Why Everyone Loves Notre Dame

One of the things that has always been a mystery to me is the University Notre Dame’s (“ND”) and its fan base. Growing up in the mountains of Virginia most people cheered for one of three college football programs – Virginia Tech, Virginia, or Tennessee. Many people were fans because they or their family members attended those schools (I am a proud Cavalier Volunteer) and others because of their proximity to those schools. The proximity fans I can understand, it makes sense, they love the sport and they pick a Division I team that is nearby. Fair enough.

ND Stadium

What I don’t understand is the large number of ND fans that exist in the world. All over the country. Seriously? How does a Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana become the favored team of people everywhere? And when I say favored I mean these people are tattooing the leprechaun on their bodies, flying flags on their cars, and doing all manner of crazy, committed-fan-things. It’s confusing especially when my conversations with these people go something like this:

Me: Did you go to Notre Dame?

ND Fan: No.

Me: Are you from Indiana?

ND Fan: No.

Me: Are you Catholic?

ND Fan: No.

Me: Are you Irish?

ND Fan: No.

Me: Have you been to South Bend?

ND Fan: No.

Me: Then why Notre Dame?

The answer to that last one ranges from “I just do” to talk of “traditions” that the fan has never experienced themselves or something related to the fact that they are always on television. I don’t understand it and I cannot deny that this odd loyalty to ND has, along with the fact that they are constantly on television and over-rated, caused me to dislike ND. I am not a fan.

But, because I pride myself on being fair and trying something before I say I don’t like it, I took myself to South Bend to watch the Fighting Irish play Michigan State. I committed myself to doing it right – seeing all the monuments, experiencing the traditions, and being open-minded about it all. This also allowed me to check another Big Ten stadium off my “to visit” list.

The game was a hot mess. There was not one sustained drive until Michigan State started the second half. The Irish won, but not impressively.

The experience, however, was far more impressive than the game. The ND fans are friendly, passionate, and interesting. For example, my neighbors by my seat were super friendly people. To my left was a Catholic couple who went to Michigan State, were cheering on the Irish because their son teaches there. The sweet wife immediately struck up a conversation and about religion in which she educated me on how the Catholic church marginalizes women and how Pope Francis’s admonishment of the church’s wrongs was too little too late. To my left was a large man who loves ND. He did not attend ND and he’s not Catholic or Irish, but he lives in Northeast Indiana so he gets a proximity pass. He loves ND so much that he has 5 tattoos celebrating his team, including a giant Leprechaun tattooed on his back (luckily, I did not see this but I believe him) and the college’s logo on his ankle (which I saw).

I was also the happy beneficiary of help with campus navigation by friendly ND fans and ND staff. There were lots of smiles and hellos all day.

The stadium, however, is not as nice as the fans. It seems that there isn’t a bad view in the stadium, but the bleachers aren’t much to sit on. The stadium bleachers are wooden 2x6s bolted to the risers. Not comfortable, not wide enough, and they have crammed too many “seats” into a row. I was shocked and disappointed to say the least. My high school’s bleachers are more comfortable. My other issue with the stadium is the score board. ND doesn’t have a jumbotron. Seriously? Can you really consider yourself a world-class Division I program without a jumbotron? I need to be able to watch replays. I am a spoiled UVA and Tennessee fan, both have jumbotrons. The athletic department, donors, and administration at ND need to step it up here and join the 21st century.

ND Bleachers

Then there is the matter of Touchdown Jesus. I have to say I was not fully comfortable with it. It is a beautiful piece of artwork, definitely, but calling it Touchdown Jesus doesn’t seem right. I mentioned this to my neighbor in the stadium, the Catholic feminist to my right, and she quickly responded “well it is no different then calling a pass a Hail Mary.” True, and I had not thought of that (I am very Protestant), but still, it seems somehow disrespectful coming from a religious school.

