At OFD, we're no strangers to the soaring rhetoric and fierce debate ceaselessly spurred by Notre Dame football: by the game itself, its participants and representatives, its history and future, and, of course, by its traditions, amenities, and presentation. Last week, looking ahead to the installation of an artificial surface in Notre Dame Stadium just weeks from now, Eric Murtaugh published his "Idiot's Guide to FieldTurf." The discussion that followed that article, first within the comment section, then amongst our writers, is the source of what follows.
In this roundtable discussion, Eric is joined by myself, Mouth of the South, NDMSPaint, Jim Miesle, JoeSchu, Paul Rigney, First Down Moses, and Whiskey in a rousing debate over, well, field paint, stadium aesthetics, the relationship between Notre Dame's traditions and its brand, the Notre Dame community and what it values - what we value as a part of that community.
The discussion began in the comment section of Eric's "Idiot's Guide to FieldTurf."
WILD BILL RUBIN: When they choose a design I hope it's what I'm going to call "artificial-traditional." No logos, no designs, just the stripes in the end zone. ND's field is classic, when you see it you know it's ND. We don't need to be like everyone else with the logos all over the place.
ERIC MURTAUGH: Well the stripes are a design. And that's definitely a tradition - one where people see it and "know it's Notre Dame," although I personally think it's beyond boring to see it every single year.
The logo-less mid-field is a different story. I'd argue that's not nearly as well known by fans across the country. As such, it's not a tradition that's really worth that much to protect. I can't say I've ever looked at the field and thought it was awesome that nothing was at mid-field. Looks cheap and unprofessional, in my opinion.
FISHOUTOFWATER: Do you really get excited about elaborate end zone designs?
So much so that you are actively bored by the lines in ours? I love the end zones and the logo-less mid-field, too. Simple. Old school. We don't need everybody else's cheap branding.
ERIC: Absolutely, I do. . . .
And then the discussion got rolling amongst our writers.
MOUTH OF THE SOUTH: My thesish (sort of thesis): field stripes and no logo are boring and sterile; field ornamentation, like the beautiful ornamentation that our campus is so famous for, should be exciting and evocative, while tasteful.
FISHOUTOFWATER: Tulips and hyacinth in the end zones? A saucer magnolia at mid-field? A one-seventh-sized reproduction of the grotto at the north tunnel entrance?
I would love to see a mock-up of this "exciting and evocative" field paint you guys are envisioning.
JIM MIESLE: How nice of you to include metric conversions for our colleague north of the border.
JOESCHU: I MUST find a way to make that field happen.
ERIC: One of the things that I find odd is that Notre Dame probably has better resources in terms of logos than any other college in the country.
I've never understood (or rather, never agreed) with Notre Dame's need to be the Throwback Machine in football. With all the constraints on the program from the academic/campus life side of things, it's always seemed like a terrible long-term strategy to try and preserve this weird, old-school motif that will never be popular with future generations and already is being assaulted by technology. I just wish we could lay down these rules:
- games in Notre Dame Stadium
- gold helmets
- conference independence
Nothing else REALLY matters in terms of the school building a brand and keeping true to its roots and goals as a university. Our field is absolutely no fun. It sells no fun. It broadcasts it to the world. I hate it.
MOUTH: Really starting to agree with Eric. The field is like Augusta, just more boring and not beautiful. Golf may be the best thing since sliced bread, but it does not connote excitement, vitality, edginess, or cool on a level anywhere approaching ND. So if your football field is not as exciting as golf, that's not good.
JIM: I am on #TeamFish with regard to the end zone slashes, but let's run a simple exercise. What words best describe the Notre Dame brand?
JOE: That's a great question Jim, and one that probably deserves a bit more reflection. For me, the primary word is "community" - of faith, of academics, of athletics, etc.
I read something interesting about Golf Digest (I know, Bob Downs) changing their look in the next issue. In explaining the thinking, they said, "we're passionate about the game. We take it seriously, not solemnly." I thought that was a great way to think about ND's "traditions." Solemnity belongs in the Basilica and during quiet times of reflection, not in the stadium.
