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Always Fighting Irish
Players, Coaches, and Fans Share their Passion for Notre Dame Football
By John Heisler, Tim Prister
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 John Heisler and Tim Prister
All rights reserved.
The Traditions of Notre Dame: Playing Like a Champion for 125 Years
Every school that plays football boasts the normal trappings — the game itself, the band and cheerleaders, the tailgating, and the usual spots for pregame and postgame (and Friday night) revelry. At Notre Dame, you'll find a few items you don't see every day — and they're particular parts of the fabric of football on the Irish campus. Check these out — in fact, you can go to see and touch most of these for yourself:
1. Play Like A Champion Today
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 in Notre Dame Stadium. Yet, the "Play Like A Champion Today" sign, found outside Notre Dame's locker room, is one of the most recognizable in the world.
While no one knows the exact origin of the slogan, the sign that currently hangs in Notre Dame Stadium came courtesy of former Irish 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."
Irish players began hitting the sign before every game, creating a ritual that developed into a tradition. Holtz even used a copy of the sign when traveling to road contests to help motivate the team.
The slogan caught fire not long after NBC Sports began televising Irish home games in 1991, when broadcast producers stuck a camera above the door leading to the stairs down to the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel. The camera pointed toward the "Play Like a Champion Today" sign, so viewers would watch the Irish hit the sign as they passed it either coming or going to the locker room.
The person responsible for the look of the sign is Laurie Wenger, a longtime sign painter at the Joyce Center. Now retired, she created the graphic look and color scheme that became as recognizable as the phrase itself — and the University allowed her to maintain the rights to the phrase. Stop by the bookstore and you'll find more than your share of products bearing the familiar phrase — and loyal fans have been know to create their own one-off phrases that say, "(Fill in the blank) Like A Champion Today."
Mention "Play Like A Champion Today" to almost anyone who follows collegiate sports — and the connection to Notre Dame is almost instantaneous.
2. Touchdown Jesus
The 132-foot-high stone mosaic on the south side of the Hesburgh Library was patterned after Millard Sheet's painting, "The Word of Life," with Christ as teacher surrounded by his apostles and an assembly of saints and scholars who have contributed to knowledge through the ages. A gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Phalin, the mural contains 80 different types of stone material from 16 countries, plus 171 finishes during the fabrication stage and 5,714 individual pieces. The mural of Christ with upraised hands — which is visible from inside parts of Notre Dame Stadium — often is referred to as "Touchdown Jesus." Since the expansion of Notre Dame Stadium in 1997 added additional height to the facility, the mosaic isn't as easily visible from locales inside the Irish arena. Still, it remains difficult to miss since the library is located directly north of Notre Dame Stadium.
3. We're No. 1 Moses
Crafted by Josef Turkalj — a protégé of Notre Dame's famed artist-in-residence Ivan Mestrovic — this bronze sculpture is located on the west side of Hesburgh Library. Known to many as "We're No. 1 Moses," the sculpture depicts Moses in flowing robes at the foot of Mt. Sinai as he chastises the Israelites who have fallen into idolatry in his absence. His right hand is extended heavenward as he declares there is but one God (creating the reference to "We're No. 1") while his left hand grasps the stone tablets upon which God has inscribed the Ten Commandments, with the right knee bent as his foot crushes the head of the golden calf idol. Leave it to Notre Dame fans and students to create a football connection to a religious sculpture.
4. Fair-Catch Corby
A campus sculpture placed in front of Corby Hall in 1911 depicts Chaplain William J. Corby, C.S.C., with his right arm raised in the act of giving absolution to the Irish Brigade before its members went into action on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 2, 1863). A duplicate sculpture that honors his long service to the Union cause was dedicated on the battlefield in 1910. Corby served as Notre Dame's president from 1866 to 1872 and again from 1887 to 1891. His campus sculpture also is known to the Notre Dame football faithful as "Fair-Catch Corby."
