FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Notre Dame arrived here Wednesday afternoon to a reception like no other.
After flying on a Delta charter from South Bend, the Irish football program taxied down the Fort Lauderdale Airport runway between water cannons shot from two massive fire trucks. Then a collection of orange-clad Orange Bowl execs scurried up the portable stairway to greet Brian Kelly at the plane door.
Irish players descended into a sea of television cameras, most keeping on headphones to block out distractions both literal and figurative. Assistant coaches escorted their families to team busses, Kelly ultimately sitting in the driver’s seat of one, joking he’d added chauffeur to his job description.
The Irish head coach has been here before, at least practically, having coached in an Orange Bowl while at Cincinnati. For his players, this was all foreign territory after trips to the Champs Sports Bowl and Sun Bowl the past two seasons.
“Every week is a big game, but this is the biggest game,” said Robby Toma outside the team bus. “We’re ready for it.”
Notre Dame will spend the night watching the Miami Heat host the Dallas Mavericks. Practices follow Thursday and Friday mornings, with the BCS National Championship Media Day at Sun Life Stadium scheduled for Saturday.
At that point the reality of playing for a national title may have hit the players. Toma said the media crush on the runway might snap him into the new normal around Notre Dame’s football program.
“It’s definitely crazy to see all the people in their orange shirts. They’re all welcoming us,” Toma said. “Last night I really started getting anxious watching the NIU-Florida State Orange Bowl game. Just realizing that we’re gonna play in that stadium on Monday. It’s a little nerve wracking, but we’re ready for it.”
Kelly said the team would have an 11 p.m. curfew instead of the standard 2 a.m. bed check that usually accompanies his bowl trips, at least on the first couple nights.
Notre Dame’s roster arrived in South Florida at full strength aside from injury. An official said all players are eligible following the fall semester and no player faces any kind of disciplinary action heading into the game.
Now, with the six-week layoff nearing completion, all that remains are a handful of practices on-site to acclimate to the 80 degree temperatures, a big change from the frigid conditions in South Bend.
“A couple of us were joking the other day, it’s Rudy versus Forrest Gump. Both very storied programs and a bunch of national championships,” Toma said. “We’re excited to compete with the best because that’s how you become the best.”