FISH: That is a good question, Jim. Joe, I like your answer (though I find that Golf Digest quote a bit unconvincing, as a total outsider). I don't get any sense of solemnity from ND's football program or game day display, apart from maybe the Masses and grotto-visits on either side of the games. Tradition and old-schoolness and even nostalgia, or a valuing of simplicity, historicity, etc., aren't necessarily bound up with solemnity or even seriousness (or sobriety, if we want to keep going with this).
When I think of the feel of ND on game day or being in the stadium or even watching a game on TV, I am struck by the sense of community, yes; I might add to this a sense that that community extends backwards into the history of the school, in the form of its alumni and fans and families and traditions and actual history (it was G. K. Chesterton who said that tradition is merely the democracy of the dead). I'm struck also by the grandeur and the jubilance and the deeply-rooted excitement of all of it, bigger than any single game. It's never seemed genuinely boring or stale or sanitized or solemn to me.
JIM: I am not sure what words I would use to describe the ND brand, but I know this: If you are watching a game (or highlights) and see the end zone stripes, you immediately know where the game is being played and who is playing. That is a very powerful brand. Other places try to replicate that through flashy designs and gallons upon gallons of paint in the end zone. I don't think you want to throw that all away just because it is "boring" or "old fashioned," etc.
Here are a few ideas for defining the ND brand, though:
ERIC: What's interesting is that your words are all reaching back to the past, and backward looking. When you define a brand in those terms I think it's suffocating. It says to me: The past is good enough, no need for forward thinking.
In some ways, I think Notre Dame is above "brand" when compared to the likes of Alabama, USC, Ohio State, and others. By that I mean brand in the sense of fashion, advertising, etc. We do not have a powerful brand because we paint stripes in our end zones. Our end zone doesn't make Notre Dame tougher or cultivate a culture of strong academics with the football players. It's a faux tradition that we've adopted as part of our look.
The stripes represent tradition just for the sake of tradition. We might as well just write "Tradition" in the end zones because that's the point we're trying to get across. "Hey, look at us! Did you guys know we're Notre Dame and full of so much tradition? Oh yeah, check our end zones! Old school, right?"
I think we should be the ones who are tremendously secure with our deep history and traditions, but I sometimes feel like we're incredibly insecure about them.
MOUTH: A few quotes from G. K. Chesterton on frivolous solemnity:
"If there is one thing more than another which any one will admit who has the smallest knowledge of the world, it is that men are always speaking gravely and earnestly and with the utmost possible care about the things that are not important, but always talking frivolously about the things that are. Men talk for hours with the faces of a college of cardinals about things like golf, or tobacco, or waistcoats, or party politics. But all the most grave and dreadful things in the world are the oldest jokes in the world - being married; being hanged. . . . The thing which is fundamentally and really frivolous is a careless solemnity." - Heretics
In a short story, he lauds "those who are jeered at as humorous , but who are generally much more serious than the serious , for their levity comes from a living impatience of professional solemnity; while the serious [are] really filled with frivolity, because [they are] filled with vanity." - The Man in the Passage
PAUL RIGNEY: To me, complaining about the end zone is like complaining that they replaced the Sbarro in LaFortune with a combination Pizza Hut-Taco Bell. Sure, the Sbarro was there forever and you really can't beat a 4-dollar extra large za at 3:30 in the morning, but dude, the Pizza Hut-Taco Bell has breadsticks AND chalupas. And it's nicer. And it's still open late. And I get to use this YouTube video to support my point.
JOE: I think this all sounds like a fashion discussion. Isn't it Kelly himself who said the way to improve the atmosphere is to win? The football program has defined their brand as "tough gentlemen." Hard working, well prepared, tough men who also manage to achieve a legitimate degree from a challenging and prestigious university.
Everything else is just fashion. The color of the helmet, the nature of the uniform, the angle of the end zone stripes don't actually contribute to the brand. It seems to fit well with Mouth's quotes - artificial solemnity applied to frivolity. Kelly himself would (rightly) say he wouldn't care if the uniforms were puke-brown with some digi-camo trim in pink if the team was playing championship football.