The library

The ND band was definitely a high point. The band is only one fire baton short of being fabulous. Really. In the South the marching bands have fire batons and that is my standard for greatness, so, the Irish just missed it. The band’s performance was great. However, I was most intrigued by the Irish Guards. I had no idea theses guys existed in the world. I enjoyed their inspection drill and their halftime marching performance. Very neat. I also loved that the band sits on the field. Initially, I thought this was awful, because it appeared that they had to stand the entire game, but when I realized they could sit down I found the proximity better for hearing and somehow more collegiate than having them in the stands. I do love a marching bad.

The grand traditions are also worth loving. Visiting the dome, the basilica and the grotto were alone worth the trip. It must be lovely to have such grandeur on your campus, although I imagine more than one 20-year-old has taken it for granted. I watched the band concert and the march to the stadium. No detail is ignored at ND it seems. The reverence and respect paid by ND to its traditions and buildings is something worth experiencing. It is also very Southern. The South loves and is often hyper-focus on tradition and pomp and circumstance and there is definitely an air of that at ND. It is grand and I enjoyed it very much. I even bought a shirt (gasp!).

All in all, it was a good experience. The campus is beautiful, the people are nice (and if not, they are at least entertaining), and the tradition is a lovely and grand one.

But, make no mistake, I did not leave South Bend a fan. I still think they are the media’s pet and annually overrated, but I do understand a little better now why they are beloved by the masses.

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Fall in Indiana, Part 2

Football.

I was raised by a raging football fans. My childhood Friday nights and Saturdays were spent at high school football fields or college football stadiums. Until 2011 my Daddy had not missed a football game played by our high school alma mater since the early 1980’s. My mom is indignant toward people who leave games early because their team was far behind. She would say “true fans stay until the end.” She is big on loyalty. Football is serious, people, we are talking life lessons here.

Recently, I told my parents that I was going to be on the “chain gang” at a small college football game. I totally under estimated their interest. My Daddy declared to my Mom, Sister, and Brother-in-Law that this was the closest thing we were going to get to having someone in our family (we are all girls) play football. He was psyched.

So psyched, in fact, that he drove 7 hours (one-way) to FW to watch me run the chains.

It was super fun, well, after I realized that it was not my job to follow the down box guy. It is kind of important for me to stay at the spot of the ball. I only did that twice, but of course, my lone fan in attendance noticed.

I learned that working the chains is not as easy as it looks, football players are really smelly, the referees talk to the players a lot more than I thought, and I can move a good size guy in football pads with a hip check. Even better, the day was gorgeous, it was a high scoring (the chains moved a lot) game, and my team won. That is a good day.

Now, I can check that one off my bucket list. It was right after milking a cow.

A Southern Girl at The Big House

My second stop on my Big Ten tour was in Ann Arbor, Michigan at Michigan Stadium – The Big House. I know that Michigan is the home of numerous top academic programs (one of my favorite law professors is a Michigan alum) and has a history of football dominance (history being the operative term at this time).  Just remember I am not a Michigan fan.  I was a visitor.  I am a fan of the Virginia Cavaliers and Tennessee Volunteers (yes, I do not mind openly admitting this fact).  On this day Michigan was hosting Purdue University.  The preferred school of the majority of my work colleagues – I hear “boiler up” at lot.  But on this day I had no dog in the race.  I was present strictly for the experience.  The wonder, if you will, of attending a football game in the NCAA’s largest football arena.

I am no stranger to large stadiums.  The University of Tennessee’s fishbowl shaped football temple that is Neyland Stadium seats approximately 102,000 fans.  I have spent many a Saturday cheering on the Vols with 100,000 of my closest friends.  I get the whole “12th man” effect.  It is real.

Stubhub hooked me up with a good ticket – sideline, section 42, 19th row – and I was off.  Of course, it was a noon game, which required a 7:30 a.m. departure from FW, but I was committed to the endeavor so I was up and ready to go. Being a mountain girl, I adore a short cut, especially if it is a two lane road (reminds me of home, especially if the road has no lines).  So, naturally, when the opportunity to take Route 60 to avoid Marshall, Michigan presented itself I could not say no.  This route was working in my favor until I was gratuitously introduced to a friendly young sheriff’s deputy.  The only consolation that he offered for casting the first blemish up on my driving record and issuing me a $100 ticket was that “I won’t be the only one” on that day.  I found no comfort in that.  Nice, Mr. Deputy, nice.  I soldiered on.

