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“He was the face of college football,” McNair said.

And Bryant remains one of the most well-known figures in American sports, the houndstooth pattern of his famous hat turning up on just about everything in Tuscaloosa. And you don’t have to be from Alabama _ or even from the Deep South _ to know “Roll Tide” is more than just rally cry.

But he never beat Notre Dame in four tries. Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said that always stuck with Bryant, recounting a conversation he had with the late Hall of Fame coach when Bryant retired.

“He said, `Aww, Coach, I’ll be the guy that goes down as the guy that couldn’t beat Notre Dame,’” Holtz said. “He wanted to beat Notre Dame so bad and he could never do it.”

The Irish kept on winning after Rockne. Four national titles in the 1940s, including three under Frank Leahy. Two more under Ara Parseghian (1966 and `73) and another under Dan Devine in 1977.

Holtz won Notre Dame’s last title in 1988 and two years later the school inked a television contract with NBC to become the first school to have its own network television deal.

Notre Dame still is the university of college football for many Americans, its symbols and landmarks giving the school a high profile even as its teams stumbled in recent years: the so-called “Touchdown Jesus” mural looming over the north end zone of the football stadium; the golden helmets to match the golden dome atop the administration building. And, with “Knute Rockne All American” and “Rudy,” Hollywood has helped immortalize Notre Dame folklore.

Both Alabama and Notre Dame went through hard times in the 1990s and early 2000s, trying to find the right coach to restore the magic.

Nick Saban arrived in Alabama in 2007, and it’s as if the Bear was back. The Tide have won two of the last three national championship and could become the first program to win three in four years since the BCS was implemented in 1998.

“I know there’s a lot of national interest here because of two great programs that have tremendous tradition,” Saban said as he stepped off Alabama’s plane in Miami. “We certainly respect that on both sides.

“It’s really a special game to be a part of.”

Brian Kelly took over in South Bend three years ago, and like Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz before him, he has a chance to win a national title in his third season _ against Alabama, no less.

The Fighting Irish against the Crimson Tide, a marquee matchup in any era.