Notre Dame Stadium is like a 1948 Cadillac.
A lot of people love the 1948 Cadillac because it's a beautiful antique car. Just like Notre Dame Stadium is a beautiful college football stadium.
That's why attending a game at Notre Dame Stadium is like traveling on a day trip with some friends in a '48 Cadillac.
The antique car pulls up into your driveway and you're taken aback by its old-time splendor. You climb into the cracking and aged white interior and immediately feel like you've gone back to the days of post-war America. The engine roars loudly as you cruise down the road and feel that giant steel frame twisting and turning over the pavement. You're smiling at the experience while pedestrians and other cars sneak a glance as you roll by.
Even though this is new to you, it's an experience that allows you to step into your fathers shoes, or even your grandfather's shoes, as you re-live a piece of history.
Riding in that car is so different than the norm, but that's why it's so unique and special. This is what the romantic and idealized version of watching a game at Notre Dame Stadium is like.
But there's a catch.
The game day atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium is supposed to be romantic, unchangeable, and sacred, but that fantasy doesn't hold up to reality.
The Cadillac Isn't What You Thought It Would Be
It can be fun to ride in a '48 Cadillac once---anymore more and it grows pretty old.
After a couple hours the seats grow uncomfortable and everyone in the car stops smiling and having those warm fuzzy feelings about the vintage experience. Soon, everyone becoming a little grumpy as the car radio speakers cut in and out and the music can barely be heard throughout the automobile.
Without air conditioning the roof is put down, which pours loud air into the car making conversations more difficult than ever. The radio might as well be turned off at this point.
Without much talking, the driver has grown tired, lamenting the 3 more hours behind the wheel. The rest of the car have slipped into their own world and turned on their iPods or are playing games and apps on their phones.
Driving in the Cadillac was fun at first, it seemed like a great idea when it pulled into the driveway, but those special feelings never last. Oftentimes, they don't even last on the first trip. That's why you get a lot of opposing fans coming to Notre Dame who speak kindly of the atmosphere, but at the same time admit it's not what they'd want to deal with all the time with inside their home stadium.
Notre Dame Stadium is often compared to three other sporting venues: Augusta National, the All England Club (Wimbledon), and Wrigley Field.
First, it should be embarrassing to compare a football stadium atmosphere to Augusta and Wimbledon where those sports need strict rules and quiet conditions for their games to be played at a high level. The exact opposite is true of football.
Second, the comparison is akin to hosting a party at your home and basing the entertainment for the night on the atmosphere of a library.
Third, the fact that those are major championships where the world's top competitors must attend makes it an even more forced and asinine comparison. There's no recruiting of 18-year old's needed at Augusta or Wimbledon.
As to Wrigley Field, should Notre Dame be emulating an organization synonymous with losing?
Some Irish fans refuse to accept changes inside the stadium because it means Notre Dame is "being like everyone else" but is it okay to be like the Cubs?
Should we be copying an organization whose fans have accepted losing and go to the ballpark to get drunk and socialize without caring about the game taking place in front of them?*
*Cut to half the Cubs fans reading this seething with anger, the other half nodding accordingly.
However, some would say it's not the Cadillac's fault.
Many people in the past had a ball riding places in that car!
Some of the best road trips in history took place in that car!
No, some would say that it's the destination that is the problem, or the people in the car---just like Notre Dame's performance, the opponent that week, or the people in the crowd are blamed during games in South Bend.
Yet, how much blame should that old car get?
A lot more than some people are willing to admit.
Why Are We Driving This Cadillac Again?
I often wonder what benefit Notre Dame gains from driving this 1948 Cadillac, and I know a sense of pride from alumni and fans is a large part of that benefit. But how does that pride compare to the negatives that come with driving such an out-of-fashion car?
Should Notre Dame shun what is considered normal upgrades because they are in fashion? Is that a smart decision by a school that is already playing by different rules with today's athletics and didn't the football program fall behind the times specifically due to this way of thinking?
If Notre Dame doesn't do things because they are in fashion, then why was the football stadium built in the first place? Why build something like the Gug? At what point in time did it become fashionable not to be fashionable inside the football stadium?
