Nov. 27, 2014
When Michael Seamon was a senior manager for the University of Notre Dame football team in the spring of 1991, he was called into head coach Lou Holtz’s office.
“In spring football, there was always this thing of, are we going to go inside for practice, or are we going to be outside?” Seamon recalled. “Where can you get a better practice? Among the managers, it was the inside-outside game. Where are we going to be? You would always race around, setting up the field, getting things ready, and then coach would change it umpteen times until practice began at 3 or 3:30.”
Seamon went into Holtz’s office, and Holtz said, ”Mike, we’re going to go inside.”
Holtz discussed a few other things with Seamon and then threw a sudden change at Seamon.
“I’m changing my mind,” Holtz said. “I think we’re going to go outside.”
Seamon wasn’t fazed.
“I said, ‘Fine, coach. You tell me where you want to go, and we’ll be ready.'”
Holtz said, “Well, how is that?”
Seamon, it turned out, was a step ahead of Holtz. He set up both the indoor and outdoor practice sites and was ready to go in an instant at either field. He made sure he had coolers of Holtz’s preferred soda and other items the coach liked to have during practice scattered about at each site, so they were always within an arm’s reach when Holtz called out for something.
Preparing for the twists and turns Holtz might throw at him turned out to be perfect training for Seamon and his role in GameDay for the University of Notre Dame, where sudden change and dealing with the unexpected are in the first lines of the job description.
Seamon, University of Notre Dame associate vice president and director of GameDay operations, and Mike Danch, University of Notre Dame associate athletics director/facilities, oversee the Notre Dame football experience that GameDay encompasses.
Reaching far beyond but centered with football at Notre Dame Stadium, GameDay is a convergence of spiritual, academic and athletic events at the University in the course of a Notre Dame football weekend. It’s tailgating and cheering on the Irish at the stadium, but it’s also mass celebrated at the Basilica, it’s a lecture on the arts or advances in research, it’s the joy and festivity of the pep rally on Friday, and the drama of a soccer game on Sunday.
“As you might imagine, the game day management aspect of a football weekend involves literally hundreds of moving pieces,” University of Notre Dame vice president/athletics director Jack Swarbrick said. “The combination of Mike Danch and the athletic staff at his disposal, combined with Mike Seamon and his GameDay operation, enables us to devote the appropriate amount of resources to the planning and execution of six football weekends a year on our campus.”
GameDay is a universe unto itself–and Notre Dame Stadium is at the center. Seamon and Danch oversee everything, ranging from fan safety to making sure the Irish marching band has its routine timed to the second.
On the morning of the Nov. 15 Northwestern game, 24 hours after a foot of snow blanketed campus, Seamon and Danch were helping scrape snow off the tunnel area so players wouldn’t slip. Seamon also had the field groomed in order to loosen up the black pellets of the FieldTurf, again, to help prevent an injury to players.
While snow was hammering Notre Dame Stadium on the Thursday night before the Northwestern game, Seamon got on the phone to the Soldier Field staff, arranging to borrow a special stadium heater to melt snow. The heater was driven over from Chicago and going full blast at Notre Dame Stadium by early Friday. On Friday, GameDay’s dynamic duo was at Notre Dame Stadium until well past midnight to oversee snow removal. They were back by 6 a.m. Saturday and wouldn’t leave Saturday night until close to midnight.
Between dawn and the clock striking midnight on game day, Seamon and Danch have dealt with hundreds of people and hundreds of details. And they are always planning ahead, anticipating sudden change.
When Danch touches base with the NBC Sports crew, he talks with former NFL stars Hines Ward and Doug Flutie. Danch and Seamon also oversee the Shamrock Series experiences, so Danch discusses next year’s Shamrock Series game with Flutie. The Irish will play Flutie’s alma mater, Boston College, at iconic Fenway Park. Danch asks Flutie about the surrounding Fenway area, picking his brains about possible locations for various Shamrock Series events, gaining insights about various Boston venues for fans and concerns about the team’s stay in Boston.
No moment is idle for Seamon and Danch. They discuss stadium issues in between bites of a hot dog for a five-minute standing break they call lunch.
Weathering the Storm
Weather is usually front and center with GameDay concerns. When Danch wakes up on a Saturday morning, he checks the weather forecast. By the time he arrives on campus, he’s checked the weather updates about six times.
When Notre Dame played Stanford, both lightning and snow were in the forecast. Seamon and Danch had a plan for both. They discussed the scenarios for both with the referees, the ushers, the NBC staff, the medical staff and law-enforcement. The possibility of evacuation and hazardous traffic situations are covered.