It seems to me that calling for change isn't all that different from calling to keep things the same. Both represent reaction to what's perceived as dogma. Taken under the light of the brand Kelly says he wants to project and the program's stated objective of winning championships with tough gentlemen, how does adorning the field with something further that goal? How does keeping it looking the same further that goal? This feels like a discussion of taste, not core values. Right?
Things that matter find a way through in time. The school wanted to better reflect the brand in the helmets, while traditionalists wanted to keep painting them. The look outweighed the tradition, despite the tradition being historically locked in during the Rudy era. We don't paint them anymore, but damn they look good.
I think using in-game video is likely to be similar. There hasn't been a good way to do it in the stadium, but now the Crossroads expansion project opens the door, and it will happen. Artificial turf was similar: they were able to frame the transition as important to helping the team win. I'm sure the uber-traditionalist is looking at all of this with great dismay because they see a lot of fashion changing at once. Rather than argue what belongs on the field, I'd rather point them back to recent times when ND stood atop the polls and academic report. That's what NDFB is all about. They could execute Paint's Lou-Turf and still maintain the core of the brand by winning and graduating guys we're proud to have in the community.
MOUTH: There's nothing wrong with dogma unless you're dogma's wrong.
I may have checkmated myself with those quotes, though. To be fair, I'll also quote Chesterton on progress for its own sake:
"Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative." - Heretics
"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around." - Orthodoxy
"Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision." - Orthodoxy
"My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday." - New York Times Magazine
I don't take it terribly seriously (maybe each side is accusing the other of taking it too seriously, though, as you suggest, Joe), but aesthetics are part of any brand, right? And the aesthetics of our field are stale, stifling, boring, monotonous, dreary. They whisper "Indiana, mutual funds, golf . . . . Hear our siren song. Abandon all hopes of fun, ye who matriculate here, but you are making a 40 year decision that will likely pay off with a Northwestern Mutual gig if football doesn't work out. Then you too can eat and have a martini at the Morris Inn, dine after the game at LaSalle Grill, and be grumpy about everything."
Also, I wonder if the ossification/fossilization of the Holtzian traditions of the 80's and ND's self-imposed cryogenic incarceration as of that time is influenced as much or more by the old guard getting old during that time than by Joe's generation. That is, the guys who went to school in the 60's and 70's and knew what fun was when they were young got old in the 80's/90's and forgot what it was like to be young, and also found that they liked the new Holtzian traditions, but decided those should never change. This is not really a fully formed idea. Can you tell?
Tradition? Tradition! (PHOTO: Matt Cashore, US PRESSWIRE)
FISH: Our problem here is that we don't have a fixed or common standard for evaluating aesthetics. Mouth, you write, "the aesthetics of our field are stale, stifling, boring, monotonous, dreary." I would claim that, no, the aesthetics of our field are an expression of simplicity, the valuing of history, the priority of tradition, the understanding of the game within its historical, cultural, social, and regional context, and a valuing of the natural elements of the game (within reason).
The aesthetics that you and Eric are advocating for instead, I would claim, express the tyranny of the present, the obsession with technology, consumerism, marketability and branding, being on trend, and grasping at the fleeting and narcissistic attention of teenagers through loud, flashy, quickly-changing surfaces.
I'm exaggerating to drive the point home, of course, and I'm sure you guys could come up with an impressive list of adjectives defending the aesthetic you're drawn to. I don't think we can settle this because we don't have a common point of reference by which to fix our perspective on the aesthetics we're debating.
To me, Notre Dame - as a whole institution, because of its history and what it is - inevitably and now consciously manifests the aesthetic I'm defending here, and so it makes sense to me that the football program and its facilities would as well. The football program and its facilities do in fact rely on that aesthetic now and have at least for a meaningful number of years (though they haven't always, I know).
The aesthetic I'm defending is also exemplary for me of values that I would and do defend on the plane of higher education generally. Higher education is very seriously challenged right now by a pull towards the values I attribute above to the aesthetic you guys are defending. Those values have their advocates, but I tend to believe they're doing much more harm to higher education than good. I'm sure that concern bleeds into my thoughts on this much less significant issue.
