Irish Traditions: (Mostly) Known & (Some) Unknown

Plenty of University of Notre Dame fans are into routine when they head to South Bend for a football weekend.
They stick to an agenda, stopping at the same haunts, connecting at the same locales with friends and family.
It’s a proven fact they want to park in the exact same spot week to week and tailgate in the identical location.
But, for any neophyte in South Bend this weekend, let’s start with a blank slate.
Let’s consider all the obvious activities — and then let’s throw in a few more that maybe are not quite as well-known.
For example, a stop at the gravesite of Hall of Fame Irish football coach Knute Rockne at Highland Cemetery on the west side of South Bend might be an interesting consideration.
The headstone is not well-marked, but a stop at the cemetery office can produce a map to locate it.
Word is there are groups that make pilgrimages to the cemetery each Saturday morning before the Irish play at home — with toasts involving adult beverages a part of those visits.
Fans leave behind a variety of items at the gravesite — cigars, small bottles of liquor, photos, notes and other paraphernalia related to Notre Dame football.
That’s just one that might make a newcomer’s unsanctioned list.
You may have been following football at Notre Dame for 50 years — or for 50 minutes — and either way, there’s no chance your list would be the same as another. No problem.
Many of the peripheral elements connected to Fighting Irish football come from the color-and-pageantry department.
The “Play Like A Champion Today” sign in the passageway that leads from the Notre Dame locker room to the tunnel and the Notre Dame Stadium field has become one of the most photographed spots anywhere on campus (based on access). When the Campus Crossroads project that concluded a year ago featured a completely new north end, the one area that was not touched was the sign and the locker room stairway that leads to it.
Pep rallies over time developed into must-see parts of a Notre Dame football weekend, compared to the old days when they were mainly student-only affairs.
The now-retired Tim McCarthy, formerly of the Indiana State Police, for decades delivered his weekly safety zinger at home games. He became something of an institution — and now the weekly message comes from his taped audio archives.
Rudy (actually Dan Ruettiger) — both the person and the movie — have helped identify Notre Dame and Irish football for a whole generation of fans, many of whom have never been to South Bend and have formed much of their opinion about Notre Dame from that film. This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the film, which has been shown each of the last two years a week prior to the football season on the Notre Dame Stadium video board.
What we really have here is a celebration of everything Notre Dame football.
Here are more agenda items to consider, in absolutely random order:
Knute Rockne: Of course it’s really old-school because his first season as Notre Dame’s head coach came 100 years ago. But there’s no way to appreciate the ongoing excellence of the Irish program without understanding how Rockne started it all, especially from a marketing sense. He did not just coach — and he did that as well as anyone in the history of the game. He sold tickets, he marketed the program and the University, he designed the original Notre Dame Stadium and he courted the national media.
There’s a sculpture of Rockne at the north end of Notre Dame Stadium for every Irish player to see and walk past every time he enters that facility. There’s Rockne Drive, a South Bend street southeast of campus. There’s the Rockne Memorial Building on campus. There’s a rest stop bearing his name on the Indiana Toll Road a bit west of South Bend. There was a U.S. commemorative stamp issued in his honor. As Ara Parseghian, another former Irish head coach, used to say when he walked past a bust of Rockne, “You started all this.”
Notre Dame Stadium: Put it on the same sort of bucket list as Wimbledon, Augusta, Wrigley Field/Fenway Park/Yankee Stadium, Lambeau Field, Churchill Downs, St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, the Rose Bowl Stadium and Madison Square Garden.
The stadium for decades was bare-bones in terms of approach. There was not much to see inside, other than the locker rooms and the PLACT sign and steps. That changed in 2017 with the latest renovations. Senior deputy athletics director Missy Conboy led an effort to create a 1930s look for the ground-level concourses. So, now, the lighting, signage and other elements make it look like vintage Notre Dame.
And the best part? Visitors can take an official tour of the stadium. Plus, on home football Fridays the north tunnel is open for fans to walk down to field level and take photos.
Former Notre Dame All-American offense lineman Aaron Taylor said it best: “I was fortunate to have a career in professional football and I played in two Super Bowls and we won one of them. But it still doesn’t compare to the thrill of running out of the tunnel in Notre Dame Stadium.”
The Notre Dame “Victory March”: Find someplace and some time to hear it on an Irish home weekend. There’s a reason its pregame introduction refers to it as the “greatest of all university fight songs.”
