Their hometowns are separated by 3,000 miles, their schools by 2,000 miles, their ages by 10 years and their experience as head coaches by two decades.
Other than a few criss-crossed recruiting trips, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Stanford’s David Shaw share little in common. Yet, in terms of university mission statements, football success and academic achievement, these two fine head coaches couldn’t be more similar.
Kelly is a 54-year-old Boston native who has spent all 34 years of his coaching career working in the college ranks, arriving at Notre Dame in 2010.
Shaw is a 44-year-old native of San Diego who spent nearly half of his 22-year coaching career working in the NFL before taking the Stanford head coaching job in 2011.
The upbringings and career paths for these two couldn’t be more different, but the mutual respect for one another as coaches and the universities they each represent is always evident.
"I have a lot of respect for what Notre Dame does," Shaw said, "on and off the field, in the classrooms, in their admission standards."
The two coaches reunite Saturdady for the sixth time — with Shaw carrying a slim 3-2 series advantage over Kelly.
And even though these two proud programs have not enjoyed the same success this season they're accustomed to — Stanford (3-2) has lost two straight and the Irish (2-4) have dropped three of four — expect another installment at Notre Dame Stadium of what is always an entertaining, important, memorable and often heartbreaking rivalry.
Four of the previous five games between Kelly and Shaw have been decided by a touchdown or less.
"They've been great games," Kelly said. "A great rivalry between two institutions."
And often an important launch point to a great season and a top-tier bowl game.
In 2012, Kelly’s Irish needed an epic goal-line stand at home to preserve a 20-13 overtime win over Stanford and protect an Irish run to the national championship game. And in 2011 and 2013, Shaw’s Cardinal needed November wins over Notre Dame to help secure a spot in the Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl, respectively.
Last season, Stanford parlayed a 38-36 comeback win against Notre Dame into a PAC 12 championship, a victory over Iowa in the Rose Bowl, and a No. 3 final AP ranking.
With the mission this year for these two coaches just to make a bowl — any bowl — clearly the stakes Saturday aren't as high as what this annual game typically provides. In fact, this meeting marks the first time since 2009 that neither team is ranked in this game.
"We really don't think about it in those terms," Kelly said. "We're not really kind of thinking from the outside-in about all the fanfare that may not be attached to this particular game."
While fierce competition on the football field helps to define the relationship between Stanford and Notre Dame, it remains only one small thread of the fabric these two proud schools share.
Two football coaches that have won about 75 percent of their games the last five seasons have also graduated almost 100 percent of their players during their current tenures. According to 2015 Graduation Success Rate numbers, Stanford’s football program ranked first in the country with a 99-percent rate and Notre Dame was fifth at 93 percent.
Factor in the entire student-athlete population at both schools, men and women, and Notre Dame and Stanford tied with Duke in 2015 for the best graduation rate in the country at 98 percent.
“Notre Dame is a university that understands what the term student-athlete is all about," Shaw said.
Besides mirrored values and missions, these two universities also share a connection that stretches from the football field and classrooms all the way up to the corner administrative offices. Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick earned his law degree from Stanford while Stanford athletics director Bernard Muir spent six years grooming in the Notre Dame athletic department from 2000-05.
The similarities between these two schools are endless, and that’s much of what fuels their relationship and respect.
A rivalry that began in 1925 at the Rose Bowl with Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen traveling to Pasadena, Calif., adds a 20th consecutive meeting and 31st overall matchup tonight, with hopefully many more to come between two schools that demonstrate what is right about college sports.
Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.