Notre Dame Foootball: Tinkering with Tradition
"Notre Dame" and "tradition" go together like peanut butter and chocolate. From Knute Rockne to Touchdown Jesus there are enough indelible images to fill an encyclopedia.
With struggles on the field over the last few decades, those traditions have become even more entrenched and glorified to the Notre Dame faithful. Irish masses can listen to the Victory March, watch the band step off and march from the Administration Building to the stadium, and bask in the greatest game-day atmosphere in collegiate athletics and feel still connected to the echoes of the past.
Some traditions will never change.
Recently, however, there has been a subtle erosion to the collective football museum that is Notre Dame on a football Saturday.
Not everyone around South Bend is entirely thrilled with the changes, but as time marches on, they will come.
With a progressive coach pushing the envelope several long-standing traditions have already fallen and more seem poised to go... or at least change.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
You could trace the first tinkering with tradition to Dan Devine's realization that an alternate uniform can greatly motivate a college player to amazing levels.
More truthfully the tinkering with tradition began in 1996 when Notre Dame was expanded from its constant capacity of 59,070 that had been ever changed since the Frank Leahy era to today's 80.795.
For the first time in 65 years, the look of Notre Dame football drastically changed.
The original brick facade was covered, new scoreboards added, an enormous press box tower loomed over the stadium's west side and the view of "Touchdown Jesus" on the Hessburgh library was obstructed.
Still, complaints were few. The renovation was tasteful, it added a ton or restrooms (which for reasons I can't understand retained trough urinals) and concessions, and more than 20,000 more Irish fans could attend each home game.
Even the most ardent traditionalist would admit that this alteration to the Notre Dame landscape was much needed.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Lou Holtz brought back the idea of wearing green jerseys for big games to gain an emotional lift, and may have restarted a tradition in its own right.
Headed in a different direction was the "throwback" kit donned by the Irish for the 2007 contest against USC.
It should be mentioned that nearly everything about the 2007 season is best forgotten, but these uniforms are certainly no exception.
When initially worn against USC in 1977, the kelly green jerseys and bright yellow pants fit right in with the general fashion landscape. Everything was ugly then.
In the modern age, even with the "experimentation" going on at Oregon and Maryland, the 1977 Irish "throwback" looked more like a party hat... or pinata... which incidentally is how the Irish performed in the unit.
While the uniform itself may have honored tradition, it marked the first time that the regular uniform was entirely discarded and replaced by something completely different.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
To be fair this one isn't that bad.
A special event jersey and a sticker on the helmet. Classic looking, tasteful, hard to really be too upset.
I'm not one for putting logos on helmets, but it is again a throwback to a byegone look.
Granted it was the Joe Kuharich era that was very brief and very dismal.
This is included in the "eroding tradition" list because of what it led to...
New Gold Standard
I had always hoped that the phrase "New Gold Standard at Notre Dame" would apply to the team's performance on the field and the bringing of a certain trophy home to South Bend. (I know... the trophy is black marble and crystal... but you know...)
Just before the USC game, Notre Dame instead announced that it's New Gold Standard was a new glittery paint job for the helmets.
Head Coach Brian Kelly proudly beamed that he was personally involved in finding a paint that more closely matched the paint of the famed golden dome atop the Administration Building.
The helmet had gone through 10 drafts, cost some ridiculous sum of thousands of dollars EACH in development, and honestly looked like something that would be more belonging at a high school prom than a college football game.
Considering the Irish's 31-17 loss to USC that weekend, Irish fans were left wishing the same attention was paid to that week's game plan.
No More Student Painters
For as long as anyone I know can remember, and at least back to the Era era, student equipment managers would spray the team's helmets with gold flake paint each week prior to the game.
It was a fun (albeit time-consuming) tradition that served as another reminder that at Notre Dame the students and the team are much closer than at most major programs.
That tradition ended with the introduction of the new uber-gold helmet.
Apparently the multi-step process had to be computer controlled and finished in a paint lab in a complex method much too involved for the students to handle.
Without much more than a passing mention, the long-standing tradition was ended.
Play That Funky Music
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Until the USC games, the only music played at Notre Dame Stadium during an Irish game came from the lungs and hearts of the Band of the Fighting Irish.
During the USC game however, the "Rakes of Mallow," "Hike Notre Dame," and "When Irish Backs Go Marching By" were replaced by endless refrains of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army."
