Recently, the Sporting News ranked Notre Dame Stadium as the second best of "places to watch college football." This isn’t a big surprise for most Irish fans or anyone who has stepped foot on Notre Dame’s campus and attended a game inside the House that Rockne Built.
However, the curious thing is how much debate continues to rage on about the positives and negatives of Notre Dame Stadium and what needs to be done, if anything at all, to improve the experience for fans.
This weekend the Western Michigan Broncos will be the first MAC team to ever play at Notre Dame* and as a result the nation’s second longest consecutive sell-out streak is in jeopardy.
*First MAC team, but Notre Dame has played Western Michigan before, defeating the Broncos by a combined score of 94-0 in 1919 and 1920.
There have been some close calls in the past with "the streak" and even though every ticket is sold, some claim that there have been plenty of empty seats in the past to warrant an end to such sell-out claims.
As it is, there is another real threat that the streak will end from a monetary standpoint this weekend, although we’ll just have to wait and see.
But back to the stadium itself and the positive and negatives associated with the South Bend mecca.
Will things ever change?
Before we dig in deeper into this issue let me claim that I am indeed a traditionalist when it comes to these matters, although I don’t think we can really just shout, "it’s a tradition!" and never think about changing anything or enhancing the experience at Notre Dame.
I’ve probably brought this topic up a half dozen times over the past year or so and I think it is something that should be discussed because A.) We’re playing Western Michigan this weekend and I couldn’t muster the energy to write any sort of preview for the game and B.) I thought we would see some changes (however small) with a new coaching staff and I’m not sure anything has happened.
For convenience’s sake let’s break this down into different topics.
The Tunnel Walk and Field Entrance
Last week’s entrance onto the field for the Irish was really the impetus for writing this piece. One of the reasons why I was excited to have someone like Brian Kelly as head coach at Notre Dame was because I thought the team’s entrance onto the field would be greatly improved.
The home opener against Purdue was fairly decent and just having the coach run out in front of the team brings about a little more excitement.
But since then the entrance has been one large ball of suck with none worse than last weekend’s against Pittsburgh.
As usual the team gathered in the tunnel and the cheerleaders ran out onto the field led by the leprechaun and for some reason a couple of random Irish players. Naturally, this elicited a decent amount of applause from the spectators.
The only problem was, the rest of the team didn’t follow suit and only after the initial wave of cheerleaders and mascot raced out onto the field and the crowd died down, did the rest of the players run out in the most uninspiring of ways.
What’s wrong with this whole process?
On television the entrance is almost always terrible. If Clemson or Virginia Tech taking the field is like watching a popular rock band take the stage, witnessing Notre Dame take the field is like watching a dried up country star slowly amble towards the microphone.
In person, the run out is probably the most disappointing aspect of the entire weekend experience (I had very high hopes initially at my first game and my second live-viewing was much worse than the first).
On the one hand it’s amazing because obviously you’re at Notre Dame, you’re excited to watch the game and all of these players and coaches who a lot of us look up to and cheer for are only feet away in some instances.
But from a more primitive "let’s get jacked up because the Fighting Irish are about to run onto the field," it is a rather boring scene.
Is there any way to improve this? Here’s what I think:
Enclose the Tunnel
One of the main problems with the run out onto the field is that everyone in the stadium can see the players spilling out of the tunnel before they actually take the field. This is coupled with the lack of music or means of celebration that precedes the run out and it is produces a rather lackluster moment.
What if the tunnel was temporarily closed off for the run out?
What if there was a retractable awning that came down and covered the tunnel? You could even paint it metallic gold and have it resemble the golden dome.
At the end of it, you could attach a giant paper covering with the fighting leprechaun, ND monogram or shamrock logos and have the players break through it as they run out to the field.
Personally, I think this is a great idea and is something rather simple that would add to the punch of having the Irish take the field. It would force the spectators to focus more on the tunnel and there would be more excitement and anticipation as they await the team bursting out from behind the "golden dome."
Enroll in the Ray Lewis School of Celebration
My first idea will bring an estimated 39.4 percent increase in excitement to the stadium, but something needs to be done to get the players really jacked up. I don’t understand why they continue to just jog onto the field like nothing special is happening.
Running through the paper will automatically make them run a little faster and although I’m not advocating any player(s) come out by themselves and do a little dance like Ray Lewis, it would be nice if we saw some more emotion out there.
Could we get some mandatory flying chest bumps and soaring high fives at least?
Here’s another idea, why not let one of the team captains race out with a shillelagh in his hand and give it to the leprechaun at midfield? I bet you half the Notre Dame fan base doesn’t even know the leprechaun brandishes a shillelagh in the first place and this would be a totally bad ass way to promote the awesome Irish club.
Loudness=Home Field Advantage
Notre Dame Stadium is the 21st largest non-racing venue in the United States, yet its size is considerably larger than the noise the stadium produces each Saturday.
It is this topic that has produced a ton of arguments and discussions about "what’s wrong" with Notre Dame Stadium.
Let’s break it down.
The Bowl Shape
It is often repeated that one of the main reasons why Notre Dame Stadium is not as loud as many other venues around the country is because of its open-top bowl shape.
Essentially, a large portion of the crowd noise that is generated fizzles away into the open sky above.
Is there a solution to this?
Clearly the university isn’t about to build a new stadium just to enhance the crowd noise, but what about adding small awnings (bonus points for bringing up awnings a second time!) similar to the ones used by Alabama and other schools?
