Nov. 10, 2011
By John Heisler
If you’re a University of Notre Dame football fan, how much football in Notre Dame Stadium would you like in one season?
That became the operable question back in the spring of 2005 at every Division I institution when the NCAA approved a 12-game college football season beginning in 2006.
Notre Dame solved the short-term challenge by adding home games with Army in 2006 and Duke in 2007, giving the Irish seven home games in both those years. The 2008 campaign already had been set as a 12-game schedule back when that designation was based on the number of Saturdays between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
Starting with the 2009 schedule, Irish athletic administrators had some decisions to make. An analysis of future schedules showed plenty of ongoing home-and-home relationships with familiar rivals Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, USC, Navy, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Stanford.
All of that left options for the 12th game – and something of a unique concept came to fruition. Irish administrators decided to look at a variety of potential venues for once-a-year off-site or neutral-site games that would continue the Notre Dame history of playing national schedules.
The idea, essentially, was to take games that could be played in Notre Dame Stadium and transport them to other cities. The concept became a way to both promote the University and its mission and also to play opponents that didn’t fit into the home-and-home criteria.
As the University considered a variety of proposals from various cities (some came from postseason bowl game hosts, some from city sports commissions, some from stadium administrations), Notre Dame in the spring of 2007 sent a delegation to San Antonio and Dallas to work out details of potential games in those cities. That resulted in the 2009 game between Notre Dame and Washington State – and a 2013 matchup in the new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas between the Irish and Arizona State.
Notre Dame had been scheduled to play Army in 2010 at an off-site location to be determined – and that venue became Yankee Stadium after the New York Yankees expressed an interest in holding non-baseball events in their facility. Once that opportunity became apparent, Irish vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, a Yonkers, N.Y., native, jumped at the chance for Notre Dame to be a part of the first college football game at the new Yankee venue.
This year the Irish play Maryland in FedExField, home of the Washington Redskins. Next year it’s off to Soldier Field in Chicago where Notre Dame and Miami will square off. After the game in Dallas in 2013, future off-site games are still to be scheduled. The off-site games also have become prime-time television options for NBC Sports, which owns the rights to those contests through 2015 (the length of the current Notre Dame/NBC Sports agreement).
This year the game becomes the first of the Shamrock Series, as presented by Sprint in 2011 and 2012. What once was simply a football game has now become a branded, full-blown University event. Notre Dame officials took a look at the number of Irish fans and alumni who would be attending these off-site games and decided these were huge opportunities to showcase the University. Ticket access generally will far exceed the normal 5,000 number for typical road games.
The charge has become replicating as much of the Notre Dame Stadium experience as possible. The Band of the Fighting Irish is a key part of the weekend – with the band a year ago performing a pregame concert midday Saturday in the middle of Times Square and this time doing the same on the U.S. Capitol Lawn.
Even Notre Dame Stadium public-address announcer Mike Collins is on hand. Tim McCarthy, the former Indiana State Police sergeant whose safety messages have been heard at home games for 50 years, isn’t here in person – but you’ll hear a taped version of one of his highly-anticipated quips.
“Our experiences in San Antonio and in New York were completely different and yet they were both fabulous in their own ways,” says Swarbrick.
“In many ways the motivation for all this has virtually nothing to do with football. What we want to do is expose more people to Notre Dame. With two days worth of events here, this is about having a major Notre Dame presence here in the Washington, D.C., area – about serving the larger University mission.”
Friday night pep rallies took place in front of the Alamo in 2009, a year ago at Lincoln Center in New York – and in 2011 on the National Mall.
The pre-game Mass last fall was held at famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral – and a crowd of more than 1,000 fans and alumni packed a Marriott Marquis ballroom in Times Square for a Friday noon luncheon that featured Regis Philbin, University president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., head coach Brian Kelly, athletics director Jack Swarbrick and football legends John Lujack and Pete Dawkins.
In 2011 the Saturday morning Mass was slated for St. Matthew’s Cathedral – following up a Friday luncheon the included Kelly, Swarbrick and former Irish quarterbacks Joe Theismann, Terry Hanratty and Coley O’Brien, plus master of ceremonies Don Criqui.
From pep rallies and luncheons, to academic programs at downtown hotels (similar to the Saturday Scholar programs on home football Saturdays at Notre Dame), to alumni community service projects and band concerts, to pre-game Masses and President’s receptions, there’s more than simply football taking place in our nation’s capitol this weekend.