Obviously, I'm not advocating building a new stadium. On the contrary, much more emphasis should be placed on Notre Dame Stadium as a shrine of college football---but one that will need to be updated and change with the times to survive the onslaught of the coming decades.
The stadium itself is infinitely more important than the Wimbledon atmosphere the university forces on the crowd, and it's not even close.
So, what's the benefit of being the only team driving that barely remodeled Caddy around in 2012?
Is being the only team driving that antique car around inherently a positive? Is being different just to be different a badge of honor? What favors does that badge of honor provide Notre Dame?
Is proudly carrying the heritage of a bygone era necessary in a college football world where there aren't 50 other Cadillac's meeting at your local Dunkin' Donuts every summer Sunday?
Other than alums or fans bragging about the atmosphere ("we haven't sold out, we play the game the way it's meant to be played, etc.") what does it really matter? What benefit does the school get from such an arrangement?
I often hear people say how integral the atmosphere of Notre Dame Stadium is to the core values and identity of the football program and the University itself, and I wonder, when did they start thinking like that?
If Notre Dame suddenly started playing its home games in a venue like Cowboys Stadium, how much would it really change the core values of Notre Dame? If the university dropped its religious affiliation, I'm willing to bet that most people would put that at about a 10 out of 10 for core change---but where would the above stadium fall on that scale?
Can anyone even say with a straight face that a football stadium is even in the same discussion?
It wasn't that long ago when many other stadiums across the country were very similar to Notre Dame's in terms of atmosphere. As other teams made changes, Notre Dame made a concerted effort to keep things the way they were, but that also means that Notre Dame Stadium hasn't been that different for very long.
Yes, it can be considered a longstanding tradition but it can only be described as a meaningful tradition over the last 20 years or so as other stadiums upgraded and brought in more entertainment, thus making Notre Dame "different."
So while the atmosphere may be similar (but more lame) to what was experienced 70 years ago, the notion that what Notre Dame does today is different and is sacred to the program and University, seems to be a much more recent phenomenon.
40 years ago fans could take pride in Notre Dame's cultural work ethic, its Catholic identity, its success as a small private school in the middle of nowhere, and its barnstorming nature as America's most popular football team. These are some of the major pillars of Notre Dame football---things that have always been associated with the Fighting Irish and made Notre Dame different.
As important as it may seem to some today, I have a hard time believing that fans during the Leahy or Parseghian eras touted Notre Dame Stadium's old-school atmosphere as this integral and significant rock upon which Irish football is defined.
How could they when the same could have been said at the time about Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and countless others teams? Everyone drove variations of the 1940 Cadillac then, and Notre Dame was no different.
That was the way the world was back then, and now programs have changed and evolved while Notre Dame is still spinning its tires in an uncomfortable vintage car.
How Important is the Cadillac, Really?
Notre Dame has a lot of traditions bursting forth on campus during every Saturday, but it may be instructive to figure out exactly where the stadium atmosphere falls on this long list of traditions.
I fell in love with Notre Dame and its football team due to many factors, including identifying with its Catholic nature, the magnetism of the uniforms and gold helmets, the fight song, the dynamic Rocket Ismail, the charismatic Lou Holtz, as well as the fighting spirit that seemed to reside in so many school leaders both on and off the field.
As a kid, Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium weren't all that much different than Notre Dame Stadium in terms of atmosphere---so that's why the "atmosphere as a sacred pillar" has never registered much with me.
I understand the feeling when you first walk into Notre Dame Stadium and it hits you how much history and how many legends have graced the field below. However, this moment won't disappear if the stadium installs some video boards.
That moment has nothing to do with the gameday atmosphere and I would argue it is more important for tradition than what goes on during the game between whistles and throughout commercial breaks. Those quiet moments before the game should be for remembering the ghosts of yesteryear, but when it approaches kickoff it is time to live in the world of Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, and Zack Martin.
Winning isn't a Cure
Winning more games will help, but the Notre Dame culture is long past that solving all of the atmosphere problems.
Just like some people unrealistically think that the young generations should sit in wrapped amazement at the hushed tones during commercial breaks instead of playing with their phones, it's just as impractical to think that Notre Dame winning some more games (or even a lot more) is going to be much of a long-term solution to the disappointing atmosphere.
