Nov. 12, 2004
By Greg Touney
It’s just a simple wooden sign, painted gold and blue and mounted on a cream-colored brick wall at the foot of a stairwell. Yet, the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign, found outside Notre Dame’s locker room, is so much more.
The slogan “Play Like A Champion Today” is so synonymous with the University that one can be excused for believing that Father Edward Sorin, the school’s founder, received it as a divine revelation in 1842.
While the exact origin of the slogan is not known, the sign that currently hangs in Notre Dame Stadium came courtesy of former coach Lou Holtz.
“I read a lot of books about the history of Notre Dame and its football program,” Holtz explains. “I forget which book I was looking at – it had an old picture in it that showed the slogan `Play Like A Champion Today’.
“I said, `That is really appropriate; it used to be at Notre Dame and we needed to use it again.’ So, I had that sign made up.”
Soon, the tradition of hitting the sign before every game developed. Holtz even used a copy of the sign when traveling to road contests to help motivate the team. The players took no time in embracing Holtz’s idea.
“(The players) were encouraged by it; I told them the history of it, that this had been here years ago. I didn’t know who took it down, I don’t know why it wasn’t here when I came here, but this is part of Notre Dame tradition and this is what we’re going to do,” Holtz says.
“Hopefully, it will be here for years to come.”
Chances are it will, as the sign still inspires the same feelings that Holtz hoped it would back in 1986.
“(Whenever I see it) I think `Why not? Why not today? Why not this game? Why not right now?'” sophomore left tackle Ryan Harris says. “You just remember what you’re out here to do. You came to Notre Dame to be a champion and every time I see it, I think `Why not? Let’s go do it!'”
Fifth-year senior Carlyle Holiday vividly remembers his first encounter with the famous sign. “The first time I hit it, Anthony Denman, who was a linebacker here, said when you hit it, you better mean it.” Holiday recalls. “The guys take it seriously, so it meant a lot to me. I knew you had to come out with intensity when you hit that sign.”
As Holiday’s Notre Dame career comes to a close, the slogan has taken on a special meaning.
“You know that the time is coming when you won’t be able to hit that sign for very long, so you’ve got to take advantage of it and cherish every moment you get to hit that sign when coming down the tunnel.”
Former Irish coach Gerry Faust, a great believer in motivational tools, has spoken to the team at various times and believes in the power of the “Champion” message.
“The word `champion’ means you’re the best – the very definition of it,” Faust says. “You’re a bar above the rest. When you play that way, you’re going to be the best and if you give your best, that’s all you can ask of a person.”
To Holtz – the man who resurrected what has become even a worldwide phenomenon – the hitting of the sign comes with a solemn commitment.
“Regardless of the won-loss record, regardless of the problems you have, when you walk out on that field you have an obligation to your teammates and the fans to play to the best of your ability – to play like a champion and to think like a champion,” Holtz says.
“But, I also asked my players that every time they hit that sign, to think about all the sacrifices your family has made; your teammates made in high school; the sacrifices your teachers have made; and you also think of the thousands of people who would love to be in your position. Just think about how fortunate we are.
“All of these thoughts should go through your mind when you hit that sign – `Play Like A Champion Today’.”