It’s not surprising to find Notre Dame rated among the top two since the game of football as we know it comes from South Bend, Indiana. Both on the field (in terms of the quality of play) and off (in terms of promotion and image building) Knute Rockne showed that football could do wonders for the prestige of a university, taking Notre Dame from a small, unknown Catholic school in the Midwest to national and then international fame, leveraging its football fame to appeal to Catholic minorities.
On January 1, 1926, the University of Alabama won one of its legendary games, a 20-19 victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl, and President Mike Denny determined to use the victory to turn his school into the Notre Dame of the South, i.e. to transform Alabama from a regional to a national institution. When Denny came to Tuscaloosa in 1911, enrollment was just over 400 students; when he retired in 1937 there were more than 5,000, including many Northern boys from Jewish families, lured south by ads in big city newspapers boasting that Alabama, unlike many Northern universities, had no “quota” on Jewish students. The ad campaign was paid for with profits from football. Denny was one of the first Southern university presidents to grasp the importance of a professionally run athletic department.
Needless to say, on the field the Fighting Irish, with its innovative forward pass and progressive strategies and practice techniques, became the model for every forward-looking football program in the country. When Alabama went looking for a new and vigorous football coach in 1931 they chose Frank Thomas, who had been one of the second-string quarterbacks on Rockne’s famed “Four Horsemen” team. One of Thomas’s star players—and as it turned out, Thomas’s star pupil—was Paul “Bear” Bryant. Notre Dame and Alabama have been running neck-and-neck in football ever since.