Hey, it’s a thought.
The Crowd Make-Up
This is the most talked about issue and probably the biggest issue, although it is pretty much close to unsolvable without inherent changes to the stadium.
First, the Fighting Irish student section is much smaller than most other schools. Notre Dame has just under 12,000 students while Penn State has about eight times that number.
Talk about fighting an uphill battle.
With a much smaller student section (half the size of Penn State’s), Notre Dame is afforded many more seats to fans that are not going to be as crazy or loud as college kids.
This is added to the throngs of supporters who fill the stadium every weekend but who are otherwise tight lipped, not of the cheering persuasion and often cantankerous. We’ve all heard stories about people being yelled at by certain fans for standing up and cheering and also about prompt ushers who are ready to throw anyone out of the stadium who disrupts the enjoyment of others.
I’m convinced that this is a generational thing that might pass as the years roll on.
If you think about it, all of those alumni and fans who are in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, these people have never really lived through such a mediocre era of Irish football. There was a small amount of years while some of them were kids or teenagers where the team was no good and then another in the early to mid-1980’s.
But for the most part they grew up in their formative years with Notre Dame being THE school and a program that dominated college football year in and year out. Now, they’re old and not about to rise to the occasion as super fans to give the team any sort of advantage through increased crowd noise.
Catholic Disney World
I heard someone a while back call Notre Dame the Catholic Disney World and I thought that made a lot of sense.
We always talk about it all the time because there is so much to do and so much to see at Notre Dame that it really almost takes away from the football game itself and more importantly, makes it very difficult for the university not to cater to the people who have come to see the Grotto just as much as Armando Allen crossing the goal line.
Basically, this has cultivated a culture of "being nice" and "being classy" which is perfectly fine, except these traits spill into the stadium each Saturday and aren’t really conducive to helping a team win football games.
Some would argue that the university has become obsessed with being classy and maintaining it’s image as a "nice little place to watch football," and I tend to agree. Yet, when we’re talking about things like entertainment, home-field advantage, crowd noise and the like, schools need more of a rowdy shotgun-your- beer atmosphere instead of the wine and cheese atmosphere that exists during Notre Dame games.
In a way, the university has become a victim of its own success just as we’ve lived through a period in which the football team has gone in the opposite direction.
The school has become so popular in the 21st Century that there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of fans flocking to South Bend every weekend who have never seen Notre Dame and who are left in awe with its splendor and beauty.
What’s more, the university has become one of the elite institutions in the country and this has created a massive alumni network who attends games, pay good money to do so every year, but who don’t really enhance the environment. Also, many fit the category of people mentioned above (i.e. forget about them cheering).
In sum, the "problems" inside Notre Dame Stadium are as much cultural as anything.
Increasing the Entertainment Level
And now we find ourselves staring at the amenities that Notre Dame Stadium has been practically void of for the past 80 years: jumbotrons, music, promotions during break, etc.
The experience that still exists today at Notre Dame is as old-school as you’ll find in North American sports: Natural grass with no field paint except for slanted hash marks in the end zone, the only music from the two team’s bands, no advertising, and very limited use of the PA system.
One the one hand, this is a very important part of what makes Notre Dame the school that it is. And to be sure, there are a lot of people who hold this aspect of the football experience near and dear to their heart (they’ll be the ones screaming in the comment section DO NOT CHANGE ANYTHING…EVER!!).
However, the game has changed quite a bit since the early days of college football. Rockne never had to deal with television breaks and long timeouts. Leahy’s teams never had to deal with the crazy atmospheres you see today at LSU, Oregon, Nebraska and elsewhere.
The biggest problem nowadays is that fans are not entertained for a large majority of Notre Dame games and there are so many lulls in action that it rips apart any momentum the crowd has created.
Wouldn’t playing a song over the PA system before the team comes out or in between a timeout each quarter keep the fans more engaged?
I don’t think the stadium really needs a jumbotron at this point, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to watch replays if only to keep the crowd busy and not twiddling their thumbs and sucking out the energy during challenges?
If at some point the university decides to make these changes I’ve said before that it can be done tastefully and not in the cheesy and cheap way most other schools do it. I think that is an important point to remember.
Winning Solves Everything
Most people will say that the Fighting Irish need to start winning like they used to and all of the problems associated with the stadium will go away.
I agree, but only to a point.
Of course the fans are going to be pumped up and loud during a close game or against a top opponent that is coming to town. That’s not really the problem here.
It’s more of the four or five other home games a year where the crowd is all but listless unless there is a big play or touchdown.
Like I said it’s a cultural thing and it’s something that is not easily changed. I agree with the premise that winning is a big part of changing the stadium atmosphere but isn’t that another way of saying that Notre Dame has a lot of fair-weather fans?
Maybe fair-weather fans isn’t the right label, but you don’t see this problem at other top schools and this kind of my point. Penn State is 3-3 right now and staring down the barrel of a very rough second half, so will Beaver Stadium be any less loud because of it?
Maybe a little bit, but it will still be loud and crazy as always.
So here we are this weekend with one of the weakest opponents to ever set foot inside Notre Dame Stadium with a threat of a non-sellout and a crowd that is likely to be asleep five minutes into the third quarter.
I love the tradition at Notre Dame, I really do, I just wish things were a little different.
So what do you think?
Does Notre Dame Stadium need small changes? Big changes? No changes at all?
Are any of my ideas good, or am I just crazy?