How many close games in recent history have you been to where the crowd was half asleep? How many Notre Dame victories did you walk away feeling like the excitement level was pathetically low? How many times have the Irish scored a big touchdown and you were incredibly underwhelmed by the response in the crowd?
The "winning cures all" argument is convenient for the Harumphers and others because it's hard to argue with such a valiant belief. Who's going to argue against winning, right?
Well, a deeper look by anyone with common knowledge of the stadium and fan base knows winning is not a magic cure.
The Irish can't play a ranked team every home game. Every game can't be a close back and forth shootout suitable for primetime television. Even if the team were to return to dominance, they'd be blowing out 3 or 4 teams every single year, and we all know those games would be snoozefests once the Irish are up by 4 touchdowns.
At any rate, the same people who claim that winning will fix the atmosphere will complain about the weakness of the opponent after the blow out anyway, while also blaming Swarbrick for not scheduling tough enough opponents.
Why should the atmosphere be a slave to the team's performance?
Now, I realize that when Notre Dame is having a bad season or a bad home game that there's going to be a certain amount of disappointment that comes with the gameday experience, but why compound it with a funeral atmosphere? It's as if people want to feel even worse about losing than is necessary.
Why can't Notre Dame Stadium be fun as much as possible regardless of the score? Why can't the losses be a little less painful? Why can't Notre Dame be loud again, have its fans engaged and make the atmosphere even better after victories? Why not cater to fans who want to have fun at a football game instead of the glum bastards who are barely placated by a national title?
Winning will certainly help and it is a part of the process, but it's painfully myopic to declare that it's the only solution and that there should be no further discussion.
Furthermore, the gameday atmosphere simply does not live up to the hype and it's wrong to call it sacred.
Arlington National Cemetery is sacred. Ground Zero is sacred. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart is sacred.
A Notre Dame Stadium without video boards or PA music is not sacred.
It's wonderful coming through one of the tunnels and entering the home of the Fighting Irish, but the gameday atmosphere found later on is incredibly dull and boring. That's not entirely the fault of the old-school atmosphere, but as a matter of being something that is supposed to be so revered, that atmosphere is an enormous let down.
That's why I chuckle when I hear people say things like, "Notre Dame will be forever irrevocably changed and lose a major part of its identity" if there are significant changes made to the stadium.
Perhaps people overstate the case because there's so much change in college football and they feel like they have to make an overly dramatic stand? When elements of the fan base are against a training table, you know many of them are blindly swinging at any change that arises, while also overselling many traditions as too hallowed to alter.
The importance of the Wimbledon atmosphere is about on par with the type of offense that Notre Dame runs. In the end, it's about scoring points and not the way in which the team does it. Similarly, the atmosphere at a football game should be about fun and excitement (scoring points) and not adhering to a tradition that makes that very entertainment a rare possibility.
It should come as no surprise that a contingent of fans think a certain type of offense and the static atmosphere are pillars of the Notre Dame football program. The tug-of-war between progress and custom is not a new one in South Bend.
Making the Cadillac Fun Again Will Take Time, Cultural Change, and Will Not Be Easy
There's a lot of blame to go around for the problems inside Notre Dame Stadium during the majority of home games whether they be the ushers, the stuck up alumni, the disinterested tourists, the play on the field, or the opponent.
This article isn't meant to downplay all of those factors because they all deserve their own place in this discussion, nor is it meant to guarantee that the suggested improvements are perfect fixes. However, the point is that the atmosphere that has been manufactured by Notre Dame inside the football stadium has exacerbated all of the problems seen on Saturday's and that upgrades are needed to begin to turn the tide in the other direction.
Notre Dame asked for this problem by refusing to update the stadium and keep the fans engaged outside of the incredibly small amount of time it takes to actually play the game. It allowed a culture to grow in which one of the largest stadiums in the country now has one of the worst home field advantages.
What's truly special and worth cherishing is Notre Dame Stadium itself, not the lame 1940's atmosphere the school has tried to promote for the past couple decades.
That is a crucial distinction.
