Monday, October 19, 2015

What I've Learned about Notre Dame from USC

A fellow alum once told me that USC and Notre Dame are probably more similar than I want to admit. We love our storied programs and let you know it. Our bands and our fight songs are renown; they are played and overplayed, loved and hated. He felt that alumni of each institution tend to be more conservative than not, and the student bodies at both schools are not as diverse as it should be. His observation stung. I realized he might be on to something. 

So, I did what any sports fan would do, I packed my bags and decided to perform my own investigative reporting. And this blog posting will point to three observations of each program that I believe speak to our differences—differences that define us.
Los Angeles, California
Every other Thanksgiving weekend, the Irish head west to play the men of Troy in at the Memorial Coliseum in South Central Los Angeles. The Coliseum is adjacent to the USC campus and the energy and excitement are always high. I have attended this contest no fewer than 10 times in my life and yet, last November three things caught my attention. They have stayed with me because they speak to me

Observation #1
It's incredible to realize that some of the world's greatest athletes have competed at this site is not one but two Olympic Games. The symbol of the Olympic rings beneath the name of the venue remains over one of the main entrances. And, the Olympic cauldron torch rises above a majestic peristyle that frames the east end of the stadium. 

Truly these symbols speak to the glory of athletics and the history of great competition. If I were a USC athlete or fan, I would be very proud of the fact that I have the opportunity to compete or observe contests on this sacred ground. There is nothing religious in these icons, images or architecture—but I do think there is a certain spirituality about the place. Call it the spirit of the Olympic Games, or of Troy....Fight On! 

Observation #2
The Coliseum can seat 93,000 people. Because of its sheer size, it's no surprise to me that the seats at the east end zone are roped off and unused. Last year, I noticed that the USC athletic department (and Legends) added on-field suits and premium clubs beneath the peristyle. But that's not what caught my attention at the Coliseum. It's what covered the empty seats.  And for the record: The Crossroads Campaign at Notre Dame was launched to fund the third renovation of Notre Dame stadium. These changes to the 85-year-old venue will bring suites and premium seating to South Bend too.

The unused seats are covered by massive banners that feature the name and retired jersey number of those athletes who have won the Heisman trophy. It's hard NOT to see these. Seven USC players have been awarded the Heisman. All of them (with the exception of Reggie Bush) have also their numbers retired by the Trojans.

Ironically, Notre Dame also has seven Heisman trophy winners, but their names will not be found inside Notre Dame Stadium on public display. You also won't see their numbers retired either. Football is considered by many to be the ultimate team sport. Even though individual athletes shine, it's impossible to win a game without the collective work of many athletes and the coaching staff. For that reason, the only name you will see on a jersey is the one of the school, and it's on the front.

USC is proud of its alumni and so it Notre Dame. We choose to recognize that difference.

Observation #3
In August, the University announced that it will include the addition of a video board atop the south end of Notre Dame stadium. Fans have mixed emotions about it. I can't wait. And yet, I understand the purists are concerned about how it might change the game experience. 

At USC, this video board is very helpful, if not necessary. The Coliseum is so big, it can be tough to see a lot of what happens on the field. But what you will also see is advertising as well as instant replay. However, reviewing a great run or catch isn't what bothered me—although it should have—Notre Dame had few to little highlights and the Trojans had a feast day; they beat us 49-14. 

What I called into question was the undue emphasis it put upon individual athletes in their achievements. Every time Trojan wide receiver George Farmer had a touchdown, I saw his name, number and a prerecorded victory dance on the big screen. When Cody Kessler completed a spectacular pass the words TOUCHDOWN dominated the screen only to be interrupted by KESSLER and his prerecorded dance moves. No need for excessive celebration on the field; I found it on the screen.

It will be interesting to see what the Irish choose to display on their video board next year. I have a strong suspicion it will be different. I hope so....
South Bend, Indiana
I graduated from Notre Dame in 1996—the final year of the House that Rockne built as it was created. The Notre Dame Stadium you visit today opened and was dedicated Labor Day weekend in 1997. I don't know why I was there, but I was. A poster from the dedication hangs in the garage at my parents' house. There is nothing else on the walls...

Observation #1
Over Labor Day weekend, I attended the opening game of the season with my former roommate and good friend, Erin. She pointed to something I had probably seen many times but never paid attention to before: a flagpole that rests inside the stadium.

Near the band in the southeast corner is just that: a white, single solitary flag pole. At the commencement of the game, the band raises the flag as it plays the National Anthem. The University professes to prioritize: God, Country, Notre Dame. The placement of this flagpole inside—not outside—the stadium is a visual reminder of that belief.