5. Notre Dame Stadium
Any list of iconic sporting facilities generally includes a handful of usual suspects, most of them with great history — Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, Lambeau Field, Wimbledon, the Augusta National Golf Club (home of the Masters). Include a college football stop and it's hard to ignore Notre Dame Stadium. Around since 1930 and designed by Notre Dame Hall of Fame coach Knute Rockne (he modeled it to some extent after Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor), it hasn't changed all that much over the years. In fact, when the 1997 expansion added about 20,000 new seats, part of the charm of the construction plan became the intent to build the areas holding the new seats on the outside of the original structure — then marrying the old and new portions together. That meant that the vast majority of the original stadium walls could still be preserved in the lower concourses of the facility. Even in the home locker room area (that doubled in size from the original space) for the Notre Dame team, original bricks were preserved, re-gilded, and then reused to maintain the look and feel of the old stadium. A new shower and restroom area was constructed — yet the original sections remained intact. And nothing has really changed at all as far as the stairs down to the tunnel and field level — with the "Play Like a Champion Today" sign appearing the same as ever at the bottom of that stairwell. That sign remains probably the most photographed aspect of Notre Dame Stadium. Access to Notre Dame Stadium has increased in recent years, with the north tunnel entrance available on home football Fridays for fans to walk down to the edge of the field. Old-school Irish fans like the fact that not much has changed over the years as far as the look of the inner bowl itself. No logos have appeared on the field, with plain diagonal stripes gracing the two end zones. The lone corporate identifications are signage acknowledging NBC Sports and IMG as Notre Dame's television and radio partners for football. Notre Dame Stadium remains one of the few Football Bowl Subdivision facilities without video boards (there are message boards at both ends that are part of the scoreboards).
6. Pep Rallies
For years the old Notre Dame Fieldhouse in the middle of campus played host to Irish football pep rallies — with the Irish squad seated in the balcony. Later those events moved to Stepan Center when that geodesic-domed building came online in the 1960s. But that was back when pep rallies essentially were campus-only events. Thanks to expanded interest during the Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz eras, Irish fans at large began to show a keen interest in attending these Friday night events, and the fire marshals determined that the events had outgrown the Stepan space. For a while rallies played festival style in the north dome of the Joyce Center, then eventually settled for some years into the arena in the Joyce Center's south dome (now Purcell Pavilion).
A few rallies on especially big weekends have switched to Notre Dame Stadium, and most recently Irish Green has become the more consistent locale for outdoor rallies — as ticketing and seating challenges indoors prompted a need for more flexibility and capacity for fans. Another change in recent years has been the inclusion of the traditional Dillon Hall rally (formerly a Thursday night tradition prior to the first Notre Dame home game) as the Friday site on the initial home weekend.
Content for the rallies generally has included remarks from a combination of players and coaches, plus involvement from the Band of the Fighting Irish and cheerleaders. Over the years all kinds of names have been celebrity guest speakers — from former Irish football greats to Regis Philbin to Wayne Gretzky and Jon Bon Jovi and many more. National championship teams returning for reunions often have been feted, as well.
One of the more memorable rallies took place outdoors prior to the 1988 Notre Dame–Miami game — in a makeshift area near Grace and Flanner Halls on the north end of campus. At that event, Irish coach Lou Holtz in some form promised an Irish win — leading him to later opine that "you should never be held responsible for anything said at a pep rally."
Plans for rallies remain a work in progress. However, it's safe to say Notre Dame is the only school in the country that for years has held a pep rally on the Friday night prior to every single home game.
In recent years Notre Dame students have planned campus rallies prior to a few select road games — and the Notre Dame Alumni Association often plans rallies at its designated hotels for road games.
The biggest lure for the Irish rallies? Special guests generally have not been announced in advance, so there's always been some level of curiosity as to exactly who would appear at a particular rally and exactly what would be said.
7. Victory March
The most recognizable collegiate fight song in the nation, the "Notre Dame Victory March" was written in the early 1900s by two brothers who both qualified as University of Notre Dame graduates. Michael Shea, a 1905 graduate, composed the music while his brother, John Shea, who earned degrees in 1906 and 1908, provided the corresponding lyrics. The song was copyrighted in 1908 and a piano version, complete with lyrics, was published that year. Michael, who became a priest in Ossining, New York, collaborated on the project with John, who lived in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Michael Shea was pastor of St. Augustine's Church in Ossining until his death in 1938. John Shea, a baseball monogram winner at Notre Dame, became a Massachusetts state senator and lived in Holyoke until his death in 1965.
