Whatever Happened to Notre Dame Stadium?
Someone once said that the greatest lie is youth remembered. Maybe. And perhaps it is a certainty that everything was cooler, hipper, or just plain “better” when we were all younger. You hear this a lot in New York City when one area of the City suddenly becomes “hot”. Witness the transformation of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—which is now more expensive than sections of Manhattan itself. Within a few years everyone who has moved there starts saying something like, “This place was a lot better when I first moved here. Now it’s a sell-out.”
And so with Notre Dame Stadium. When I was a graduate student at that once august university in the mid-1990s, Notre Dame Stadium was (1) comparatively small (seating “only” 59,000), and (2) relatively unchanged from the time when it was built in 1930.
It was also—again, relatively speaking—somewhat non-descript. And my friends and relatives who would come and visit me and attend football game there were amazed that Notre Dame Stadium had no permanent lights—these were wheeled in for the very rare night games—and had no “ND” markings on the field or on the stadium itself denoting that you were at Notre Dame. I think it was a good, general understatement: “You are at Notre Dame. We don’t need to advertise this.”
There was even a sort of vague self-contempt for the stadium: the grass was notoriously long (unlike the perfectly manicured swards of other schools), which made running plays tough, especially in the rain. The “press box” was something out of different, pre-cable-TV era, and the restrooms were something out of a third-world nation train station.
Still, it was homey. And a clubby affair: there were no tickets for general sale, as all the games were sold out. Always. The students had their section in the Northwest corner, and were allotted one ticket each. Alumni had to put in for a raffle each year with a “donation” upfront. If you didn’t win in the raffle, your money was returned to you—later, after it had gained interest in the bank for The University.
Then in 1994 rumors started swirling that the stadium would be “expanded” to accommodate the growing alumni base who were frustrated that they couldn’t get a ticket to a home game. My neighbor in our Graduate Village even purloined a copy of the Administration’s letter describing the details of the changes to come. We read it thinking it must have been a fake.
In 1995 the rumors became reality: it was announced that Notre Dame Stadium, which had served perfectly well for 65 years and almost a dozen national championships, would grow to 80,000-plus seats. This was to be accomplished by retaining the original stadium while building up and around it. At the time, this arrangement placated purists like myself, who wanted to keep the original little gem. It also appealed to NBC, which had the exclusive broadcast rights to Notre Dame home games, since they could add lights to the stadium itself and thus broadcast more night games. (This was intended to boost nighttime advertising revenue, but Notre Dame so far has used the lights for only one true “night” game. The rest of the time it’s for afternoon games that run late).
By 1996, the exoskeleton was up around the old stadium and it was clear that we were in for architectural destruction of Casey Jones proportions. The next year, when it reopened, the disaster was complete. At least for the time being.
Sure, you could fit an extra 20,000 fans into each game, and giant generators didn’t have to be brought in for lighting, but in what amounted to almost a sacrilege, the “Word of Life” Mural (popularly known as “Touchdown Jesus”) which looked into the stadium from the south side of the Hesburgh Memorial Library was now partially blocked. The symbolism of “blocking out” Jesus was at best uneasily received even by those in favor of the “new” stadium.
Worse, the entrance to the stadium now sported “Hey-Look-At-Me!” gold-leaf lettering that proclaimed—in case you were lost or had forgotten where you were—“NOTRE DAME STADIUM” in huge letters worthy of a Renaissance Cardinal, had the Cardinal no shame or artistic sense. And why stop there? A seemingly endless trove of just plain awful, uninspired statues of former coaches started cropping up all over the place: Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and most inexplicably, Lou Holtz, who was not only still alive, but had been forced to leave Notre Dame under dubious circumstances at the end of 1996—only to go on to coach for years at South Carolina. Each statue looked like an undergraduate art student project gone amiss.
This kind of self-congratulatory let’s-hope-we-don’t-throw-out-our-shoulder-while-patting-ourselves-on-the-back-for-winning-at-football had been, for generations, played down—way down—at Notre Dame. There was the apocryphal story that the late president Fr. Ted Hesburgh had refused to have his picture taken for Time Magazine in clerical garb and hiking a football for fear that it would “send the wrong image that Notre Dame should only be equated with football”. Indeed, as late as 1993 visitors landing at South Bend’s airport would see signs in the terminals of the Notre Dame golden football helmet with the caption: “If This Is What You Think About When You Think Of Notre Dame, Think Again.”
Well, that had a good 65-year run. And now it’s over. And even worse has come.
Now, the largest building project ever at The University of Notre Dame—which features what was at one time the largest academic library in the United States, a church so big it was named a basilica, and a domed indoor stadium—is to absolutely no one’s surprise and everyone’s chagrin, Notre Dame Stadium itself. The shame—and the weird thing, too—is that the stadium is not so much undergoing another in what now looks like a never-ending series of expansions, but acting as a magnet and literally sucking other buildings onto it. In wording out of Orwell’s 1984 the project is called “Campus Crossroads”, though “Campus Rubicon” might be more apposite.
In one of the most ironic items that has been missed in all the usual press-release-speak about how this building program will “further Notre Dame’s Mission of…” [fill in your own meaningless blurb here], the former dean of the school of Architecture at Notre Dame, Thomas Smith, has gone on to build the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Seminary for the Tridentine Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter in Denton, Nebraska. This is ironic in that Dr. Smith is an excellent architect, building stunning traditional church structures for a growing area of the Faith—namely adherents of the extraordinary form of the Latin Mass—while his former employer is busy building a monstrosity that only draws more and more attention to an already hideous football stadium, at a University that keeps claiming there is more to it than “just football.”
And that’s the sad part here: because as recently as the mid-1990s there was more to Notre Dame than “just football” and they could PROVE it by having a small, quaint stadium—one with no statues, no lights, no gold lettering, and nothing painted on the field.
That’s all changed and changing for the worse as Notre Dame continues its full-fledged sell-out to football and keeping its multi-million-dollar TV contract with NBC alive and well.
True, any school would love to have the unique mix of high-academic standards, spirituality identity, national appeal and ethnic ethos (“Fighting Irish”) that Notre Dame possesses, along with their own personal TV network a la NBC. Still, Notre Dame, whose concept as a University—at least when I was there—was to raise its undergraduate academic ranking by pouring tons of money into its graduate program and drawing the best of both students. But this didn’t happen: Notre Dame’s academic ranking has not risen measurably in over 25 years.
No one likes every form of architecture and new forms are often berated at the time of their opening only to be hailed as “classics” with a bit of time. The World Trade Center was perhaps the best example of this: New Yorkers generally disliked it in the early 1970s, but by the time of 1993 bombing it was a symbol of American enterprise and ingenuity. And now, of course, we all miss it.
But everyone hates bad architecture, especially when it is so overwrought and done only for the sake of making money while saying it is for the sake of “education”. Regrettably, whatever Notre Dame Stadium is morphing into, it has destroyed its kernel stadium and revealed the true colors of the Notre Dame hierarchy.
If all you think about is football when you think about Notre Dame, then you are probably right.