I've always felt the atmosphere was incredibly forced anyway. It's a valiant effort but times have changed. Men and women aren't dressed to the nines anymore, the football team isn't the giant presence on campus as much as it once was, there's plenty of new technology at other schools to compare with, and the American culture has evolved to accept that the sport of live football is entertainment first and foremost.
This is why as much as anything else, games are boring inside Notre Dame Stadium. The entertainment factor is shunned in favor of a museum factor. The courtesy and soft-talking found at the Grotto and inside the Basilica before the game is brought right into the stadium every Saturday.
Why does it have to be this way?
Why can't some things be added to make a game of football more entertaining? Why can't Notre Dame keep its 768 other traditions that make it unique from its peers, keep the stately pregame festivities around the beautiful campus, but then let loose with more modern entertainment inside the stadium?
Is this against Notre Dame's principles?
How about we make some improvements to that Cadillac so that it's more fun to drive all the time instead of once a decade?
Into the Future
I've met people who genuinely enjoy the current atmosphere inside Notre Dame Stadium, and I fully respect their opinion on that. I also share some of their concerns in regards to certain changes in the stadium.
I respect those who are genuinely worried about changes, but who also have an open mind and don't turn a blind eye towards some of the problems going on today inside the stadium, versus those who enjoy the atmosphere but throw temper tantrums at the thought of an advertisement sign hanging inside the stadium.
Even if I enjoyed the museum atmosphere for 3 hours, I would still have a very difficult time believing that it would be able to last much longer. Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick can be scapegoats for now, but the changes won't stop once they ultimately leave South Bend.
Do people really think in 25 years, or 50 years, that Notre Dame Stadium is going to be the same as it was in 2009? Progress is sometimes slow---and at Notre Dame it is often excruciatingly slow to a fault---but progress and change will not be stopped.
The game of football is entertainment, not a static ode to the past.
Entertainment, fun, and excitement will always win out.
The pumped-in music is a good start.
A lot of people worry about the band losing its place on gameday, but how important is the band REALLY outside of their pre-game and halftime routines, plus to be there to blast the fight song after scores?
Those three responsibilities are the core of the band's purpose, so is it really a big deal to have other music played during breaks in action instead of half the stadium tuning out the dim notes and repeated playlist of the band?
The band keeps its pride and purpose with its most important responsibilities while the stadium can also be amped up to louder and more exciting music at other times.
The final step is to satiate fans' desires for information, replays, and videos that can celebrate the history of Notre Dame.
Imagine that---people actively engaged in between plays with replays and celebrating the history of Notre Dame with some video clips during timeouts---instead of celebrating the tradition of silence and boredom.
Here's a to-do list to ponder:
A) Four modestly sized video boards in each corner of the stadium
If you don't want one or two giant boards dominating the stadium, or if you don't want anything in the north endzone blocking Touchdown Jesus even more, the solution is simple. Place four medium-sized video boards where the current light structures are in the corners of the stadium on top of the upper bowl.
B) Go minimal
Since they won't be very large, keep the entire front surface as a video screen---no logos, no ads, etc. When the board isn't being used, keep the screens blank, or with the Notre Dame monogram if it's more aesthetically pleasing.
C) Keep it simple
Show replays after as many plays as possible. Focus on hype videos before the team comes out at the start and after halftime. During commercials any number of things could be used: player spotlights, replays of the current game highlights, packages of highlights from previous games, etc. Notre Dame should use its plethora of smart people to create something exciting and unique to watch during breaks in action.
D) Sell beer
Not likely to happen any time soon, but it would be an immediate boost across the board.
There are a lot of problems surrounding the game day atmosphere: the lack of an elite team on the field, the ushers, the cheese and wine culture from alumni, the Disney World culture from Subway fans---it's a pretty long list.
Rather than just blame the team and coaching staff, the long list of problems only serves as proof that the atmosphere simply isn't working, that things need to be addressed, and new ideas need to breathe life into the Saturday staleness. There's a multitude of different reasons that these problems have arisen over the years, but they have been allowed to grow mostly because of the Wimbledon atmosphere nurtured in the stadium.
