Notre Dame Stadium is the sports equivalent of the White House or the U.S. Capitol. Not only a place where all kinds of cool stuff happened, but a place where all kinds of cool stuff still happens.
The Sooners and Fighting Irish happen on Saturday in South Bend, Ind., and I’m there for a series of columns leading up to the game. For the Wednesday Oklahoman, I wrote about Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, which you can read here.
I got to chat with Kelly in his office for a few minutes Tuesday before his press conference. Very pleasant fellow. Really enjoyed it. As I did my entire day on the Notre Dame campus. And here’s how I capped the day. With a tour of Notre Dame Stadium.
For $10, you get an hour-long tour of college football’s most historic field. Sorry, Rose Bowl. Notre Dame Stadium, the House That Rockne Built, has hosted more epic games and more epic players than any other venue in the sport. On a campus with landmarks like the Basilica and the Golden Dome and the Hesburgh Library that sports Touchdown Jesus, Notre Dame Stadium is no less hallowed.
I had seen Notre Dame Stadium before, of course, in the 1999 OU-Irish game, but I thought the tour would give me new insight. Here’s what I saw and heard:
* Notre Dame Stadium is bricked with the same light-covered brick that covers almost every building campus. The original stadium has been largely swallowed by the expansion project of the 1990s, but walking in the concourse, you can still see the original brick façade, which is much darker.
* The stadium opened in 1930. The Irish before that played at Cartier Field, which sat partially where the Hesburgh Library now stands. Cartier Field seated 22,000, an enormous number for 1920s college stadium.
But Knute Rockne wanted a new stadium. He asked the mayor of South Bend for help and he asked the president of Notre Dame for help. Rockne consistently was rejected. Then in 1927, Rockne resigned. That got Notre Dame’s attention. Stay, he was told, and you’ll get your new stadium.
The stadium opened in 1930. It included 55,000 seats and was built in five months, for under $800,000.
The 1990s expansion took almost two years and cost $50 million.
* The stadium, as I wrote about in the Kelly column, has six gates. Five public gates and the teams-entry gate. Statues of each of Notre Dame’s five national championship coaches sit at a gate – Rockne is at the players’ entry.
That’s contrasted with OU, where the statues of the great coaches and the Heisman Trophy winners stand across the street from Owen Field. I don’t know which way is better. It’s easier to view all the statues when they’re away from the stadium. But it’s also totally cool to see the statues as part of the stadium complex.
* The construction of Notre Dame Stadium was funded partially by donors who paid $2,000 to $2,500 for the right to buy box seats. Yes. You read that right. I don’t know if seat licensing was invented by Notre Dame, but it most definitely was used by Notre Dame 85 years ago.
* In the media entrance is a little lobby with some cool displays. Including one display case dedicated to the upcoming opponent.
There are OU-Notre Dame tickets from the 1956 game, OU-Notre Dame programs from 1953 and 1961, a brief history of OU’s historical mascots and some other items.
Including a copy of the T-shirt that’s on sale in the Notre Dame bookstore. It says Notre Dame and Oklahoma on the front, with the declaration: The Battle of Champions. “A combined 18 national championships, 12 Heisman Trophy winners, 261 consensus All-Americans.”
It’s pure class. That’s what it is. We don’t have enough people who not only cherish their own history but revere their opponents’ history, too.
Flanking the north scoreboard this week are a Notre Dame flag and an Oklahoma flag. The Irish also honor their opponent by flying its flag.
* There is nothing opulent about Notre Dame Stadium. It’s old and it doesn’t pretend that it’s not.
But the walk around the concourse has its charms. The old gates of the original stadium have been converted into concession stands, but at the top of the old stadium are banners honoring each Notre Dame All-American, plus other nods to Irish history. Like national championship teams, Pro Football Hall of Famers, etc.
* Not all the information from the tour guides are correct, but they don’t really offer them up in an arrogant manner, so it’s forgivable.
An example: They tell you that Notre Dame-Navy is the longest continuous series in college football. Which isn’t close to the truth. Notre Dame-Navy started in 1927, and they have a great history, going back to World War II, when Navy sent officers to South Bend for training.
