SOUTH BEND, Ind. — I didn’t know about “The Shirt” tradition at Notre Dame. Apparently it’s a big deal around here.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, too, let me fill you in on what I learned Friday.
Notre Dame started The Shirt Project 30 years ago. It kind of started out as one thing and ended up being another. It was begun by a trumpet player in the Notre Dame Marching Band named Brennan Harvath, who thought “it’d be cool” if the students wore “kind of a uniform” like the band and the team do. So three weeks before the 1990 home opener against Michigan, he designed some T-shirts, sold enough of them to raise $17,000 for the student union and hire The Guess Who for the fall festival, where the shirt was unveiled.
Just like that, yet another Notre Dame tradition was born. Like there weren’t enough them.
But the tradition took a noble turn the next year. A Chinese exchange student was seriously injured in an accident crossing Old U.S. 31 as he walked to St. Mary’s College. It was mentioned to Harvath that perhaps they could use the proceeds from the sell of his T-shirts to help pay for the care of the exchange student.
“The Shirt” did that, and then some. And, man, has it grown from there.
Last year, they sold 153,000 t-shirts and raised more than $3 million in the process. All of the money remains on campus to aid various student needs and causes.
Nowadays, The Shirt is revealed during the annual Shirt Festival at Eddy Street Commons. They close down all the streets and erect a stage and everything for the four-hour long event, which is highlighted head football coach Brian Kelly and a special guest unveil the new shirt.
This is a closely-guarded secret, mind you, where the color and design are fussed over for months by the all-student organization that oversees it and then fiercely protected until the big reveal happens on the Friday night before annual Blue & Gold Spring Game.
Actor Patrick Warburton — better known as the face-painting character “Puddy” on Seinfeld — was this year’s special guest. So was Harvath, “The Shirt’s” founder. Warburton told the crowd hoping to get a crack at playing quarterback during the spring game on Saturday. Harvath fought back tears as he told the crowd the story of how the tradition came to be.
But the true star of the shirt festival is always the Fighting Irish coach. For the 10th consecutive year, that was Kelly, who had a little fun with that factoid as he warmed up the crowd for the big unveiling.
“This is my 10th year of doing The Shirt,” he told the audience. “You didn’t think I’d make it that long, did you?”
When several members of the marching band responded in unison that they did not, Kelly let them have it.
“Whattaya mean, no!” he exclaimed, turning to face them at their position stage right. “The whole band said no. That’s that all about?”
“No titles!” someone else shouted.
When another student yelled, “we love you, Coach,” Kelly shouted back, “I’ve always liked you. Full scholarship!”
The actual unveiling was rather anticlamatic. It is, after all, just a T-shirt. This year’s color was sort of a steel-blue grey and simply said “Notre Dame Football” on the front and a sort of 1930s-style drawing of the stadium on the back with the ND monogram and this year’s catchphrase, “Built On Tradition.”
Nevertheless, a line that began forming in the early afternoon outside Hammes Bookstore wrapped around the block and continued down the Eddy Street as hundreds vied to be the first to get this year’s shirt. Many will wear them to tomorrow’s Blue & Gold Game, and then they’re expected to be worn to every game all year.
Surprising to me was a special unveiling this year. In addition to the regular t-shirt they sell every year, this season they are also offering a special edition sweatshirt that will sell for $38. It’s design was patterned after the original T-shirt design created by the founder. Appropriately, Harvath did the honors.
The affable Kelly made another joke. “Not that it ever gets cold around here; not that you would even need it,” he said.
It was 49 degrees at the time and a frigid wind was blowing flags straight. So I was a little bewildered that they hadn’t introduced a sweatshirt before.
Seriously, though, it was a fun and neat little affair and yet another cool Notre Dame tradition of which I was not aware. The Irish have so many, who could possibly keep up with them all.
I was glad I got to see it, but especially pumped to see “Puddy the Face-Painter” live and in person.