This year the Notre Dame football team went through some of the program's darkest days en route to the postseason. Miami, with an interim coach guiding the Hurricanes, has its own issues to resolve. To Sun Bowl organizers, brand value alone, more than both teams' 7-5 records, made dollars and sense.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," said Sun Bowl Association president Amen Ayoub Sunday in a teleconference announcing the pairing. "This is the greatest game that we've ever put together here in the 77-year history of the Sun Bowl and we're excited to have both universities come to El Paso later this month."
Following the death of team videographer Declan Sullivan and a myriad injuries, the Fighting Irish rattled off three inconceivable victories to close out the season to earn an invitation to play on Dec. 31, filling a void that the Pac-10 Conference couldn't fill.
"I don't think it was just the bye week itself," first-year Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "Just accumulation of the message beginning to resonate. I think it's the old analogy where you stay consistent with what you're doing and it breaks for you. I think it was more of a culmination, not just the one week in the bye week, and it started to come together for our football team."
Kelly was candid about such a trying season in South Bend.
"It was the greatest challenge," he said. "It took all twenty years of my experience to make sure we got through this in the right manner. Again, I think it required a lot of my experience of being a head coach. Certainly a challenge, but we feel like we learned a lot from this year."
Miami's Jeff Stoutland, who was named interim coach after Randy Shannon was fired following an overtime loss to South Florida, said he isn't concerned about his future, nor does he consider the Sun Bowl an audition for the Hurricane's job.
"I don't know. That's not in the back of my head really," he said. "I'm really ... right now the most important thing is -- I've said it all week and I've committed everything we have to this -- and it's to take care of the kids. A lot of guys are confused, trying to figure the whole thing out. We really spent the whole weekend, as assistant coaches, and I really appreciate the guys I work with because they're right there with me.
"Every guy came right up to me since this was announced and said, 'Hey, I got your back 100 percent.' And they know I'd do the same for them. For right now, I'm really anxious to get out on the field with the team and I think that's what we need the most."
The Irish and Hurricanes last clashed in 1990, ending an emotional rivalry that wasn't expected to be renewed until 2012 at Soldier Field in Chicago. It's the second bowl appearance in the last three years for Notre Dame, which thumped Hawaii in 2008 in their own stadium at the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. It will be the 24th meeting between ND and Miami and the Irish hold a 15-7-1 series lead, winning two of the last three -- both in South Bend -- in 1988 and 1990.
"The nice part of this, the University of Miami has got a tradition in the past and the present," Kelly said. "Certainly, when you talk about some of the great programs, Miami's going to be involved in that. ... Just walking around [ND's campus], there's a great buzz; our kids are excited about the matchup."
Wes Morgan covers Notre Dame football for ESPNChicago.com.