During his coaching days at Boston College, Tom O'Brien knew the Eagles would never be No. 1.
He didn't mean No. 1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference or the polls. No, O'Brien was talking about in the collective minds of the Boston sports fan, whose passions always ran deeper for the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots, who've been a Super Bowl regular for the past decade or so.
Simply put, BC football wasn't going to compete with the NFL.
``It's just a fact of life,'' O'Brien once said. ``You'll never be them.''
That isn't a sense shared by everyone in the college game.
O'Brien has now moved on to North Carolina State, nestled in a region where the college game is king - something that clearly was attractive to him. But there are plenty of major college football programs who coexist nicely alongside NFL teams, with some even saying the pro atmosphere gives the collegians an important edge.
Take Miami, for instance. In South Florida, sports talk radio is dominated by chatter revolving around the Miami Dolphins nearly year-round - even though the NBA's Heat have three of basketball's most captivating personalities in Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley, even though baseball's Marlins are winners of two World Series in the past decade, and even though the Hurricanes have a passionate fan base.
Yet the way new Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon - a former Dolphins assistant coach - sees it, there's plenty of supporters to appease at both the college and pro levels.
``Football fans are football fans,'' Shannon said. ``When I was with the Dolphins, they'd play the Jets down here and the whole stadium would be filled with New Yorkers because so many of them live here. That doesn't mean there's no Dolphins fans. It's just the way it is sometimes.''
The Steelers dominate Pittsburgh's attention. So at the University of Pittsburgh, the Panthers have no intentions of beating their NFL neighbors in the race for fans.
Instead, they joined them.
Pitt not only shares Heinz Field with the Steelers - every stadium gate has both ``Steelers'' and ``Panthers'' in steel letters - but the teams share a practice complex on the city's South Side. The Steelers occupy one side of the building and Pitt the other, in the only such arrangement between teams from the NFL and major college ranks.
Pitt contends that being in an NFL city makes Panthers football more attractive, rather than making it more difficult to market or to attract recruits. And since moving from the now-demolished Pitt Stadium to Heinz Field in 2001, crowds have generally improved, too.
``Because Pittsburgh has both an NFL team and major college football program, we were able to combine our resources in an unprecedented partnership and now share both Heinz Field and a state-of-the-art practice facility,'' Pitt athletic director Jeff Long said. ``Pitt and the Steelers helped make this region famous for football and we are proud that both teams call Pittsburgh home.''
A similar arrangement may be brewing in South Florida.
Miami won't be sharing practice facilities with the Dolphins anytime soon, but later this month university officials are expected to decide whether to leave the Orange Bowl and play home games at Dolphin Stadium.
``I don't think we compete with the Dolphins,'' said Hurricanes wide receiver Darnell Jenkins, a Miami native. ``People like seeing them play. People like seeing us play.''
In Nebraska, there's no debate.
Fall weekends there are largely about football - Cornhuskers football. With the Lincoln campus three hours from the nearest NFL franchise in Kansas City and about seven hours away from both Denver and St. Louis, Nebraska largely has that area's football affections to itself.
``There are no divided loyalties in Nebraska. That gives us a tremendous advantage all the way around,'' Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson said. ``The passion we have and the support we receive helps our recruiting and enhances our tradition. Talk to anyone who works here. We really do feel that there is no place like Nebraska.''
There's no place like Los Angeles, either - where two teams with lofty preseason expectations, Southern California and UCLA, are flourishing in an NFL-free environment.
UCLA plays home games 26 miles from campus at the Rose Bowl, yet has still seen a bump in attendance since the Raiders and Rams left the region before the 1995 season. And being tabbed as a Pac-10 contender this year certainly won't hurt the Bruins' ability to draw.
``I think there are a fair number of fans who will attend both'' NFL and college games, said Scott Mitchell, UCLA's assistant athletic director for marketing and new revenue. ``I think there are clear differences between college football and NFL football. Those fans who would only attend an NFL game, they would be surprised at the level of football in college, the tailgating atmosphere, and the spirit. It's a different entity altogether.''
At USC, they feel the same way.
Even if the NFL was still in Southern California, the Trojans would still be a hot topic these days after going 59-6 in the past five years and 65-12 since Pete Carroll became coach before the 2001 season. USC really only competes with the NFL once a year, when the inevitable ``Carroll-going-back-to-the-pros'' rumors pop up again.
``It's really been fantastic for us from a marketing perspective and a fan-base perspective,'' said Jose Eskenazi, USC's assistant athletic director in charge of marketing. ``Ever since Pete arrived here, we've really captured the imagination of this city.''
No, it's not the NFL - but it's close.
``In Los Angeles, college football - especially us in this case - is really where it's at in terms of Saturday excitement and weekend excitement,'' Eskenazi said.
AP Sports Writers Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh, Eric Olson in Lincoln and John Nadel in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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