Lisa Kelly poses with her brand new Volvo - the top prize in the Biggest Fan of the BIG EAST search

Representing the Irish Crowd

Sept. 20, 2012

By Lauren Chval

For those who are lucky enough to be a part of Notre Dame, everywhere you go, there is “The Notre Dame Network.” You can find a Notre Dame fan anywhere. More than 30,000 of them just traveled across the Atlantic Ocean for football’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland against Navy. It is well known among the Fighting Irish faithful that we have the best fans.

Last year, the BIG EAST made that title official.

In Volvo’s “Biggest Fan of the BIG EAST” competition, one fan was chosen from each of the 16 conference schools to compete for the honor and a new Volvo. Lisa Kelly, a 1993 graduate, won both the crown and the car.

Kelly has been writing about Notre Dame on the internet since 2009. Her blog, entitled “Bridget McGuire’s Filling Station,” honors a South Bend bar from Kelly’s college days. It caught the attention of a fellow Notre Dame fan who nominated her for the contest. The competition was not for your average fan–all of the contestants needed to have a strong social media presence. Kelly’s blog and Twitter following secured her the spot of representing Notre Dame.

“We were given nine writing assignments, one every two weeks,” Kelly recalls. “It had to include pictures, links to back up whatever you were researching, and then each person got sent back to their alma mater for a game. I was very fortunate that they sent me back for Syracuse.”

The game was selected ahead of time, so Kelly is right to say that she could not have been luckier. There is no way the BIG EAST could have known that Notre Dame would take down No. 1 Syracuse. Kelly calls it “the fairy tale game.”

“There was just so much hype around the game,” she remembers. “Going into it, of course you think Notre Dame is going to win, but in the back of your mind, you don’t want to get too excited. They came out and they were nine points ahead. They never fell behind.”

Kelly calls the game her top Notre Dame sports experience and moment. It even bested the football team’s miraculous last-second victory over Penn State in 1992–her senior year of college. Most Irish fans know the game as the “Snow Bowl.”

What really has stayed with her about the Syracuse win was the crowd storming the court–the way the thousands of fans all came together in the middle to celebrate the Irish conquest.

Being a part of the Notre Dame crowd is actually Kelly’s first memory when it comes to her Irish fan experience. She would attend football games with her father, a 1965 Notre Dame graduate.

“My dad’s roommate was a professor in the finance department, and we would stay with them when we came to visit Notre Dame,” Kelly says. “They had three kids, and they would drive all of us to the pep rally. I remember the crowds. The students would bring rolls of toilet paper to throw across all the people.”

Her early memories of Notre Dame stuck, because once her family moved away from the Midwest and out to Los Angeles when Kelly was 10, she didn’t travel back to South Bend until the beginning of her freshman year. She applied to nine other schools, and Notre Dame was the last one she heard from.

“I didn’t hear from them until April 1–April Fool’s Day. My mom had to open the letter in front of me and read it aloud because I thought she was playing a joke on me. I thought about how great it would be to follow in my dad’s footsteps and share in those experiences.

“But I hadn’t been to Notre Dame in 10 years,” she continues. “As a California kid, I had no idea what the weather in South Bend was like,” Kelly laughs. “I was blindly jumping in.”

Kelly originally decided to major in engineering–another way she intended to follow in her father’s footsteps–before she realized it wasn’t for her. But the bond between she and her father is very clear; she doesn’t talk about Notre Dame for more than two minutes without somehow tying in her dad.

“I’m an only child,” she says simply. “I played softball as a kid. I’ve always loved sports. But watching Notre Dame with my dad was always something we did together.”

Even now she calls him after games to discuss what happened. Her dad, Frank Kirner, also cites their time at Notre Dame as something that binds father and daughter to this day.

“The one thing that my daughter and I will always have in common is the Notre Dame experience,” Kirner explains. “Notre Dame is the one place that we will always have no matter what else happens.”

Kirner was not, however, adamant that his daughter attends his alma mater.

“I wanted her to go to Notre Dame if she wanted to go to Notre Dame,” he insists. “My nurturing her was not to tell her what to do. My hope was that she would eventually get into the right spot but she had to find out her own way.”

Kirner is much more interested in talking about his daughter’s success as an adult than her accomplishment of gaining admission to Notre Dame over 20 years ago. Her winning Volvo’s Biggest Fan of the BIG EAST, for example, is something he says speaks to her always striving for more.

“My only counsel to her when she went off to college was to learn to love to learn,” Kirner recalls. “She has done that. She has been successful because she loves to learn. She’s always out there doing and trying new things. Social media wasn’t around 20 years ago when she was in school, so she’s out there learning it on her own.”

Indeed, it was Kelly’s dedication to promoting herself through social media that won her the contest. The writing assignments for her blog were things such as “Create the ultimate Notre Dame weekend” and “What are the best traditions of your alma mater and why?”–subjects that Kelly could definitely write from experience, as she has traveled back to Notre Dame at least once a year since her graduation in ’93. But she also had to research for broader challenges, like making a fantasy BIG EAST basketball team and mapping out an ultimate BIG EAST road trip.

She also turned to Twitter and Notre Dame itself for help online.

“I met so many people through this contest,” she gushes. “The outpouring of support from students and Notre Dame fans and alumni was unbelievable. I reached out to the University, so the athletic department had me on the jumbotron asking people to vote for me. The athletic website had me up there, asking for people to vote for me. The alumni club in Chicago asked people to vote for me.”

When her flight from Chicago to Notre Dame was cancelled due to a snowstorm, Kelly and her husband rented a car to make the drive. There was nothing that could stand in her way.

The sixteen contestants were scored on their entries and the votes they got online to make it to “The Final Four,” and then the BIG EAST took a look at their bodies of work before choosing a winner. After the top four were released, Kelly was told the winner would be announced the next day. She remembers constantly checking her email, but she didn’t hear word until she was driving home and a fellow contestant phoned to say she’d won.

“I had to pull my car over on the road to check my email after he told me,” Kelly describes. “I almost died. My heart was racing. It’s just like, `Oh my God, I just won a car.'”

She sounds a little like she still can’t believe it. She describes the end of the contest–a trip to Madison Square Garden to be awarded her title center court–as a whirlwind.

“I never thought I would actually win. From the beginning, I got a trip to New York and a trip to Notre Dame, which would have been awesome enough, but I never expected the win.”

She might not have expected it, but Kirner definitely did. Kelly laughs when asked how her dad reacted to her winning.

“He said, `I knew all along that you were going to win.’ That’s such a dad thing to say.”

Their mutual love of Notre Dame is evident, but even clearer is the joy each has in their relationship. Kelly may have followed in Kilner’s footsteps, but she has definitely treaded a new path of her own, something that is obviously a great source of pride to her father.