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Shamrock Series: A Tradition Comes Full Circle

Nov. 9, 2016

By Todd Burlage

Looking back with retrospection over the last seven years and eight Shamrock Series football weekends, even University of Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr athletics director Jack Swarbrick still admits some surprise at the amount of success and momentum this event continues to generate so far from home.

From San Antonio and Arlington deep in the heart of Texas; through New York City and Washington, D.C., on the Eastern Seaboard; to Chicago and Indianapolis in the Midwest; and now this weekend back in San Antonio for an encore, this progressive idea of taking a Notre Dame event to its fans and alumni has evolved into much more than a three-hour football game. The Shamrock Series has become a weekend festival of all things Notre Dame–and a chance to give and to give back.

“I wish I could tell you I saw the power of the Shamrock Series, but I did not. I frankly didn’t quite see it or get it initially,” says Swarbrick, who came to Notre Dame in 2008 and was somewhat skeptical of the sustainability of this annual endeavor.

“I was happy to do it because it was a good thing for the University, yet there didn’t seem to be anything about the Shamrock Series which benefitted Notre Dame football. As a head coach, you probably would rather play another home game.

“But the power of the University is unbelievable.

“You’re in downtown Chicago, or you’re in the nation’s capital in the heart of it all, or you’re on the River Walk in San Antonio. All of that creates a really fun environment where people are talking about it and celebrating Notre Dame. It sort of creates a self-contained celebration where people are around each other and run into each other.”

Swarbrick’s initial uncertainty as to the long-term survival of the Shamrock Series–a game borne under the watch of former Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White in 2009 with the inaugural trip to San Antonio–stemmed more from tricky scheduling than it did out of concerns over logistics or fan support.

Under the 7-4-1 schedule model adopted by White and followed during the 2009 and 2010 football seasons, Notre Dame played seven true home games at its stadium, four road games, and the Shamrock Series game, which in terms of receipts and television coverage is considered an off-site home game.

And while the benefits of essentially playing eight of its 12 regular season games as home dates were obvious for the Notre Dame fans and University coffers, Swarbrick immediately realized the 7-4-1 schedule model couldn’t survive because it required too many opponents to play at Notre Dame Stadium without benefit of a return date, minimizing the home-and-home scheduling agreements traditionally used between schools. More recent scheduling commitments with the Atlantic Coast Conference also doomed the 7-4-1 schedule outline, that without a firm commitment from Swarbrick and the Notre Dame administrators to keeping the Shamrock Series alive, this annual event likely could’ve fallen by the wayside.

“I had my doubts at the time that the 7-4-1 model would be sustainable,” Swarbrick says, “and in fact, I concluded it wasn’t.”

At first glance, Swarbrick feared the Shamrock Series game would become a casualty when he gained greater control over scheduling before the 2011 season and adopted a 6-5-1 model with an eye at possibly going to the more traditional 7-5 model (seven true home games, five road games). But because of early Shamrock Series success and the momentum the entire weekend was building, Swarbrick was compelled to keep this game on the schedule, and he’s glad he did.

“I wasn’t sure we could brand (the Shamrock Series) successfully, that it would develop its own identity, so that’s probably been the biggest surprise in that it has done that more than I thought it would,” Swarbrick says. “I knew given our national following, and the commitment of the University in so many ways, that logistically and operationally it would work great. But to what level it would be embraced was my concern.”

And while finding a viable venue, a willing opponent and an agreeable date for this game provides Swarbrick some scheduling challenges, the opportunity to annually showcase his University throughout the country is well worth any added burden.

“Scheduling is a little more complex now, no doubt, but this game is a very high priority for us,” Swarbrick says when asked about the fluidity of building this game into his schedule. “Because of all of the benefits that are attached to this game, we’re committed to it and we will work hard to continue to do it. And while pulling it off will become a little bit more challenging, that’s not to suggest that we can’t do it, and I am very confident that we can.”

