FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Brian Kelly walked off the tarmac, hopped aboard one of Notre Dame’s team buses that bore his image on the side and grinned broadly as he sat in the driver’s seat.
Soon, the Notre Dame coach will know if his team – or Alabama – will finish college football’s season in that proverbial spot.
The top-ranked Fighting Irish landed in South Florida on Wednesday, not long before the arrival of the second-ranked Crimson Tide. The teams meet Monday night to decide the BCS championship, a matchup that was set more than a month ago, the hype growing with each day.
“Going to play the national championship game in Miami, it’s not like any trip that they’ve had before,” Kelly said. “It’s not like any trip that I’ve had before. And so there was an anticipation that when we got on the buses to the airport that they were really excited about this trip. It’s something that you dream about when you play this game and when you coach this game.”
For Notre Dame – at least for this current batch of Fighting Irish – this is all new, as one of the game’s most storied programs has not won the national title since the 1988 season.
For Alabama, the hubbub that goes with the BCS title game is familiar, as the Tide is trying to win its second straight crown and third in four years.
And for Alabama coach Nick Saban, it was a return to his former home. Saban coached the Miami Dolphins before going to the Crimson Tide, famously saying toward the end of his tenure in South Florida that he wasn’t “going to be the Alabama coach.”
He was hired by the Tide not long afterward.
Yet on Wednesday, Saban — first off the Alabama plane — was greeted like a visiting dignitary, with about a dozen TV cameras and twice that many reporters on hand to record the event.
“It’s great to be back in South Florida,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve been to the Orange Bowl. I’m sure these people here are going to do a great job of providing tremendous hospitality for our players and our entire family.”
Grand welcomes were executed for both teams, including water cannon sprays over their planes and greetings from local officials and members of the Orange Bowl Committee. Notre Dame landed in Fort Lauderdale, Alabama in Miami, the teams about equidistant from Sun Life Stadium — the site of Monday’s showdown for the title.
Police escorts awaited the bus caravans, and all players were getting a gift bag that some started digging through immediately, even before leaving the airport.
“It’s ‘Rudy’ vs. ‘Forrest Gump,’” Notre Dame wide receiver Robby Toma said, referring to the still-popular films that featured the Irish and the Tide. “Both very storied programs, a bunch of national championships and we’re excited to compete with the best because that’s how you become the best.”
And work is left in both Notre Dame’s and Alabama’s quest to finish at No. 1. Both teams are set to return to the practice field on Thursday, with workouts scheduled throughout the remainder of the week.
“We’ve got to do a little work this week,” Kelly said. “But we feel good about our preparation.”
Dozens of players, coaches and guests on the Notre Dame flight took photos of the mass of reporters, Broward Sheriff’s officers and fans when they deplaned, a few carrying video cameras and a couple even tossed oranges — a nod to the Orange Bowl Committee — from one hand to another.
Kelly said Notre Dame will find ways to mix fun and relaxation with the element of it being a business trip as well.
“All the people that were looking out the window were pretty much amazed to see the kind of draw that this game has,” Kelly said.
On the Alabama side, All-American center Barrett Jones wore a walking boot to protect the left foot he sprained during the SEC championship but said he was ready to go. Reserve offensive lineman Arie Koundjio had to be treated for dehydration when the plane landed, and tight end Harrison Jones did not travel with the team for what Saban called medical reasons. He’s expected to arrive Thursday.
The other Tide players seemed focused.
“We want to reach this point,” said defensive lineman Damion Square, who was recruited by Notre Dame. “To be here is great, but we have to finish the job.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.