JOE: Gold star for "tyranny of the present." The belief that tomorrow must be different in order to be better is also a very natural thing, but can get in the way of real, thoughtful, long-term progress.
Much like this little sub-section of society has no common point of reference for taste, it gets one hundred times worse when you expand beyond our relatively small, not-fully-representative sample.
Fish, I see the same institutional "drive to tomorrow" in a number of prestigious universities right now. They come to technology companies asking for their technology-driven view of the future and want them to talk about distance learning and networked campuses, but I usually end up trying to take them back to the core of what makes them different than the University of Phoenix or Khan Academy. In a word, community.
MOUTH: Touché, Fish. I am totally with you on rejecting the tyranny of modernity. I would agree with you were it not for the excellent reason that you are wrong. A plain field dates back to what - the late 90's at the earliest? Changing something like that is hardly being blown around by every wind of trend.
And if we bring it to the concrete, I doubt you'd really disagree with what I'm suggesting. Would an interlocking ND at midfield be so tasteless? It's strong and true. It's us. Maybe a "Notre Dame" with some shamrocks in the end zone, tastefully done, of course. You make great points about arguing from different premises, though. We need to agree on some kind of a standard, otherwise we're just arguing from our own subjective tastes.
JOE: Mouth, I do think it is taken far too seriously, and the massive financial impact drains the discussion of much of its integrity.
Every culture seeks to enshrine its glory years. This is why no logical argument will sway my feeling that '93 BC has to be the worst loss ever. ND has won championships, so the eras that contain those successes, like the Holtz era, are remembered at artificially high heights by those who lived it, and as Crash Davis said, "You don't mess with a streak" (or something to that sentiment). Blaming the difference between one's saccharine vision of the past and the sad reality of the present is part of every culture. Nostalgia is a common human condition, and one that signifies pride in your past. That's not a bad thing, unless it handicaps your future.
Just don't be shocked when you too go grumpy. It comes on fast.
MOUTH: Well, clearly I am wrong and a fool, then (apologies, Fish), and overreached on the plainness of the field. Still, we've changed end zone layout a number of times over the years, so it's not sacrosanct. I also don't think an interlocking ND at midfield is in any way a capitulation to the tyranny of the present. Fish's point that we need an aesthetic standard to avoid just arguing our subjective preferences stands.
And Joe now makes me doubly foolish. He has shown my proxies for stuffy old ND gold-seat-ness to be completely inaccurate, in that he is not a stuffy old white guy. I'm unable to compute. Am experiencing cognitive dissonance. I'm just going to sit the next couple of plays out.
JOE: Mouth, I am that stuffy old fool. Just be careful not to hate me too much before you become me.
A tight end running for a touchdown in front of the Irish Guard? THAT'S the Notre Dame aesthetic. (PHOTO: Jonathan Daniel)
ERIC: I think what it boils down to for me is that the athletic realm can be and should be largely separate from the academic side. We don't need to push our morality in that arena and if we don't need to do that, we don't need to keep up with the faux tradition. It's simply not needed to aid or broadcast the true mission of the University. If Digger didn't need it during the basketball program's glory years, then we definitely don't need it in football.
Further, I think the faux tradition does a disservice to the athletic arena and especially the players. It almost is like saying it's the field & atmosphere that are what's cherished, and oh, by the way, did you know that some kids run around on the field, too? It's too much about mystique and the past and not enough about the present and the current players.
I'd even go so far as to say that Notre Dame demands a separation of church (academics) & state (athletics), as it were. All those things that Fish mentioned that are supposed to have negative connotations should absolutely be true for the athletic realm, in my opinion. Notre Dame shouldn't have to apologize for being trendy and cool in the athletic arena. In fact, I think there's an awful lot of Catholic guilt that accepts not being cool and clinging to the old-school motif as the only way to move forward.
I will call my platform the Great Balancing: trendy athletics on one side of the fence and serious study and the values of the university on the other side of the fence.
JOE: Eric, you write, "I think what it boils down to for me is that the athletic realm can be and should be largely separate from the academic side." On this, we will have to respectfully disagree. Notre Dame's mission is to educate the mind, body and soul of those it touches. Athletics are core to the campus experience.