While the inaugural game seven years ago in San Antonio featured a limited number of corresponding events and alumni functions beyond the game, more and more this annual Irish invasion has evolved into a full festival experience.

This weekend’s Shamrock Series event lineup in and around San Antonio included a Friday night band concert complete with the Notre Dame cheerleaders, leprechaun and special guests; a Saturday morning mass at the San Fernando Cathedral; several unique and wide-reaching academic presentations; and a community service restoration project at a local high school as a gesture of gratitude to the host city.

“I think what has changed from the earlier years is our ambition and our perspective about how big

the Shamrock Series can be because it has grown each year. It keeps getting better,” Swarbrick says.

“This weekend really has an identity, a very strong identity, and that’s probably the biggest surprise and

the thing that I am happiest about. We have now developed a series of events around it that people anticipate

and look forward to. People look for it on the game schedule. A lot of people make a special effort to take

part in it and get to that city for that game.”

And for the last eight seasons and counting, the Shamrock Series has become a perfect way to celebrate the heritage and popularity of a University and the Irish football program in cities and venues throughout the United States:

2009: Washington State at The Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas

2010: Army at Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx, New York

2011: Maryland at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland

2012: Miami (Florida) at Soldier Field in Chicago

2013: Arizona State at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas

2014: Purdue at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis

2015: Boston College at Fenway Park in Boston

2016: Army at The Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas

“Having a story to tell, that’s really what it is all about,” Swarbrick says. “Just going somewhere to play a football game isn’t the same as going to New York and celebrating the tradition and history with the military academies, or going to D.C. and celebrating our governmental relations, going to Chicago and celebrating the presence that Notre Dame has there. When you do those, it knits it together for you. So as we look to venues, there are some we choose because they are historic venues, and there are some because they give us an area that we can turn into a Notre Dame celebration. Those are the things we are looking for.”

Swarbrick says the success level from the previous Shamrock Series games builds each year and generates enough excitement that finding an ideal venue and an interested opponent is rarely a problem.

“We get more inquiries than we could possibly handle,” he says.

The trickiest part of scheduling these games comes when trying to balance the potential limitations of television contracts with staying true to exactly what this weekend means to Notre Dame beyond football, and then selecting a city that provides Irish fans a life-long memory.

“It’s easy to start with places you’d like to be, but that’s just the first part of the equation,” Swarbrick says. “I want to go to iconic venues. You want an iconic venue, not just an iconic city.

“If you’ve attended one of these Shamrock Series weekends, it takes over a community. The presence we had in New York City when we played at Yankee Stadium was hard to conceive before you got there. So that’s about utilizing sport as a promotional vehicle for the University. That’s the most powerful current example we have.”

And ultimately, that’s what this Shamrock Series weekend and mission is all about–celebrating Notre Dame in a way no other university can.

“The Shamrock Series has very much exceeded my expectations. I was an optimist about it, but it has worked so well in so many ways it has surprised me,” said Swarbrick, pledging his full support to keeping this weekend a tradition. “It has just done a great job of allowing us to bring Notre Dame–and not just a football game–but taking the University to a community. It has especially engaged the Catholic community there and our alumni base, and it has done that in a pretty powerful way.”

The first indication into the potential sustainability and success of the Shamrock Series came during a couple of snapshot moments right in San Antonio in October 2009 when nobody knew exactly what to expect at the inaugural event.

The questions surrounding the first Shamrock Series were immediately answered that weekend with unbridled enthusiasm and unmatched curiosity when a huge overflow of Irish fans gathered at both the pep rally in front of the historic Alamo and for the game-day mass at San Fernando Cathedral.

More than 10,000 Irish fans stuffed the courtyard for the pep rally and about 500 Notre Dame faithful spilled outside cathedral doors once the church filled for mass, waiting for communion, praying and taking part in the service from the outside looking in.

For everybody involved in organizing that first celebration, those two moments gave an accurate indication that perhaps this innovative idea of taking the Notre Dame show on the road might wildly exceed expectations.