Observation #2

This isn't something that is seen but heard. During the third quarter of the game, the official announcer made note of Mass times at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for Sunday. Because the Texas game started at 7:30 pm, Sunday vigil masses took place before the game, but the faithful who wanted to worship on campus were well-informed of their options.

When I heard this, I thought to myself "Where else can you be reminded of our weekly obligation and the added bonus of Sunday evening vespers than at Notre Dame?!" And what I love most about this announcement is that its one that isn't irrelevant or meant to serve as a guilty reminder. If you don't believe me, see for yourself. The Basilica and dorm masses are well attended on game weekends. Maybe we're praying for a "W." As Lou Holtz once said, "Jesus doesn't care who wins a football game....but His mother does." 

Observation #3
For me to say "look up" is just too easy. When you do, from inside Notre Dame Stadium, you will see "Touchdown Jesus" on the south end....the Golden Dome and the spire of the Basilica forming a perfect trinity. But if you look down, on the field you will see one thing is lacking. It's found in many collegiate fields: color. Other than an interlocking ND, the only decor on the field is 9 hash marks inside each end zone. There are 18 in total (9 on each side) and each mark is at a 42-degree angle. The numbers add up: 1842. The year that Notre Dame was founded. The year it all began.

As written earlier, a rival is not to be taken for granted. They bring a different type of joy to sports. Just this past week, I delighted in the fact that the New York Mets ended the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2015 season. Never mind that they captured the National League West division title, I could now celebrate that they have been eliminated from the playoffs for 27 years and counting. 

More importantly, a good rival teaches you a lot about yourself. It highlights what you prioritize and what you stand for. It also makes winning that much sweeter and losses exceptionally harder. I never take beating USC for granted. It's a historic rivalry that defines my experience of college football. Fight on you Trojans.... Go Irish!

Photo Credits

USC Jerseys


  1. Anne -- interesting comments. On LA Observation #1, I've only been in the Coliseum once, and that was enough. While I appreciate it as a historical venue, it is terrible for football -- even more so when you are stashed in the endzone in the visiting team designated seats. On the other hand, in my experience only Lambeau Field rivals ND Stadium for the sight lines offered to a fan -- truly not a bad seat in either house.

    On LA Observation #2, there is a display now inside the concourse (against the "old stadium" exterior wall) that has the names of all 7 ND Heisman winners, and a "trophy" for each one. I like the fact that numbers are not retired -- and frequently a "high profile" number is recycled quickly with perhaps a less notable player. I did happen to see two of Southern Cal's "retired" jerseys on fans Saturday -- 32 and 5. How great to celebrate those two athletes.

    As for LA Observation 3 and the video board, I am skeptical of any promised restraint by the University on this. More difficult for me to stomach is the "ribbon boards" which are now part of the plan. Those serve no useful purpose other than to distract the fans from what is going on down on the field. Our fans should be tuned in to the subtle things happening on the field and respond -- instead their eyes will be drawn up to the board to find out what Kizer's favorite dining hall meal is (see the use of the video boards in the JACC for basketball). In addition, those in the south endzone will have an obstructed, if not impossible, view of the screen. Will we have that endzone turning their backs to the field to catch a glimpse of a replay or "find the ball under the leprechaun's hat" game?

    I think the biggest difference you'll find between these programs is the graduation success rate. For example, for the 2013-2014 academic year, USC's "graduation success rate" reported by the NCAA was 58%, while ND's was 94%. Very simply, ND is graduating its players at a much higher rate than USC. If not for the Sturdy Golden Bears, USC would be bringing up the rear of the entire Pac-12 so they are not cutting it among their peer group either.

    The biggest difference you'll find among the fan bases is easy to deduce. Just compare the empty seats in the Coliseum vs. ND Stadium when either team is struggling. That will tell you all you need to know.

    Go Irish.

  2. Jim, Thanks for your thoughtful responses. No doubt "Trojan War" provided much more "food for thought"/"ammo" for the differences between the programs.

    In 2012, I purchased tickets through the local alumni club. All ND seats are confined to the Northeast corner. It was abysmal. There are 101 rows to the top. We were in row 100 and paid the same amount (face value) for that seat. I can't say ND tickets fare much less, but Erin and I were discussing what you wrote: not a bad seat in ND's house.

    Great observation of the USC jerseys. For those who might not know, Reggie Bush is #5 and OJ Simpson is #32. There may come a time when the Irish DO decide to retire a number....and I have got to believe the reason will be much different than a national award.

    I've been enjoying the Showtime series "A Season with Notre Dame Football." Hopefully I will learn Kizer's favorite dining hall meal in a future episode! ;-) I'm still blown away by Jerry Tillery working in the lab and hoping to be an oncologist one day.

    Ribbon Boards: who knew?
    Thanks for reading!