Notre Dame is behind the times.
I’m sure there will be a good portion that will disagree with me on that statement, citing that Notre Dame’s “tradition” should trump things such as new helmets, field turf, or even, *gasp* a jumbotron. Those things aren’t “tradition”, they are simply how “we’ve always done it”. The two are not equivalent.
Before I came to Her Loyal Sons, I wrote about a costly result of staying in the mindset of “this is how we’ve always done it”, the death of Declan Sullivan. And, no, I’m not equating the tragic death of a fellow Domer to something as trivial as a jumbotron (even though I’ve read/heard opinions on the matter that suggest such an issue is far from trivial); however, I can think of no better example of this mindset that I’ve already happened to write 1,000+ words on.
Want to know what the real tradition is at Notre Dame? Innovation and change.
Notre Dame is often mistaken for the inventors of the forward pass thanks to the Dorais regularly hitting future coach, Knute Rockne, with a slew of down-field passes in an upset of Army. While the Irish were on the outside of conferences looking in (thanks Michigan! [no, seriously, thanks]), we created a national schedule, unheard of at the time, allowing for our biggest rival to be from Southern California instead of across the Indiana/Michigan border. The famed student manager program came into existence thanks to Rockne, who even allowed them to sneak on to trains so they could assist the Irish football team on road games. Rockne also made sure to promote ND as a profitable entity and even became a pitchman for Studebaker.
To this day, there is still not other school that has been crazy enough to put real gold into their helmet paint. While the green jerseys had been around before, it wasn’t until Devine’s Irish warmed up in blue and came out in green (in a Trojan horse no less, a move I’m sure that would be called a “gimmick” today) after an 11 year absence that the jerseys became the most famous alternate jersey in all of college football. Before the Big Ten and Longhorn Networks were even a thought, the Irish had their contract with NBC.
But changing the uniforms, piping in music, thinking about installing field turf and a jumbotron? BLASPHEMY!
For some reason, ND slammed the brakes on innovation or change around the Lou Holtz era. And what were other programs doing during that time? Changing, adapting, playing catch-up to programs like ND and eventually passing them. Training tables, new facilities, new stadiums, suites, and yes, even jumbotrons and field turf. The result was that other programs started to become more appealing than they had before.
To anyone else outside the Notre Dame bubble, the entire Notre Dame tradition seems to have stopped with the last championship in 1988 and no one has bothered to completely move on since. Now consider the mindset of 17-18 year old kids who weren’t even alive when Notre Dame was at the pinnacle of the college football world. Unless they have some sort of previous affiliation with Notre Dame, lived in the Midwest, or happened to stumble across Rudy, they have absolutely no concept of what the place is like even in comparison to current young alumni when they were the same age. The Notre Dame that everyone else grew up with might as well just be a myth to them.
This is the uphill battle the Irish have been fighting for years when competing for the best talent in the nation. With a lack of major improvements to the stadium, football facilities, and some awful coaching and recruiting, Notre Dame suffered greatly in the post-Holtz era. The talent dwindled and the losses piled up, further pushing recruits away to other football programs.
That trend didn’t stop until Charlie Weis, who proved that you can indeed recruit to South Bend. You know what else changed though? The Gug was finally opened for Weis’ first year, which was the first major change to any football facility since the stadium renovations in 1997, nearly a full decade.
With new world class facilities, a cocky attitude, BCS run, love and understanding of ND, and a shiny Super Bowl ring, Weis had the power to lure kids back into the program and rebuild Notre Dame. Ultimately, Weis feel short, but stopped the bleeding of the Notre Dame football program from a talent level perspective. Even Weis messed around with tradition, having the players sing the alma mater in front of the student section and standing behind the serviceÂ academiesÂ during theirs.
Now in comes Kelly (and Swarbrick) for a new era, with a spread offense, a newly instituted and long overdue training table, new helmets, piped in music, the Shamrock Series, and talk of field turf and jumbotrons. Somehow, these proposed changes are morphed into either ND selling out and debasing themselves for either revenue, pandering to kids/recruits in ways that we shouldn’t, or somehow a combination of both. Even when prompted by suggestions that said changes could result in wins, that thought is dismissed as well as we should be wining without such changes that are apparently beneath us.
The Holy Land of the NFL, Lambeau Field, has field turf, specifically a blend of grass with synthetic support that ND has been rumored to be looking at. Kyle Field, home the Texas A&M Aggies, a school with ad much tradition, rituals, and a rabid fan base as the Irish, has a jumbotron that has failed to detract from their gameday atmosphere.
Yet installing field turf on our own frozen tundra is wrong? Instant replay reviews are now law in college football, yet fans inside the stadium shouldn’t be allowed to view them as well? Would it be so bad to see clips from ICON during TV timeouts instead of an endless parade of strangers on the 20 yard line? And if all of it happens to be just enough to add on to Notre Dame’s already fantastic traditions to get a 5-star to send in a fax in Feburary, is that so wrong?
The fact is that Notre Dame has a gap to fill that spans over a decade long. Notre Dame created it by using our storied tradition as a crutch to keep us in the top tier of the college football world, even during times when the wins didn’t add up. This inactivity was a message to the rest of the college football world that Notre Dame was content to have our future legacy be our past.
Notre Dame coaches have traditionally rocked the boat a bit and ignored parts of the past to leave their own imprint and legacy for the future. Rockne was ready to resign if his house wasn’t built. Leahy ruffled feathers by throwing out Rock’s playbook and installing his own system. Ara was the first non-ND graduate to take the helm. Devine resurrected the green jerseys after Ara sealed them up for 11 years, made them his own, put names on the back of them, and even had an endzone logo of the fighting Irish during his tenure. Holtz then proceed to rip those names off the jerseys and went completely old school, seemingly leaving his personal imprint as the one many “traditionalists” long for.
Kelly, like any of ND’s great coaches of the past, wants to live a similar personal imprint. Â His suggestions and changes made thus far should not be viewed as earth shattering. Field turf, especially the kind installed at Green Bay, would be a monumental improvement to Notre Dame Stadium. While I’m not the biggest fan of the Shamrock Series helmet, as Kelly said, the only opinion that matters are the 105 players in the locker room and they loved it. He’s right. The whole green jersey tradition was to get the players motivated, a pop from the fans is just an additional benefit. Even the biggest divisive issue, a jumbotron shouldn’t be a crazy “tradition breaker”, especially seeing as how the basketball and hockey teams have nice shiny new screens.
I’m sure most of this will be dismissed by certain parts of the fan base, citing my age as the determining factor for why I “just don’t get it”. They will point to the one-time overplaying of Crazy Train as proof Notre Dame can’t get new technology right (even though it aired one more time during Navy as a punchline to their own joke they inadvertently created). Some will say that Kelly and the current administration, Swarbrick included, have proved they don’t “get” Notre Dame and are too concerned about the ever changing whims of the kids which the University is supposed to serve.
The tradition of Notre Dame is much more than some grass, a helmet, a uniform, the type of music played in a stadium, and the absence of a jumbotron. Arguments can be made about the speed, timing, and the execution of such changes (MQ did just that yesterday); however, attempting to use “tradition” as the central basis for an argument against change isn’t genuine and dismisses the history of the Irish.