“I think the people in San Antonio were expecting kind of a mini-bowl game experience, but they didn’t know exactly what that was,” says Mike Seamon, Notre Dame’s vice president for campus safety and event management and a valuable member of the Shamrock Series planning team.

“What we found, as soon as the game ended Saturday night and then Sunday morning in the airports and all over, was that everyone was raving about the entire experience. They wanted to know what was next.”

A star was born.

“I think people were skeptical because they had nothing to compare it to,” Seamon says. “Now, it is one of the things that sets us apart from other major college football programs and other institutions. And I think it is just getting stronger every time.”

“It continues to really outperform expectations,” adds Swarbrick. “The reaction to it has been so good and the things we are achieving are so positive that, yes, it has done more than I thought it would.”

Alumni, classmates, regulars, first-timers, locals, out-of-towners and even just the curious come from all locations and walks of life to share in the entire Notre Dame experience–and not just a three-hour sporting event–and that is what makes the weekend truly special.

“As I look at the things that contribute to its success, it’s about having a theme, being able to articulate why you’re there,” Swarbrick says. “This year in San Antonio it’s all about God, Country, Notre Dame. We are really celebrating our relationship to the Armed Services. When you have a theme like that it works better.”

And the secret to event success runs way deeper than the Notre Dame football game against Army today. In many respects, the football game serves mainly as a final salute to the cities and people that make the entire Shamrock Series weekend so memorable for so many.

Says Seamon, “For many of our fans, this is the one away game they go to every year—they mark it on their calendars. This is their annual away game no matter who the opponent is or what time of year it falls on the schedule.”

The Shamrock Series was and continues to be built on five core principles the University holds dearly, five foundational ideals that make this weekend a full celebration of Notre Dame and its place in the host city.

* Notre Dame Academics — Be it through educational forums, discussion panels or other presentations to showcase Notre Dame’s involvement in the area, the educational aspect of the weekend is an important element to this annual event. Three such academic functions were held this weekend in San Antonio as part of the Shamrock Series event lineup: “Let’s Have a Moment of Science”; “Turning Points: Election 2016 and Beyond” for the political junkies; and “God, Country, Notre Dame: Reflections on National Security Leadership and Conflict Prevention after 2016” for those interested in the future of homeland safety.

* The Catholic Faith — The annual mass on game mornings always includes much of the Notre Dame and local clergy and has become an integral part of the Shamrock Series weekend. The San Antonio service was held downtown at the beautiful San Fernando Cathedral. This gathering is always open to the public.

* University Athletics — The football game, of course, always highlights the weekend list of athletic activities. But this year’s Shamrock Series event list also included a 5K run through the streets of downtown San Antonio. And staying true to the military theme of the weekend, all proceeds from this event will help to fund fellowships and support for active-duty and veteran graduate students at the University of Notre Dame.

* Community Service —This project allows the Notre Dame family to give back as a sign of goodwill and appreciation to the host city. The Notre Dame alumni and friends spent Friday afternoon painting, cleaning and gardening at St. Gerard’s Catholic High School just east of downtown to give something back to the host city and leave behind a lasting mark on the local community.

*The Notre Dame Family — This ideal encompasses everything from the University pep rally and tailgate parties to dinners and alumni gatherings in the area. Many of the weekend Shamrock Series events are designed to bring Notre Dame family and friends together for a chance to gather and celebrate the University they love. The interactive Notre Dame Shamrock Series Fan Fest pregame event outside the Alamodome as well as the the Notre Dame Alumni Association Go Irish! Tailgate and other live music and entertainment opportunities enhanced the weekend lineup in a family friendly environment.

“The Shamrock Series is very much a celebration of the University in the broadest sense,” Swarbrick says. “In that regard, the University sort of goes to the city—and all of the University goes–so you have a major presence and an engagement. The ability for so many elements of the University to find a way to use it as a benefit in the area has really been rewarding.”