Beano Cook, the late ESPN college football historian and wit, once said, “When the ‘Victory March’ starts and the team comes out of the tunnel, it’s kind of like hearing the National Anthem when you’re in a foreign country. It does something to you. Did you know the ‘Victory March’ is the fourth-most famous song in America? The National Anthem is No. 1, although nobody knows the words to the second verse. Then there’s ‘God Bless America,’ ‘White Christmas,’ and the ‘Victory March.’ You have to have Kate Smith sing ‘God Bless America,’ Bing Crosby singing ‘White Christmas,’ and you have to be at Notre Dame to appreciate the ‘Victory March.'”
“Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame . . . Wake up the echoes cheering her name.”
The Heismans: Notre Dame has had seven winners of the legendary Heisman Trophy, presented each December to the best player in college football. No school has more winners. Stop by the lobby of the Guglielmino Athletic Complex to see all of the trophies, as well as a large sculpture of the legendary Four Horsemen and examples of all the other individual awards won by Irish football players through the years.
The Landmarks: It’s hard to miss the religious connotations at Notre Dame, arguably the most famed Catholic institution of higher learning in the world. So it should be no surprise to find sculptures and mosaics around the campus of Jesus Christ, Moses and Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., the French missionary priest who founded the University. It also should come as no surprise on a campus long obsessed with its football that Notre Dame students would find ways to connect those religious figures with the game they cherish:

  • “Fair-Catch” Corby — A campus statue placed in front of Corby Hall in 1911 depicts Chaplain William J. Corby, C.S.C., with his right arm raised in the act of giving absolution to the Irish Brigade before its members went into action on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 2, 1863). A duplicate statue that honors his long service to the Union cause was dedicated on the battlefield in 1910. Corby was Notre Dame’s president from 1866–72 and again from 1887–91.
  • Golden Dome — One of the most famous landmarks on any college campus — and considered by many to be the nation’s most-recognized Catholic landmark — Notre Dame’s golden-domed administration building is topped by a 16-foot, 4,400-pound statue of Mary the Blessed Mother (the namesake of the University of Notre Dame). The statue and the dome are covered with extra-thin sheets of 23-karat gold leaf that sparkle in the midday sun and make the Dome a beacon to be seen from vantage points throughout the campus.
  • Library Mural (“Touchdown Jesus”) — The 132-foot-high stone mosaic on the south side of the Hesburgh Library was patterned after Millard Sheet’s painting, The Word of Life, with Christ as teacher surrounded by his apostles and an assembly of saints and scholars who have contributed to knowledge through the ages. A gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Phalin, the mural contains 80 different types of stone material from 16 countries, plus 171 finishes during the fabrication stage and 5,714 individual pieces. The mural of Christ with upraised hands — which is visible from inside parts of Notre Dame Stadium — is often referred to as “Touchdown Jesus.”
  • “We’re No. 1” Moses (also known as “First Down” Moses) — Crafted by Josef Turkalj (a protégé of Notre Dame’s famed artist-in-residence Ivan Mestrovic) this bronze statue is located on the west side of Hesburgh Library. It depicts Moses in flowing robes at the foot of Mt. Sinai as he chastises the Israelites who have fallen into idolatry in his absence. His right hand is extended heavenward as he declares there is but one God (creating the reference to “We’re No. 1”), while his left hand grasps the stone tablets upon which God has inscribed the Ten Commandments, with the right knee bent over as his foot crushes the head of the golden calf idol.

Plus, there are sculptures all around Notre Dame Stadium recognizing the five individuals who have won one or more national titles as Irish head football coach. The sculptures are located at the various stadium entrance gates — with Knute Rockne at the north tunnel, Dan Devine at Gate A, Ara Parseghian at Gate B, Frank Leahy at Gate C and Lou Holtz at Gate D.
PLACT: The name Laurie Wenger may not ring a bell, even for die-hard Notre Dame football fan. And though her name may not rank up there with those of Knute Rockne, George Gipp and the Four Horsemen in Irish lore, she is nonetheless responsible for the creation of one of the most familiar graphic images connected with the Notre Dame football program.
Wenger, who for years worked as a sign-painter at Notre Dame’s Joyce Center, received a request from new Irish coach Lou Holtz for a little assistance. Holtz wanted the phrase “Play Like A Champion Today” painted in blue and gold onto a sign that Holtz planned to place at the bottom of the Notre Dame locker room stairwell that led to the field.
Little did anyone realize what a hit that sign would become.
The sign gained greater fame when NBC began televising Irish home games in 1991 — and the network producers put a “lipstick” camera at the top of the tunnel showing the Notre Dame players as they went down the stairs and hit the sign. Wenger says the first person to request a copy of the sign turned out to be Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger, who gained his own moment of fame when the movie Rudy came out.