Somehow separating varsity athletes and their athletic lives into a separate bubble stands in opposition to what I see as Notre Dame's brand. RecSports and club teams are such an integral part of campus life. Living with and knowing the guys who go out on that field and suffering through difficult classes with them (yes, even in Engineering) is part of what drives the insane level of loyalty and passion you see in the alumni fan base. The athletic department is not a separate entity or fundraising machine, it is core to the mission. It is why Notre Dame is a 40 year decision, and to somehow separate the two would hurt me deeply.
ERIC: The plain field has almost always been there. I'm not arguing that there isn't tradition in it from a time standpoint. My objection, other than on aesthetics and fashion, is that it wasn't something we came up with and it doesn't have any real meaning.
Joe, I'm not sure if you understand what I mean by separation of athletics and academics. I'm not talking about changing anything in terms of off-the-field stuff at all.
What I'm talking about is turning away from the notion that tradition & university missions need to flood the athletic field, and in many cases, be the primary factor in The Experience we see on Saturday. The fact that paint on a football field represents a cherished value is what I'm talking about. Doing something different with the field changes nothing in Notre Dame's mission to educate the mind, body, and soul of those it touches. I want the players to be everything they've always been off the field, but when they put down the books, to know that things can and will be new, exciting, and aggressive, and to know that envelopes will be pushed.
I've always pictured The Great Balancing like a big family. Imagine a large family of 5 kids. They are all bright, intelligent, kind, artistic, athletic, and inquisitive. They are everything anyone would want of out of a family. Basically like five Corey Robinsons.
Now, imagine their parents forcing them to wear clothes that were old fashioned and not in style. That's kind of how I view a lot of aspects to ND football. We are doing so awesome off the field, but then it's controversial to be stylin' in football, and even worse, that style is supposed to be threatening to all the things that make the kids (and the university) great.
ND can be cool and still do the right thing, too.
What if the in-game experience was at this level, all the way through, for everyone? (PHOTO: Wesley Hitt)
FIRST DOWN MOSES: I'm sure I'm riding roughshod over some already-tread FieldTurf, but here are a few points I have regarding the recent stadium changes:
1. Relative to most of you, I am naught but a child when it comes to this stuff. I loved ND growing up, loved Rudy, and cheered for them because, by God, ND = Irish Catholic, and isn't that a good enough reason? So I have a kind of weird mix between the two ends of the spectrum.
2. If you want me to get revved up about the differences between "capital-T" and "lowercase-t" [T/t]radition(s), then I'll happily oblige. I mean, there is a difference between slightly altering the shade of gold on our pants and creating an entirely new fight song to the tune of "The Happy Hamster Dance."
3. To paraphrase G.K.C. (whom Fish and Mouth have been doing an admirable job of citing), "Enacting progress just for the sake of enacting progress is a terrible MO." This lines up with Joe and Fish's thing about the "tyranny of the present." If someone tells me, "X needs to be changed because it's old," that's not good enough. If its old-ness means it's an out-of-date antivirus program, a car in need of repairs, or something which would serve zero benefit (of any kind) by being preserved, then by all means, change it. But don't go tossing it around as a valid, standalone reason. The same goes for the opposite group too, I guess.
4. The burden of "proof" should be on those who want to make the changes. Period. Regarding the stadium stuff, here's how I approached a few of those things:
5. "We've had a grass field forever. Why not keep it?" "Because compared to FieldTurf, it's cost-prohibitive, it looks like [garbage], players can't cut worth a darn, and it looks like [garbage] on national TV." "Oh, okay."
6. "The end zone stripes are old. We should do something else." "Granted, there weren't end zone stripes back in Rockne's day, but aside from possibly Tennessee's creamsicle checkerboard (woof), I challenge you to find a more instantly-recognizable end zone in college sports." "But isn't it time to try something fresh? Not even at midfield?" "Unless there's a really compelling reason besides 'Let's shake things up,' I don't think that it makes any sense to scrap a symbol that has (for better or worse) become an iconic thing. However, I agree with you that there's no reason to not have something equally iconic placed at midfield." (See? Compromise!)