One of the toughest situations that Seamon and Danch dealt with involved two lightning delays and evacuations because of lighting when the Irish played South Florida in 2011.
“That was the first time in the history of the stadium that we had to evacuate,” Danch said. “It was the first game for the new head usher, it was the first game we had our own meteorologist on staff. It was a weather pattern that started on Monday or Tuesday. We were alerted then what could happen on Saturday, and we were planning already. But on Saturday, we had bright sun and it was hot.
“At that point, there was no indication the weather was going to change, but because we had been alerted earlier in the week, we had a plan in place and had already talked to the officials, the teams, the athletic directors about that plan. As it turned out, we forecasted that the weather was going to come right around halftime, and it did. We evacuated, and we had another window. We started the game, but there were four minutes to go when we evacuated again. The lightning was so intense and unusual that day.”
A Visionary Decision
GameDay emerged from the vision of University of Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., and was in part a more coordinated response to the safety concerns that came from 9/11.
Officials at Notre Dame, while hearing praise for the Notre Dame football game day experience, regarded as one of the best in the nation, also heard it was a bit disjointed.
Father Jenkins came up with the idea for GameDay and a task force of 17 people, including Notre Dame trustee Stephanie Gallo, conducted exhaustive meetings to make Notre Dame’s GameDay experience the gold standard among the nation’s colleges.
“There were alumni on the task force, there were students on it, there were University staff members from different groups, including athletics, there were people from the NFL on it, and there were local officials,” Seamon said. “They used the entire 2008 season. They did their own work. Their charge was to come back to Father John at the end of the year with their assessment and their recommendations. They came back to him in January 2009 with a report that included 21 recommendations.”
While the University was doing an exceptional job at providing safety and a meaningful event on game days, the task force found that the events and security forces weren’t linked.
Seamon was appointed GameDay director, assigned to pull all the different factors into a GameDay convergence.
“Two things happened to make that right,” Seamon said. “No. 1 is, first and foremost, the leadership by Father John. You have that commitment and vision from the very top, you have to have that, and he showed that from the beginning. No. 2, everybody has to check their egos at the door at the same time. We’re all in this together. There’s no, you go first, and I’ll follow you, and someone else will follow me. We’re all in this together, and all of the departments were very eager for that and were very willing to work toward that. It was pretty impressive.”
Jenkins’ vision was to not only make Notre Dame’s game day safer, but also to enhance the experience and showcase the University.
Some of the new features include opening up the stadium on Fridays before home games, allowing fans to go down the tunnel and see the field. There are golf cart rides and student groups run pedal-cab rides around campus, when there isn’t a foot of snow on the ground. Information booths were set up around campus, and guest-service teams went out in pairs around campus to help visitors with campus maps and GameDay guides.
GameDay also uses social media to advise fans of events, updates and issues.
As GameDay turned into a celebration of the Notre Dame experience, the academic and spiritual elements became a bigger part of the picture. Doors were opened.
“We opened up the Main Building,” Seamon said. “That had never been opened up on game days. It was always closed. We staffed it and opened it so people can come inside and see the inside of the Dome. We just wanted to make the place hospitable and welcoming.”
The Game Plan
Seamon and Danch drew up a game plan for GameDay, and every weekend they make sure the campus is ready, even if it means putting on snow boots and helping clear the tunnel of snow while in suits, ties and overcoats two hours before kickoff.
On Saturday mornings of a home football game, Seamon and Danch meet with two key players in the success of GameDay, Eric King, the manager at the Loftus Center, and administrative assistant Patrice Mullen.
Shortly after that morning meeting, Seamon and Danch start their marathon.
Danch heads over to meet with the captains of the ushers. Like a Knute Rockne or Frank Leahy, Danch is drawing out a football field on a chalk board in a brick-walled room in the old part of Notre Dame Stadium. He’s charting out the game plan for where recruits will stand, the timetable for the band, how various groups and individuals will be honored–including down-to-the-second timing for halftime.
Danch gives the ushers the weather possibilities and the plan for lightning or snow. He gives the ushers a pep talk, stressing hospitality to the fans. He reinforces the “Welcome to Notre Dame” greeting that every visitor receives and asks the ushers to be sure to wish fans well as they leave the stadium.
“It’s our last chance to make a good impression on people,” Danch tells the ushers.
GameDay is a constantly evolving process.
“We’ve done things that didn’t work,” Danch said. “We had some pep rallies on Irish Green that were successful, with large numbers, but student preference suggested they were too far away. We tried to do some tailgate opportunities on Irish Green and open it up to fans, thinking they walk from the golf course, thinking this might be a destination. It became more of a pass-through because they wanted to be closer to the stadium.