But Wisconsin-Minnesota has been played every year since 1906, Clemson-South Carolina every year since 1909, Bedlam every year since 1910 and North Carolina State-Wake Forest every year since 1910. More than a dozen others precede 1927.
* The tour takes you to the suite level of Notre Dame Stadium, which has suites only on the pressbox side.
The suites are not opulent. Mundane might be a better word. If you’ve been to OU’s or OSU’s suites, Notre Dame’s is like the old Santee Lounge on OU’s west side, which was nice in the 1980s and 1990s but wouldn’t do now. The Kerr-McGee Lounge on OU’s east side and all of Boone Pickens Stadium is state of the art.
But Notre Dame is not really into state-of-the-art.
* Notre Dame has six separate suites. They are reserved for the 1) athletic director; 2) the athletic department; 3) former athletic directors; 4) Father Hesburgh, president emeritus; 5) the chairman of the board of trustees; and 6) the current president.
The big lounge in the middle is used to host donors and benefactors.
But think about it. Notre Dame: six suites. Oklahoma State: 98 suites.
* Notre Dame is in the middle of a nine-month study to consider expansion to the stadium. A new jumbotron and east-side pressbox would be added, apparently with more suites, too. Watch out Stillwater, South Bend might be gaining on you.
* There is no advertising anywhere in Notre Dame Stadium. But here is one logo. On the north scoreboard above the stadium is a relatively-small “NBC Sports.”
* Notre Dame Stadium was expanded from 55,000 to 59,000 in the mid-‘60s by sanding off the seat numbers and narrowing the width for your butt to sit on.
* The 1990s expansion created an upper deck that rings the entire stadium, which now seats 80,795.
But the feel of the place has not been altered much. Notre Dame Stadium does not lord over the campus.
The university doesn’t allow new buildings to go higher than four stories, and Notre Dame Stadium sticks close to that. It does not lord over the rest of campus.
The three highest points of Notre Dame buildings: 1. The cross atop the Basilica; 2. The Blessed Mother on top of the Golden Dome (the Main Building, the administration headquarters); 3. The roof of the Hesburgh Library, where Touchdown Jesus is displayed.
* A quick word about Touchdown Jesus. Some people don’t realize what we’re talking about.
Touchdown Jesus is a mural on the side of the Hesburgh Library, the Word of Life, showing Christ as teacher. The building was erected in 1964, with the mural. It shows Jesus with his hands up. The library sits a few hundred yards north of the stadium, and Touchdown Jesus looks out almost over the stadium. The 1990s expansion limited the view of Touchdown Jesus for some in the stadium, but it’s still clearly visible by many. In the 1960s, it was visible by most fans. Notre Dame students coined the phrase, Touchdown Jesus.
* Notre Dame sells student tickets to students from St. Mary’s College and Holy Cross College, schools which sit adjacent to Notre Dame and are closely affiliated.
Notre Dame has 11,816 students, including 8,400 undergrads.
* The teams share the same tunnel with which they enter the field. But since a fracas with Miami in the 1980s, the teams are not allowed to enter at the same time. Notre Dame traditionally takes the field first.
Hanging over that tunnel are Notre Dame’s national championship banners. Subtle reminder.
* The visitors’ locker room was not part of the tour. Bummer. That’s always the most interesting part of any stadium.
* Notre Dame’s locker room is very pedestrian. Looks 1990ish. But remember, Notre Dame’s football headquarters are about a block away, in the Guglielmino Athletic Complex. That’s where Notre Dame’s primary locker room is. It’s as if the Switzer Center was not connected to the football stadium.
I assume Notre Dame’s Guglielmino locker room is much nicer.
The locker room contains an interlocking ND that the players try to avoid stepping on. But it’s rather large, and when you put 100 football players in a locker room, I don’t know how you avoid it.
A cross also hangs in the locker room, and a display case with Notre Dame’s 11 national championship rings.
* We got to walk down the stairs to the field from the locker room, passing under the PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY sign. I still believe OU had it first. You can read my 2012 column on that subject here.
* Alas, we didn’t get to see the spot where Notre Dame students paint the helmets every Friday. For this reason, Notre Dame no longer paints its helmets, since Brian Kelly went to those different helmets last season.
Not every tradition is sacred, not even at Notre Dame.