7. Ultimately, there's a reason traditions are so important. I always enjoy the opening to Fiddler on the Roof when he's praising all these odd traditions and then admits he doesn't know why they do half those things . . . but who cares, because those odd rituals are part of their identity. (I feel like I've opened up another can of worms with that, but I'm going stream-of-consciousness, so forgive me.)
ERIC: I'll throw this in here - that the Packers and Steelers have used the slash marks in the recent past too.
JOE: Lambeau is a great example of a stadium that managed to keep its aura and atmosphere while modernizing amenities. Also an example of a stadium that is used only on game day and has a nearly unlimited groundskeeping budget, but still ends up looking and playing like crap.
Incidentally, it is also one of the world's greatest proving grounds of the internal warming effects of alcohol.
FISH: FDM, I like what you have to say here a lot and agree (with you and Chesterton) that the burden is on the "new aesthetic" crowd (Eric, Mouth, et al.) to make the case for change.
Eric, along those (diagonal) lines, can you say a bit more about how putting "Notre Dame" in the end zones and a shamrock or monogram or what have you at midfield is fashionable, exciting, aggressive, and envelope-pushing? Just as you have trouble seeing the connection of the field paint to the "traditional aesthetic" or values of the university or whatever we want to call it, I'm having trouble tying the field paint to what you seem to be characterizing as pro-player values or substantively positive along the lines you've laid out.
ERIC: My case for the Great Balancing is mostly confined to the stadium. I want to create an ethos that is intent on building new traditions and burying the stifling, schmaltzy, Ken-Burns-documentary atmosphere that has been on steroids in the near past. It's not just about giving the players what they want. It's also about creating a new atmosphere for the crowd that accepts football as entertainment and embraces the value of having fun.
The hushed tones, cantankerous ushers, plain field, quiet solitude, and museum quality are all going to die. You know, I know, and everyone knows that in 2050 there is no way that the faux tradition will survive. It's been crumbling since the school woke up in recent years and discovered it's a bad idea to keep promoting the program to a depressed Don Draper who goes to the stadium "just to watch football, damn it."
Can we watch football, be cool, and have fun, too? Or do we feel like Irish football Saturdays have to be a form of punishment in their boringness?
The Great Balancing seeks to return Notre Dame's adventurous spirit to being innovative and an industry leader in all things college football. Sitting on one's heels and appealing to a dated ideal of Notre Dame Stadium as a teacher of the university's morals and timepiece of football's past runs antithetical to the spirit the program was built upon.
The Great Balancing does not seek to remove the student from the student-athlete, but rather seeks to give each arena its due and maximize its value. Like a yin and yang, they will be separate entities in terms of brand and marketing that combine to make Notre Dame the most unique, envied, and exciting program in the country.
WHISKEY: All great organizations eventually run into these issues. The organization has to evolve in order to remain relevant. But while doing so, the organization also wants to appropriately preserve traditions. That is extremely important for many reasons. There's a balance in that evolution, but like all things that require balance, you aren't ever going to get everyone to agree on where the line is.
What traditions must be preserved at all costs? I think the most important traditions to maintain are those that you don't necessarily see. What are the core values of the organization? Are they being upheld? Are the members of the organization coming out on the other side as better citizens as a result of their experience? Everything else is just stuff. But that stuff is what we tend to get the most riled up about. Perhaps that's a sign that the really important things like core values remain intact. That allows us the privilege of being able to concern ourselves with the little things.
To me, ND Stadium falls somewhere in between equipment and aesthetics, or what you all are referring to as fashion. The move to artificial turf is a decision consistent with modernization. Better technology is now available, thus it is a better option. How it gets painted is 100% optional, though.
And yes, those the most opposed to such changes will almost always be those that have been associated with the organization the longest. The older you get the more you naturally think "it wasn't all screwed up like that in my day!"
JOE: How freakin' great is ND. Chesterton quotes, religious and organizational analogies, substantive values - all over turf paint.
PAUL: You forgot the music video about the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell!
JOE (privately to PAUL): No, I didn't forget.