The song's public debut came in the winter of 1908, when Michael played it on the organ of the Second Congregational Church in Holyoke. The "Notre Dame Victory March" later was presented by the Shea brothers to the University, and it first appeared under the copyright of the University of Notre Dame in 1928. The copyright was assigned to the publishing company of Edwin H. Morris, and the copyright for the beginning of the song still is in effect. The more well-known second verse, which begins with the words "Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame," is considered part of public domain in the United States (for both the music and lyrics) — but the second verse remains protected in all territories outside of the country.
Notre Dame's fight song first was performed at Notre Dame on Easter in 1909 in the rotunda of the Main Administration Building. The Notre Dame band, under the direction of Prof. Clarence Peterson, performed the "Victory March" as part of its traditional Easter morning concert. It was first heard at a Notre Dame athletic event 10 years later. In 1969, as college football celebrated its centennial, the "Notre Dame Victory March" was honored as the "greatest of all fight songs."
Rally sons of Notre Dame
Sing her glory and sound her fame,
Raise her Gold and Blue
And cheer with voices true:
Rah, rah, for Notre Dame.
We will fight in ev'ry game,
Strong of heart and true to her name.
We will ne'er forget her
And will cheer her ever Loyal to Notre Dame.
Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name.
Send a volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky.
What though the odds be great or small
Old Notre Dame will win over all,
While her loyal sons are marching
Onward to victory.
The original lyrics, written when all athletes at Notre Dame were male, refer to "sons," but in recognition of the fact that the "Victory March" is now played for athletic teams composed of men and women, many modify the words accordingly. The "Victory March" earned a No. 1 ranking in ratings compiled in 1998 in a book, "College Fight Songs: An Annotated Anthology." The "Victory March" was also the No. 1–ranked fight song in a survey in 1990 by Bill Studwell, a librarian at Northern Illinois University.
"Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame," indeed.
8. Alma Mater
The University of Notre Dame alma mater, "Notre Dame Our Mother," dovetails with the opening of Notre Dame Stadium in 1930 since it was composed for the dedication of that facility by Joseph Casasanta, a 1923 Notre Dame graduate. Rev. Charles O'Donnell, C.S.C., then president of the University, wrote the lyrics. The alma mater historically has been played at the end of football games and pep rallies and other University events. Notre Dame students often join arms and shoulders and sway as they sing. Former Irish football coach Charlie Weis began a recent tradition of Irish players facing the Notre Dame student section and joining in the singing of the alma mater at the conclusion of home football games before they head into the locker room.
Notre Dame, our Mother
Tender, strong and true
Proudly in the heavens
Gleam thy gold and blue
Glory's mantle cloaks thee
Golden is thy fame
And our hearts forever
Praise thee Notre Dame
And our hearts forever
Love thee Notre Dame!
9. Your Own Perfect Football Weekend at Notre Dame
You may have read a version of this in United Airlines' Hemisphere magazine (the "Three Perfect Days" feature). Or you may have seen a similar version in another airline or travel magazine.
But, with apologies to all of the above — not to mention in deference to all the changes the Notre Dame campus and the Michiana area have seen in recent years, and to Gridiron Graffiti, Notre Dame's own printed list of weekend events — here's a guide to the perfect football weekend with the Irish (more apologies up front for any personal biases and any and all the worthy additions we've left out):
3:47 pm — If you planned it right and had the time and the cash, you've spent the last three days in Chicago. Either way, you've just arrived in South Bend on the South Shore, taking a leisurely train ride through the Indiana countryside.
4:32 pm — Check in at your on-campus home, the Morris Inn (go north on Notre Dame Avenue and it's on your left). Can't beat the convenience.
5:45 pm — Stop by the LaBar Practice Complex and check out the final tune-up practice session by Brian Kelly and his charges. Catch Kelly's final words to the media post-practice so you can namedrop at dinner. You also may spy any number of former Irish players who drop by practice to maintain connections.
7:12 pm — For something different, try a half-hour drive east and a little north on Route 12 in Michigan through the country to the shores of Lake Michigan. Try dinner at Casey's in downtown New Buffalo or cruise up Red Arrow Highway to Union Pier and hit (a personal favorite) the Red Arrow Roadhouse (try the Roadhouse Mudd Pie I or II for dessert).
11:08 pm — Consider a late nightcap at Corby's, near downtown South Bend at the corner of LaSalle and Niles. You have to go there, if only because Rudy was filmed there.
Excerpted from Always Fighting Irish by John Heisler, Tim Prister. Copyright © 2012 John Heisler and Tim Prister. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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