It has been mentioned many times that the Irish crowd is a little on the quiet side. Opponents have gone so far as to call the fans in the stadium "polite."
There was a movement to amp up the audience that included handing out "rally towels" (oddly these were navy blue... which really don't stand out at all. If only there were a more brilliant color readily associated with Notre Dame... Hmmmm...) and the addition of pumping rock music.
At the Air Force game two weeks prior, at one point I remarked to my wife that it was nice that we could have a conversation at normal vocal levels during the endless NBC TV timeouts without being overpowered by endless concert volume music.
I'm all for Irish fans being more rabid, but not necessarily in favor of turning the Notre Dame Stadium experience into Ohio State.
More New Helmets?
I mean... really?
Is this necessary?
Is this what it takes to attract a high caliber 18-year-old defensive end to Notre Dame?
My only fear when Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame would be that he would bring the Cincinnati trend of wearing a different uniform basically every week (with helmets, jerseys and pants each in red, white and black, offering like 52 combinations...).
So far Notre Dame has promised that this will be a once a year occurrence for the annual neutral site "Shamrock Series" game.
Next year's hideous uniform contest will occur at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Need a New TV? How About One That Is 100'x60'?
The driving force behind many of these changes is head coach Brian Kelly.
He is looking for more ways to make the game day more exciting, and therefore more appealing to today's college athlete.
There are, however, a couple of changes that are still very much in the planning stages.
The most likely of these Kelly dreams is the installation of a large high definition video screen, a.k.a. a JumboTron.
For a coach the advantage is obvious. The chance to see a replay aids in deciding to challenge a call, it helps in seeing something in the defense immediately that you can exploit or correcting a mistake of your own.
For fans it would stop the now embedded tradition of phoning a friend (if you can get a cell connection) to have them tell you what just happened. My father's frantic calls at the end of the 2005 USC game still stick in my mind... trying to explain why the game wasn't over and why the Irish had not won despite the clock reading 0:00.
The worry is that it will add a new intrusion into the Irish game day... advertising.
Today there is not a commercial sponsor logo or advert visible anywhere in the stadium. That in and of itself is unique. Given the ability to show an AT&T globe for 30 seconds on a video board 10 times a game for a couple hundred thousand dollars may prove too difficult to pass up.
Plus it will further "close in" the stadium, more than likely obscuring the view of the Word of Life Mural (a.k.a. Touchdown Jesus) for most of the stadium.
Michigan did it. So did Ohio State.
Once there was Grass. Real honest stuff that grew from the ground. Then there was Astroturf. Then there were a million ACL tears and a return to grass!
Now there is Field Turf.
A polycarbonate version of grass woven into a mesh mat laid over a rubber, sand and gravel base.
It doesn't need mowed. It doesn't need watered. It never gets muddy.
And it comes in any color you want!
Oh, and Brian Kelly wants it.
It has long been rumored that the grounds crew at Notre Dame Stadium alters the length of the playing surface based on the opponent. If it is USC with a stable of lightning-fast backs, you may see thick tufts of Kentucky Blue Grass long enough to make a wheat farmer jealous.
Kelly wants his team to play fast. And in northern Indiana autumn's rain and snow can greatly hamper footing and slow even the fastest back.
He wants a surface that is consistent. He had it at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati and at Kelly-Shorts Stadium at Central Michigan.
It will take a lot of convincing to get Field Turf at Notre Dame. But he will try.
Where Will It End?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Thankfully, the University of Notre Dame is fairly passionate about honoring their past, and will make sure that the Notre Dame of tomorrow is quite respectful of today.
The Irish faithful, like an old age pensioner shining up his medals will wax poetic about the days gone by and "how things used to be," but things will always evolve.
The jersey color of blue has consistently gotten darker, and the color of the pants has been ever changing.
Stripes have been added and removed, jersey shoulders have alternated between numbers and the monogram.
All of this is truly window dressing.
The tradition that all of us most desire a return to is that of winning championships.
Honestly, even though I love the Notre Dame I've always known, if they have to paint the helmet pink and wear neon green jerseys to put a championship team on the field, I'm all for it.
I won't be able to watch it... but I'll take it.
Tradition is what we make of it, and if it takes a few modernizing tweaks to attract the most sought after talent and gain a competitive edge, can we really be against it?