Notre Dame Football: Better Late Than Never for FieldTurf

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Notre Dame Football: Better Late Than Never for FieldTurf
JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

A single second had been returned to the game clock. And on a perfect October afternoon in 2009, Jimmy Clausen and Charlie Weis were given one final chance to beat Pete Carroll and USC. 

On 3rd-and-goal from just inside the 5-yard line, Clausen dropped back from the shotgun and rifled a pass to Duval Kamara, just across the goal line. The throw was never close.

Kamara slipped making his cut on Notre Dame Stadium's fabled natural grass. And just like that, another fable—the Notre Dame Turf Monster—claimed one more victim.  

It's amazing to think what could've happened had Kamara not slipped. A touchdown would've sent the Irish and Trojans into overtime. An Irish victory over the No. 6 Trojans would've vaulted the Irish into the Top 15.

That Halloween day massacre of Washington State that ended up being Charlie Weis' final victory at Notre Dame's head coach? It could've had the Irish ranked in the Top 10 entering November.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Charlie Weis and Jimmy Clausen couldn't beat USC.

Could Notre Dame still have lost four straight to Navy, Pitt, UConn and Stanford to close out the season? Sure. But let's say one or two of those coin-flip games went the Irish's way. Could you fire Weis after an 8-4 season? 

As we're reminded each year, Weis' contract was a bitter pill that's still being swallowed. But at 6-6 and after another late-season swoon, Jack Swarbrick didn't have much of a choice. 

Five years later, Swarbrick wasn't given much of a choice in this controversial decision, either. Putting an artificial surface inside the House That Rock Built was a no-brainer.

Even after replacing the sod multiple times last season, the playing surface inside one of college football's most historic stadiums was a joke. So during the Blue-Gold game televised nationally on NBCSN, Swarbrick made the announcement that FieldTurf was coming to Notre Dame Stadium.  

"We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field,” Swarbrick said in April, when the university officially released the news. "However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the Stadium we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface.

"That, combined with the likely impacts of future construction at the Stadium, led me to conclude that we would continue to struggle to maintain a grass field that meets the expectations of our student-athletes and fans as it relates to appearance, performance and safety."

For Irish fans that take pride in the throwback experience inside Notre Dame Stadium, seeing the game take place on FieldTurf could take some getting used to. But then again, not seeing the home team slip and slide when trying to cut upfield or make a tackle could help ease the pain. 

For years, Notre Dame tried using its poor field conditions to its advantage. When Florida State came to town in 1993 for the Game of the Century, Bobby Bowden wondered if the groundskeeper got lost.

In 2005, when Weis nearly beat the Trojans, there were more complaints about the grass, and it was blamed for USC kickoff returner Desmond Reed's ACL tear. 

"I stood on it and I can tell you, if it was your backyard, the Homeowners Association would send you a citation," SI.com's Stewart Mandel wrote after the game

But as the Irish have upgraded their athleticism and personnel, too often it's been the home team that's suffered. Five seasons into the Brian Kelly era, the speed on the Irish roster is as good as it has ever been, turning the natural grass surface into a handicap. 

Just as crippling, the difficulties of keeping the playing field in acceptable condition has lessened the Irish's home field advantage.

Lukewarm crowd support has long been a complaint among the Irish faithful looking at the donors sitting on their hands in the gold seats. But too often, Notre Dame players feel like visitors in their own stadium, unable to practice in the stadium other than pregame walkthroughs

"It’s really about getting a surface where there’s some consistency week‑in and week‑out for our players," Kelly said after the Blue-Gold game. "I think today was an indication. We can’t even practice out there.

"We want to be able to get out there with our team. We want some safety issues to be not part of the equation. I think everybody is in agreement. If we can get the best surface there in grass, we’d love to have that. We just haven’t been able to get to that. This is my fifth year here at Notre Dame and we haven’t been able to get to that."

The Irish have been practicing on FieldTurf since the LaBar Practice Complex was built in 2008. Their indoor practices at the Loftus Center have been on the same surface. Matching the playing field with a surface the team practices on daily only makes sense. 

It's been no secret that Kelly has been a proponent of FieldTurf. But after Swarbrick and Notre Dame's brass toured college and professional facilities learning about their options, the only logical one was to install a synthetic surface. 

It may not have been soon enough to help Weis finally beat Pete Carroll, but it'll help Kelly and the Irish continue to improve their home field advantage in South Bend.  

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter. 

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