Pep Rallies: Alumni tell many fond tales of Friday night football pep rallies in both the Old Fieldhouse and Stepan Center. Once upon a time, those pep rallies were essentially internal affairs. The Old Fieldhouse, the longtime middle-of-the-campus home to Irish basketball games, welcomed a crowd that predominantly featured students. Players and coaches occupied the balcony.
Eventually, the rallies moved to Stepan Center on the north edge of campus. During the Dan Devine/Gerry Faust/Lou Holtz years, the general public began showing more of an interest in rallies, and the University’s fire marshal suggested a larger venue as wall-to-wall crowds overflowed Stepan.
The rallies moved to the Joyce Center Fieldhouse (north dome), with attendees standing festival style. Finally, demand for access to the rally become so high — including groups like students, players’ parents, benefactors, plus general fans — that the rallies moved to Purcell Pavilion and, for a time, became ticketed events.
A handful of rallies have been held in Notre Dame Stadium, most of them based on anticipation of particularly high demand for seats. The first of those was held the night prior to the 1997 dedication of the renovated Notre Dame Stadium (with 35,000 attendees). The 1998 and 2000 seasons also both featured an early season rally. The largest crowd, about 45,000 fans, gathered for the rally before the 2005 Notre Dame–USC game — with Joe Montana, Tim Brown, Chris Zorich and Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger the featured guest speakers.
One of the first outdoor rallies came outside of Stepan Center for the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami game when Holtz predicted the Irish would win the next day (that’s when Holtz later said, “No one should ever be held responsible for what they say at a pep rally”).
For several years many rallies took place at Irish Green at the south edge of campus, and in recent seasons the opening-home game rally has been combined with the annual Dillon Hall rally. Other rallies have been held at the Rockne Memorial, the Hesburgh Memorial Library quad and the Compton Family Ice Arena.
Other than Notre Dame, there may be no program in America that still holds a rally on every home football weekend.
Before NBC: Knute Rockne remains the winningest coach in the history of college football from a percentage standpoint. Right behind him is Frank Leahy. Between them they won seven consensus national championships. However, despite all the successes of Notre Dame football through the years, the two individuals who may have done more for the marketing of Notre Dame football than anyone else are C.D. Chesley and Lindsey Nelson.
Back in the fledgling days of television, Chesley did a deal with Notre Dame that gave him the ability to show a one-hour replay of every Irish football game on Sunday mornings beginning with the 1964 season. With precious few college games aired live, and with the growing interest in Notre Dame’s program, the Sunday morning telecasts became staples of life in the fall for millions of sports fans. And the timing of the replays in various markets around the country assuredly impacted church attendance among oft-times conflicted worshippers.
Nelson handled the play-by-play description of the replayed games for years. Because the games had to be edited down and could not include every series, Nelson became as well known for his classic segue phrases — “And now we move to further action in the third period” — as maybe anything he uttered in his career.
The replays actually began in 1959, with WNDU-TV in South Bend producing the shows and United Press International distributing the games to 60 stations (WGN-TV in Chicago took over that role starting in 1960). Harry Wismer and Moose Krause were the original commentators. When Chesley took over in 1964, he assigned Nelson and Paul Hornung to the broadcasts.
George Connor replaced Hornung in 1978, Metrosports took over the replays from Chesley in 1980, and Lou Boda spent one year in the play-by-play role in 1980. Harry Kalas called the games from ’81 through ’84 — and the project ended after the ’84 season (the same year the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA in the television rights suit brought by Georgia and Oklahoma, thus eliminating the Notre Dame replays in favor of live televised games every Saturday). The home-game replays syndicated in recent years have simply been edited versions of the NBC telecasts.
The list of topics could go on and on.
Interested Irish fans might want to further research everything from green jerseys to Clashmore Mike to the Irish Guard.
There’s the leprechaun (the live version as well as the stylized print rendition utilized for licensing purposes), “The Shirt” and so many more.
When sustenance is required, the local considerations range from longtime popular near-campus pizza-and-pasta stop Rocco’s, to Legends just south of Notre Dame Stadium, to the variety of options in the relatively new Eddy Street Commons area, to the Linebacker Lounge (another familiar name to virtually any former student) and to fine dining possibilities such as LaSalle Grill and Café Navarre in downtown South Bend.
Ask fans who have been to South Bend for even one home Irish football weekend and they are likely to offer their own list of “traditions” — maybe including some not-so-obvious ones.
Check out the Game Day website ( for the University’s official list of activities.
Then take everything you read and hear and make your own list of preferred stops.
There may be so many they won’t all fit into one long weekend.
The Irish will welcome you back.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.