When Notre Dame Stadium received a facelift in the mid-90’s, the capacity jumped by over 20,000 people. One would think that adding that many more fans wearing blue and gold would have a positive effect on the home field advantage. Unfortunately that has not been the case.
Since the stadium reopened in 1997 with its listed capacity of 80,795, the Irish have completed just one home season with an undefeated record (1998). Over the last ten years they’ve gone a dismal 38-26 (.594) under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus—and half of those seasons saw at least three home losses.
How could this be? Why is it that the House That Rockne Built has become such an unintimidating place to play? And what needs to happen in order for the football team to take a page from the Irish basketball team and become a dominant force at home?
There are a few schools of thought on the matter. Some people claim it’s not reasonable to expect Notre Dame to post Oklahoma-like numbers at home (OU is 67-2 since 2000) because the Irish routinely play a very difficult home slate. These are the critics who have not done their homework and think that since Notre Dame doesn’t schedule bottom feeders like Coastal Carolina, Wofford, or Youngstown State that their list of opponents is stacked with top ten squads.
That’s not true though. While the Irish don’t schedule undeniable cream puffs, very rarely do they face any sort of “Murderers’ Row” in a given year. Since the 2005 season, Notre Dame has played eight games against ranked teams at home and never more than two in one season. That’s par for the course when it comes to upper-echelon teams in major conferences—in fact, it lags behind plenty of schools like Oregon (13 ranked teams in that timeframe).
Others claim it’s because the Notre Dame fan base isn’t rabid enough, that too much energy is wasted in battles amongst older and younger generations about sitting up or standing down at various points in the game. This perception has been derived much more from within Notre Dame Nation than from outside it. The thought is that the older, tamer fans detract from the potential homefield advantage by not cheering loud enough.
This isn’t true either. Of course there’s a percentage of the stadium that isn’t willing to go that extra mile to help spur the team on to victory and would rather just watch instead of participate. I’ve experienced it and as someone who has a burning desire to impact the game in any way possible to tilt odds in Notre Dame’s favor it’s very frustrating. But this is something that happens at every single school, no matter how big, passionate, blue collar, or white collar the fans are.
Stories of young and old alumni clashing in the bleachers over standing and sitting aren’t unique to Notre Dame Stadium. Places like Nebraska, Texas, and Clemson experience the exact same thing and those places are all looked upon as extremely intimidating.
There’s one true reason Notre Dame Stadium has devolved into an unintimidating place for opponents to enter and it’s the cumulative effect of what’s happened on the field over the past 15 years.
Since Lou Holtz left town, the Irish have been dealt heartbreak after heartbreak at home. Games in which Notre Dame historically found a way to win against the odds have been snatched away (such as the 2000 Nebraska game and 2005 against Southern Cal). There have been embarrassing blowouts (like Florida State in 2003 and Georgia Tech in 2007) along with flat-out program embarrassments (Navy in 2007 & 2009, Air Force in 2007, Syracuse in 2008).
The scar tissue that remains after all these shortcomings has had a profound impact on the fans in the stands and, in turn, the players on the field. Instead of expecting the Irish to win “what tho’ the odds be great or small,” the general feeling in the stadium always seems to have shifted to a firm belief in Murphy’s Law of “what can go wrong will go wrong.”
Bill Simmons described this phenomenon in Fenway Park prior to Boston’s 2004 World Series victory. Whenever things appeared to head in the right direction the entire atmosphere and feel of the ballpark changed. There was a tangible feeling of fans becoming tense just by the sounds of the crowd. Players could sense it and inevitably the advantage of being on their homefield turned against them. Instead of feeding off the confidence of the crowd they fulfilled the masses’ prophecy and bad things normally followed.
That is exactly what Notre Dame Stadium has become: Fenway Park circa 2003. Whenever something goes wrong that appears to swing momentum in the opponents direction, a foreboding sense of doom sweeps over the crowd. It’s counterproductive and it hurts the team, but the crowd can’t necessarily be blamed because they’ve seen the movie before and are anticipating the common ending.
Is it something that can be fixed? Of course it is.
What needs to happen is the team must win back the fans’ faith by delivering in the clutch and winning. The team had it for a brief time in 2002 and 2005. During the epic battle with Southern Cal in 2005, the crowd was deafening and the electricity that filled the stadium that day helped fuel the team to an inspired performance.
The ghosts are still present within Rockne’s House, the echoes just waiting to be awakened. The intimidation factor that’s lacking right now doesn’t start in the stands though, it starts on the field. If the Irish can continue to deliver as they did at the end of last season then the fans’ faith will return.
Instead of bracing themselves for the worst, the members of Notre Dame Nation be filled with a belief that somehow Notre Dame will find a way. That belief is a powerful thing; it played key roles in many of the greatest victories in school history. If the team can transform the attitude in the stands then the homefield advantage that’s been lacking since Lou left town will return and those ghosts will make their presence felt again.