The good news is that a colleague from work (one of the aforementioned Boilermakers) and his lovely wife are staunch Purdue fans (complete with Purdue hats, sweatshirts, and the like) and were going up for the game as well.  They kindly invited me to tailgate with them and then take the shuttle to the game.  This made the day immensely more pleasant.  The idea of trying to decipher parking amidst 109,000 people in a town I had never navigated on a game day was not too inviting.  Oh, and it was cold and rainy (don’t worry, my Daddy raised me right – I have all the outer-wear one will need for such events).  I arrived at the pre-game gathering, which was complete with tasty snacks and a mix of Purdue and Michigan fans, and was made to feel right at home.  The kindness and promise of fun was enough to drown the irritation from my encounter with the deputy.

Then we were off.  The University of Michigan campus was beautifully painted in fall colors in addition to the omnipresent yellow and blue.  As we approached the stadium we were engulfed by a sea of Michigan fans that filled a closed street.  It was clear that these folks were serious.  What was interesting and surprising were the number of young men in ties and some in jackets for the game.  Fraternity types, no doubt.  I stand corrected that this is a Southern phenomenon, it is not.  However, I still contend that bowties are still Southern.  But, I digress.

So far I was impressed.  Ann Arbor is a classic college town.  Fans come en masse and are a happy mix of drunk, rude, and friendly.  We arrived at the stadium and I was met with my first concern – no bags.  No bags.  What?  Not even my pocketbook, which on this day was a tiny little backpack (I have to carry my rain pants, wallet, camera, and phone in something).  No.  You must take your bag to another entrance and “check it”.  This means that you need to leave your bag with your essentials in it with some stranger at a football stadium.  No.  Like any good Southern lady, I took my coat off and put on my tiny backpack on under my coat (my kind colleague pointed out that it was obvious that something was under my coat – I did not care) and walked right in.  Sorry, but I am not checking my pocketbook at a football stadium.  No.

I then made my way to my seat.  It was good a good seat.  Right at the end zone and directly across from the band.  I love marching bands.  I was positioned perfectly so that I could see both jumbotrons and the entire field without obstruction.  Good stuff.  It was pretty obvious that I had ended up in the season ticket holder section with the faithful Wolverines.  The older alums and fans.  I learned the fight song and motions very quickly.  Luckily, I am good at clapping. Michigan Stadium is great.  I hate to admit it but for the size and capacity it is much more fan friendly than Neyland Stadium at UT.  It is wide and and open and not like a fishbowl at all.  There are no three story ramps or upper decks that seems as though you could slide off with an errant sneeze.  It is a great place to watch a game.

I am sad to report that the Michigan fans that I was amongst were not particularly friendly.  It took my neighbors in my row an entire half to utter a word to me and then it was cool at best. Strange. Additionally, my Southern sensibilities and personal notions of good sportsmanship were a bit offended when I realized that there is an organized, marching band led, chant that ends with the entire Michigan contingent screaming “you suck”.  Not impressive.  I expressed this to a Purdue fan from my group and got the response “oh, that is football”.  Well, no, it is not.  Not in the Big East, ACC, or SEC.  Apparently, it is football in the Big Ten.  Maybe I am a prude, but that kind of nastiness is unnecessary and not pretty.

As for the game, well, Purdue failed to capitalize on two interceptions and Michigan decided to play in the second half.  Go Blue!  As for the rest of the fans, the student section is the most organized of any I have seen.  I was advised that the wave is popular at games but it can only start in the students’ section.  First the wave goes counter clockwise, then clockwise, then it goes both directions at the same time and back.  It was pretty cool and fun, especially since everyone participated.

A highlight was the half time show.  The Michigan Marching Band welcomed the Michigan Alumni Band to the field and they played together.  It is impressive that the band alumni are so organize and involved.  It was very fun to see the alums in jeans and matching shirts with their painted instruments and male baton twirlers going at it like they were still in college.  I just can’t contain my love for marching bands.  Of course, I am still partial to The Pride of the Southland Marching Band but Michigan was worth the trip (maybe not the ticket, but the trip).

