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GOULD: Alabama coach Nick Saban finally might have met his match in Brian Kelly

Nick Saban Brian Kelly

Nick Saban, Brian Kelly

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When Alabama played LSU for the national championship last year, the feeling was inescapable: If the game came down to coaching, Nick Saban would have Les Miles’ number. And Saban would make sure it came down to coaching.

When the Crimson Tide took on Texas for the 2009 title, and Mack Brown was on the sideline opposite Saban, it was the same deal.

In both cases, that turned out to be pretty much true.

As Saban tries to guide Alabama to a dynastylike third title in four years, though, it’s not clear he’ll have a leg up on Brian Kelly.

‘‘It feels great to have a great coach,’’ Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Sunday, adding that he’ll try to make Kelly’s contract NFL-proof soon. ‘‘What I feel best about is the foundation is in place to give ourselves an opportunity every year. And that’s great.’’

The college football world marvels, and rightfully so, at Saban, the game’s reigning genius.

But everything Kelly, 51, has done — especially in guiding Notre Dame to Monday’s BCS championship game — puts the third-year Irish coach in position to carve out his own prominent place in history.

Saban, 61, and Kelly have admired each other’s work since the Irish coach was creating, um, a Division II dynasty at Grand Valley State (1991-2003) and Saban was 75 miles east, at Michigan State (1995-99).

‘‘What coach Kelly does as well as anybody we’ve played all year is utilize his personnel extremely well,’’ Saban said. ‘‘That’s why they’ve been very, very successful. Certainly [it’s] no surprise that in the three years he’s been at Notre Dame, he’s built arguably one of the best programs in the country relative to the success that he’s had there and the opportunity that’s created for his team this year.’’

Their styles are very different, though.

‘‘Public appearances for Nick?’’ Kelly said, creating a ripple of laughter when asked if he’d bumped into Saban on the circuit back in Michigan.

Mentioning that they reminisce about their Mid-American Conference roots, Kelly (Central Michigan, 2004-06) respectfully welcomes comparisons to Saban (Toledo, 1990).

‘‘Nick obviously has the reputation of being a great program-builder,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘I take that as a great personal compliment, as it relates to putting winning football teams on the field. I would take that moniker any time.’’

Where Saban tends to be all football all the time, Kelly has dabbled in other arenas.

A political-science major as well as a football captain at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Kelly was a staffer on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign in Massachusetts.

Saban’s brush with politics? When he was a defensive back at Kent State, he missed the 1970 anti-war rally in which four students were killed by National Guard fire because he and a teammate stopped for lunch first.

Where Saban has a well-deserved reputation for keeping the media at bay, Kelly is well-equipped to handle the immense media demands at Notre Dame.

For example, Kelly tossed out a great nugget when he said ‘‘the team that makes the most mistakes [might win the game]. This is one of those games where you have to be aggressive, and you’re going to make a mistake. I’m not talking about catastrophic mistakes, throwing picks for touchdowns, but you may make a mistake here. As long as you know you’re playing hard . . .’’

Interestingly, in their last public appearances, Saban was harping on the mismatches the Irish can create with Tyler Eifert and Theo Riddick playing receiver, while Kelly emphasized that the game will be won in the trenches.

Those are the two keys to this game.

They will determine whether Saban further cements his genius status by becoming the first to coach back-to-back champions in the BCS era. Or whether Kelly takes another large step on his own historic path.



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