”
The national title will kick off at approximately 8:30 p.m. EDT Monday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. It will be the seventh meeting meeting and third major bowl game between the two schools. Notre Dame owns a 5-1 advantage in those games, the last of which was played in 1987.
Alabama, meanwhile, under the guidance of head coach Nick Saban, is trying to cement its latest dynasty in the college game with its third BCS title in four years. The storied history of both programs has created a massive interest in Monday’s game. Kelly admitted that isn’t lost on their players.
“They’re going to play the national championship game in Miami,” Kelly said. “It’s not like any trip that they’ve had before. It’s not like any trip I’ve had before. There was anticipation when we got on the buses for the airport (Wednesday) that they were really excited about this trip. It’s something you dream about when you play this game and when you coach this game.”
The jet carrying the Notre Dame arrived a little before 4 p.m. EDT. It was greeted on the tarmac by a water cannon bath before players, coaches and staff began their slow and steady exit.
Many of the players wore sunglasses and headphones as they sauntered down the portable stairs and toward the BCS/Orange Bowl welcoming committee that gave each player a BCS embroidered backpacks.
Before they got off the plane, players could be seen snapping photos of the media throng through the porthole-style windows. The Irish then boarded seven charter buses and were whisked away to the team hotel nearby.
About 100 Irish fans lined the fences around the jet center to get a glimpse of the team’s arrival.
Tom Paulius is a freshman at Notre Dame. He was standing outside the Ft. Lauderdale Jet Center near the Irish buses as they waited for the Notre Dame jet to arrive.
“It’s very exciting for me,” Paulius said.
Tim Wallace, a 2011 Notre Dame graduate was one of those fans. Now a mechanical engineer near Chicago, Wallace suffered through one of the roughest stretches ever for the Notre Dame program as a student. During those four years the Irish were a combined 24-26.
Barely removed from his college experience, Paulius isn’t going to miss the opportunity to witness an Irish national title.
“I never thought this day would come,” Wallace said. “I’m a little bit jealous that I wasn’t on campus to enjoy it, but mostly it’s pure bliss.”
Michael Wanbaugh is managing editor of The Goshen (Ind.) News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org