A lot of people deride the use of video boards and music as manufactured entertainment, but the old-school atmosphere Notre Dame attempts is just as manufactured and just as fake. More damaging is the fact that this manufactured old-school atmosphere hurts home-field advantage for the Irish---an issue serious enough to cause major concern for those willing to provide the football team with the best conditions possible to win.
It's a slap in the face to the old days to say that the current atmosphere is the same as the past or worth keeping when thousands of people are playing with their phones, listening to their iPod, having conversations about non-football topics all game long, and barely able to muster an audible clap for a touchdown.
The biggest problem with the crowd at Notre Dame games is that they are lulled to sleep by the lack of action. Aside from the 12 minutes of live action on the field every game, the crowd is left to their own devices and they are becoming less engaged by the experience inside the stadium. It's become less about being in Notre Dame Stadium and being engaged in what Notre Dame wants fans to experience and more about how each individual finds a way to occupy the down time.
There's a lot of tearing of garments from people who think that fans are supposed to just sit there, watch the action, listen to the quiet echoes of the band, and get their fill with the pin drop silence outside of the plays from scrimmage, but it's completely unrealistic to think that fans are going to act like people at games in the 1940's with the ever-improving advances in personal technology.
Times have changed, consumers have changed, and the Notre Dame Stadium experience has been hit especially hard by these changes.
It may not have manifested itself in a drop in attendance like so many other major sports teams who are struggling to compete with HD television and the have-everything-at-your-fingertips smart phone generation, but these culture changes are nonetheless exposed like a deep wound inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Part of me wishes that this wasn't the way our culture acted today with their constant need to be entertained, but it also strikes me as incredibly naive to think that this momentum can be reversed. Instead of complaining about it, why not do something about it?
Personal technology is changing so rapidly, attention spans are shorter than ever, the culture manifested in the stadium is as disinterested as ever, and the answer cannot be to double down on the museum atmosphere inside Notre Dame Stadium.
That would be like witnessing a school struggling with its students and keeping the draconian rules, boring monotone lectures, and chalkboard with dusty 40-year old text books because "that's what got the job done in the past."
Saying something worked in the past---even when wrapped in the cloak of winning---isn't a good enough answer on its own anymore.
The answer for Notre Dame has to be embracing the new technology, using it to their benefit, and engaging fans in a way that fits the university in the 21st Century.
There is a void in action and entertainment at Notre Dame games and that void will be filled. Maybe not completely next year, maybe not in five years, but it will be filled. Folks in the past knew no better because there was a void at every stadium across the country---but no longer.
For those who wish to keep things same old, same old in the stadium---think about the future. Are you happy with the atmosphere today and do you see many of the cultural, technological, and generational challenges that currently exist?
Will a sudden surge in winning from the Fighting Irish solve the problems for good or is that just a temporary band-aid? And what constitutes "winning" and "not winning" and how long will the former have to last for long-term improvements?
My case is that:
1) Notre Dame Stadium is more important than the atmosphere the school has fabricated in modern times.
2) Technological progress will inevitably force changes into Irish home games.
3) Creating a greater home-field advantage is a major priority.
The music over the PA system and night game last year are solid starts for change---with more the stadium could be a place where everyone might wear the same color and isn't afraid to be shouted down or feel uncomfortable for standing and cheering.
Shake up the system, change the culture, and the atmosphere will slowly improve.
In truth, this is the responsibility and duty of the university and its leaders, so this whole piece should be aimed at them as much as everyone else. Instead of letting this atmosphere of boredom continue to fester, it should be up to the university to get control of the problem and engage fans, invest in Notre Dame's rich history, and make a more fun and entertaining gameday part of the new experience in the 21st Century.
Change isn't always bad, and this can be a very positive new experience and tradition for the school if they want it to be. Notre Dame can still drive the 1958 Cadillac around and be unique with a stadium that will soon be older than any of the people sitting inside of it, and it can also create a fresh atmosphere that makes driving that Cadillac around more fun and worthwhile in the modern world.
For the next time you're sitting inside Notre Dame Stadium during a timeout and believe you're hearing the ghosts of George Connor and Leon Hart whispering over the faint noise of the hushed crowd, remember, that's just a few people in the row behind you texting and talking on their phone.
It's time to move on.