SOUTH BEND, Ind. — I have come, I have seen, I have knelt down before Touchdown Jesus.
Ok, so I didn’t kneel. But I did sit on a bench halfway between the famous mural known by that name and the Knute Rockne Gate on the north end of Notre Dame Stadium on Monday. I was trying to take in as much as I could about this majestic football program and the rather notable university to which it is attached.
Georgia plays here in the fall, you may have heard, and I flew up last night to hang out a couple of days to do a little reconnaissance work while Notre Dame offers some spring-practice access.
What did I learn? Here are a few of my first-blush takeaways:
Notre Dame a work zone
Everything here seems to be under construction. I’d sort of forgotten about the fact that Notre Dame Stadium was undergoing a $400 million renovation/expansion project. I was quickly reminded when I found myself standing outside the fenced-off construction zone watching huge cranes, excavators, dump trucks and hundreds of workers scurrying around on virtually every corner of the historic landmark on Monday.
This is not all about football, however. In what they’re calling the “Campus Crossroads” project, three different academic buildings are being attached to the stadium, parts of which will be utilized on game days. There’s a massive building that will house the School of Music on the south end, a student center on the west and an anthropology and psychology building is going up on the east side.
But it’s all meant to enhance football as well. They went to field turf in 2014, shifted the press box from the west side to the east last year and are building dozens of luxury suites, which will expand the capacity of the stadium by about 4,000 to 85,000.
Probably most notable of it all will be a giant video board that will be on the south end connected to the school of music building. It represents the first time Notre Dame will have joined the modern era and used a proverbial “jumbotron” to add to the football experience. It’s not something that has necessarily being fully embraced at a place that holds so tightly to tradition. But they’re coming around.
“My guess is that if Knute Rockne knew of the concept of a videoboard, he’d say, ‘hell, yeah, we want one,'” said Michael Bertsch, the director of Notre Dame sports communication. “He was a trend setter in his own time.”
All of this is supposed to be done by the start of this football season. Georgia, of course, plays here on Sept. 9, the first time the two storied programs have met since their clash in the 1980 national championship game on Jan. 1, 1981, at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The Irish, who open with Temple the Saturday before, will be sweating it out a little in terms of having the place ready. The student center, at least, will not be completed by this fall.
They’re also in the process of building a track stadium here, several of the old academic buildings are undergoing facelifts and even the fountains in front of Touchdown Jesus — also known as the Hesburgh Library — are being redone. But it’s still as beautiful of a campus as I’ve ever laid eyes on. All the buildings are made of either yellow or beige-colored brick, a product of the clay from nearby Great Lakes, and there are beautiful green spaces and flowering trees all over the place.
I also visited the famous Golden Dome and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Monday morning. Check out DawgNation’s Facebook page for a bunch of photos that I posted. This truly is a special place.
A team under construction
The construction on campus makes a convenient metaphor for what’s going on with the Notre Dame football program at the moment. Coach Brian Kelly’s team is one that’s in the midst of a fairly significant renovation project itself.
The Fighting Irish are coming off a 4-8 season, the worst in Kelly’s seven seasons and Notre Dame’s worst since Charlie Weis went 3-9 in 2007. Accordingly, Kelly has executed a nearly complete overhaul of his staff. He fired Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator in the middle of the season last year and since has also brought in a new offensive coordinator, special teams coach and five new strength coaches. Including support staff, there is reportedly 17 new members of the football coaching administration.
Notre Dame allowed 27.8 points per game last season, which ranked 62nd in FBS and resulted in VanGorder being fired during the season (he worked for the Bulldogs for the last couple weeks of the season as a consultant). Kelly brought in Mike Elko from Wake Forest, where the Demon Deacons finished in the top 20 in scoring defense last season. Elko has inherited a young defensive squad led by Nyles Morgan (94 tackles).
Notre Dame will also be looking for a new quarterback. Last year’s quarterback, DeShone Kizer, turned pro after a fairly productive season (58.7%, 2,925 yards, 26 TDs, 9 INTs). The heir apparent is expected to be Brandon Wimbush, a 6-1 1/2, 226-pound dual-threat quarterback who is expected to be a good fit for the sped-up, spread system that new coordinator Chip Long is expected to employ. They lost Malik Zaire to transfer.
By the way, VanGorder’s son Montgomery VanGorder, who hails from Buford, is a backup quarterback for the Irish. In the meantime, running back Josh Adams (935 yards, 5 TDs, 6.5 ypc) is back to take off some of the pressure.
We’ll get more into the football aspect of things the next couple of days. The Fighting Irish will conduct an open practice Wednesday and Coach Kelly will have a post-practice briefing after that.
Notre Dame’s spring game — the Blue-Gold, of course — will be conducted here on Saturday. It will be played in Notre Dame Stadium, but they’re having to sealing off half of it to keep spectators out of the heavy construction zones. Perhaps that’s why it seemed they were working at such a feverish pace on Monday.
Chicago your best bet
I’m not saying there’s no way to get anything in the way of a hotel in South Bend in September, but the hotels here have all been sold out since December, I’m told.
Of course, first Georgia fans have to get tickets, and the ticket priority breakdown hasn’t been released yet as I understand it. The Bulldogs will receive 10,000 tickets from Notre Dame. But based on the buzz and feedback I’ve been getting from Georgia fans, it sounds like more like 40,000 are planning to come that second weekend in September.
Many UGA fans are staying in Chicago, which is about 95 miles away and a two-hour-plus commute. DawgNation.com has some activities planned in Chicago that weekend as well and has already sold out one bus for a tailgate promotion the day of the game. The Chicago Cubs are in town that particular weekend and many such promotions are being organized. So be in the lookout for those.
But if you’re coming, be sure to carve out some time to take in South Bend and the Notre Dame campus. It truly is a sight to behold.