“We have reacted to some things that work and some that don’t. We may resurrect some of it, as we lose parking and other things, not only during the Campus Crossroads construction, but even after the construction, because the whole dynamic of the stadium will change. We may have some opportunities within the stadium that we don’t have now. That may help.”
Danch understands the magnitude of GameDay.
“I’ve lived in South Bend all my life,” said Danch, like Seamon a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. “On GameDay, the number of people on campus maybe even exceeds the number of people who live in South Bend. We are an operating city. We face some of the same challenges the mayor may face. We have traffic to deal with, air traffic to deal with.
“We have a party atmosphere,” Danch continued. “Depending on your fan perspective, we have a pretty intense fan base. We have people who are susceptible to getting emotionally out of whack. You have medical issues that you have to be prepared for and deal with, in addition to player injuries and coaching injuries. We have a national spotlight on us with NBC. Whatever happens on your campus is not just on social media. We’re under a lot of scrutiny every minute of the day. The number of decisions you have to make during the course of the week and on game day, you’re going to be questioned and challenged as to why this decision was made. You do the best you can.”
Legacy of Leadership
There are times when Seamon catches himself as he’s talking to an usher or safety officer.
“I’ll say to myself, ‘I sound exactly like Lou Holtz,’ or, ‘That was a Lou Holtz-ism'” Seamon said.
Blessed to work with visionary leaders at Notre Dame, both Seamon and Danch said their leadership styles have been influence by the leaders they have been associated with. Seamon and Danch said the administration at Notre Dame has been critical to the GameDay success, envisioning the concept and supporting its implementation. They said the concept of showcasing all that Notre Dame is, while providing a safe and meaningful experience for alumni and fans, would have been possible without the leadership of Father Jenkins (Notre Dame president), John Affleck-Graves (executive vice president), Jack Swarbrick (vice president/athletics director), and John Heisler (senior associate athletics director for media and broadcast relations).
As GameDay has evolved, Notre Dame is now the model which other colleges and even NFL teams use. Notre Dame is also contacted by bowl committees regarding the success of the Shamrock Series events.
The Aircraft Carrier
Seamon compares Notre Dame Stadium to an aircraft carrier. The field and stands are the top part, but there are a number of levels that fans never see, levels that are critical to a successful GameDay experience.
Seamon and Danch are in the command center at the top of Notre Dame Stadium. There are 18 computer and television monitors beaming out weather radar, video from security cameras across campus, and a stadium map that lights up to show where a medical or safety incident is taking place. They can use cameras to zoom in and help look for a lost child in the parking lots or to direct medical personnel to a fan in need in the stands.
Next door to the command center is the weather office, where the staff meteorologist constantly monitors the possibility of any threat.
Safety is Job 1
“We had the good fortunate of being invited to the NFL security meetings three years ago,” Danch said. “We had a consultant from the NFL and part of his job was to visit stadiums on Sundays to make sure their protocols were in place. We had done some benchmarking with the San Francisco 49ers, the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers. We certainly benchmarked with some colleges, but other colleges were calling us about what we were doing. We took this basket of stuff and adopted what would be perfect for Notre Dame.”
Centralizing the GameDay experience has been critical to its success.
“GameDay spotlighted the whole weekend, not just the football game,” Danch said. “There are a lot of activities. We learned a little of that, as we went through bowl preparation for some of the bowls that we’ve been involved with. The University expanded globally through those experiences.
“We learned a lot from the Shamrock Series games. Every city has been different. The more we have done has broadened the profile of the University more in those cities. In some cases, we try to duplicate those things here.”
A Glowing Light
Seamon said the charge of GameDay is to serve the fans and shine a glowing light on the University.
“We understand these weekends, starting from Thursday night through the end of Saturday night, even Sunday afternoon, are part of the best ways to showcase the University,” Seamon said. “Regardless of whether a person has been here 100 times and has been to every home game for years in a row, or this is their very first and only time to campus, because they’re a fan of a visiting team, or it’s just on their bucket list, I want the Notre Dame experience to be unique and special. Our charge is to make the event special and safe for them.
“That’s what we want to do, to make sure that if you’re the first-time visitor, or you’re visiting for the 100th time, that you have a great experience, that you feel a sense of place, that you feel there is something special and unique about it, regardless of whether you are cheering on the Irish or Michigan or USC,” Seamon said.
“There are certain places in the world or the country that have a sense of place and are unique. We feel that this is one of them, and the game day experience is a big part of it.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent