January 5, 2013 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Coaches make Notre Dame-Alabama title game the stuff of legends

Brian Kelly made stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before being summoned to Notre Dame. (Getty Images)

My boyhood consisted of shuffling to school in knickers, avoiding homework, scraping around with unachievable fantasies on dusty ballfields known as sandlots. And listening to scratchy radio sportscasts after bedtime.

There were no gizmos that flashed pictures to you back then. Just the towering cathedral radios — or the hidden tinier models — that provided vivid word accounts of sports between explosions of static.

My favorite broadcaster was a man named Bill Stern, who delivered his commentaries in a deep-pitched voice. His show on NBC was called "The Colgate Sports Newsreel." The broadcast started at 10:30 on Friday nights, as I recall.

I had no idea back then what romanticism was, but that was Bill Stern's method. It was all about the dramatic, and he broke his segments into "Reel 1, Reel 2," until his time elapsed.

And so it was some 75-plus years ago that I learned about Notre Dame.

I learned on my precious radio about Notre Dame's Four Horsemen and about Knute Rockne and about the Gipper — George Gipp — and about Gus Dorais throwing the forward passes that beat Army.

And I learned that no victory was impossible for Notre Dame. Even when the games were so challenging and Notre Dame seemed doomed.

In his mellifluous voice, Bill Stern described an episode in one of his reels about a game some years earlier, in 1935, when Notre Dame seemed destined for defeat by Ohio State. Stern managed to squeeze every drop of drama into his narrative.

Ohio State was a contender for the national championship that season. And on this Saturday in November, in Columbus, the score was Ohio State 13, Notre Dame 0, in the fourth quarter.

Bill Stern reminded his captive audience that Notre Dame was a Catholic university, as part of his foreshadowing. Notre Dame would score two touchdowns and miss two extra points, and Ohio State still led 13-12 with time almost gone.

But then there was a fumble, Stern said, and then Notre Dame's top player, Andy Pilney, was carted from the field with an injury.

With an actor's stage pauses and with intensified voice emphasis, he delivered the climax to this reel.

"Bill Shakespeare threw a 19-yard pass to Wayne Millner in the end zone and Notre Dame won the game, 18-13." Pause. "Bill Shakespeare, who threw the winning pass for the Fighting Irish, is a Protestant. Wayne Millner, who caught the winning pass for the Fighting Irish, is Jewish."

Stern's Reel 4 ended with a commercial for shaving cream.

And I, perhaps 9 or 10, had gained some imperishable knowledge.

New mediums

Years later, I saw Bill Stern in person. He was not the boom-voiced giant that I had imagined. He was a small man, wearing a fedora.

Long before the establishment of ESPN a half century later, Stern would be questioned at times about the veracity of his reports. Some of them might have been fictionalized, over-dramatized, spun. Stern, after all, had done some acting in Hollywood.

But this one — Shakespeare-to-Millner, Notre Dame over Ohio State 18-13 — checked out on Google.

It was all true. It caught some votes as the greatest game of the 20th century. And believe it or not, I actually watched footage on YouTube this past Friday of the winning pass, Shakespeare-to-Millner, that I'd first heard about on Bill Stern's "Colgate's Sports Newsreel" some seven decades earlier.

Time marches on — from Dorais to Rockne, to the Four Horsemen riding again, to Shakespeare to Millner, from Frank Leahy, to Paul Hornung, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz — to now. And to Brian Kelly and Notre Dame's No. 1 placement in the moveable — by the week, almost — 2012 polls.

And to Monday night, with Notre Dame involved in another national championship game against strongly favored Alabama — coached by Nick Saban.

On television!

E-SPIN! Where else?

The Fighting Irish, seemingly, doomed again.

Michigan roots

The boy who was enchanted by Bill Stern's radio recreations so long, long ago has spent many days viewing and reporting on Notre Dame football. And enjoying so many visits to the Notre Dame campus.

And enjoying, well — once upon a time — a visit with Nick Saban when he was new and young as coach of Michigan State. Before he became a serial coaching defector — before his national championship at Louisiana State and his two at Alabama.

That afternoon in the late 1990s Saban sat in the head coach's office at Michigan State and discussed his own boyhood in a crossroads town in West Virginia, Fairmont.

"It was four corners," Saban told me. "A gas station on one corner and a general store on another."

From those roots, Saban became the most famous and most successful football coach in America. Also one of the most disliked, according to a piece a couple of years ago in The News which ran an article about the 10 most hated people in sports.

Nick became one of the most traveled coaches, too. Toledo before Michigan State, then LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama — currently wondrous fodder for the rumor gossips with so many NFL jobs vacant.

A coincidence — a proud coincidence; both of the BCS championship game coaches developed whatever necessities are required to climb the coaching ladder in the state of Michigan.

Brian Kelly likewise is a vagabond. Out of Everett in Massachusetts, Kelly made stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before being summoned to Notre Dame.

Like Saban, Kelly has national championships in his collection. Two Division II championships during his 13 seasons as head coach at Grand Valley.

And like Saban at Alabama, Kelly is a renaissance coach.

Alabama had toppled into mediocrity through many seasons after the retirement and death of Bear Bryant. And Notre Dame — which had won championships in the eras of Rockne, Elmer Layden, Leahy, Dan Devine — had been frustrated through a gamut of head coaches since its last national championship in 1988 under Holtz.

Then Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend and revived Notre Dame's football program.

The two coaches vying for the national championship on the first Monday night of 2013 are upwardly mobile. Different men with different sideline styles, yet with similar backgrounds.

And all of it would have created the perfect newsreel for the late Bill Stern.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.

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