The Big House experience is a spectacle.  Despite the bag ban, the “you suck” chant, and the chilly reception given to outsiders it was fun and there is a lot of pretty to see.  The campus is lovely and the stadium, while huge and rowdy, is pretty and very manageable for its size.  I can’t say it converted me to a Michigan fan or even a Big Ten supporter, but I would go back.

Welcome to the Big Ten

I love college football.  It is really the only sports season that gets me excited.

I have been spending my Saturday afternoons and evenings in college football stadiums since I was a little girl.  My Daddy started out taking the family to Virginia Tech football games (back with VT in the Big East and horrible but the games were fun) years ago.  It became one of my favorite things to do with my Daddy.  He never encountered a game he wasn’t interested in watching.  So, I owe my college football habit to him, not a bad thing to inherit.

I went to college at UVA where I was introduced to the treasured Southern concept of football parading as a cocktail party (but it is pretty there).  Finally, I made my way to UT, where I was introduced to real college football – the SEC.  Yes, I know, many will not agree, but we will just have to agree to disagree.

Even though I have seen football at its most rabid and crazy (SEC, particularly if LSU is involved), I still carry with me the traits of a good UVA fan.  I don’t travel.  Until now.  UVA visited Indiana University this season and I was there.  Of course, I only had to travel the 3.5 hours from FW – so I did not over exert myself.  I will not go into the details of the game, other than to say that UVA won despite giving up a 20 point lead in the second half.  I doubt any UVA fans were surprised. Sigh.

This was my first Big Ten stadium experience and I learned a few things.

Big Ten fans are nice and pretty well behaved.  I had the occasion to tailgate with a group of total strangers, we shall call them The Boys from Chicago.  The Boys from Chicago were neither Hoosier nor Cavalier fans.  They have decided as a group to see a game at every Big Ten stadium and this year it was IU’s turn.  They welcomed me to their tailgate, which featured a television, kabobs, burgers, cornhole, and comfortable chairs.  It was a good thing, because my tailgate consisted of a Starbucks iced decaf mocha.  Weak, I know.   

In the Midwest the beanbag game called “cornhole” in the South is called “bags”.  Who knew.  It kind of makes more sense as “bags”.   I am going to try to take that South.

The fun tailgates are in the grass.  Most of the non-season ticket holders are found across 17th Street in grassy lots.  The lots directly across from the stadium are filled with screaming, dancing, and beer throwing students.  I drove passed this spectacle (with my mouth gapped open) and thought it was a mosh pit at a concert.  I had not seen such.  Needless to say, I drove on and found a nice quiet lot.  Luckily, that is also what The Boys of Chicago did.  Although, they seemed disappointed that they could not get a space in the midst of the college-kid-football-frenzy.

These are the remains of the college-kid-football-frenzy. Yikes.

The only thing more odd than a slow fight song played to the tune of Auld Lang Syne (UVA’s fight song) is a first down ritual involving the mimicking of cow milking (hello IU).  Seriously, at every first down there were thousands of people performing cow milking gestures.  Interesting, but not necessarily pretty.

The Marching Hundred marching band is quite fabulous.  I love a marching band. However, it has a long way to go to rival The Pride of the Southland Marching Band at the University of Tennessee.  I especially love a marching band when there are fire batons involved.  There are lots of fire batons in the SEC.  IU needs some fire batons.

Indiana limestone is a big deal.  I had no idea.  Turns out Memorial Stadium at IU is also called The Rock and the students section is referred to as The Quarry in honor of that Indiana limestone.  There is actually a big rock at one end of the field placed there by a former coach who has since passed away.  Now the rock carries his name.  Very nice and respectful.  I like that.  The stadium is pretty and castle-like.  Of course, it is not Scott Stadium – I do love a colonnade – but it is still pretty.

Fanny packs are fashionable.  I realize this probably shows my age, but I was unaware that fanny packs were acceptable substitutes for pocketbooks and backpacks. Fanny packs were all over the tailgate area and the game. Some were sequined, some were emblazoned with IU’s name, and others were just plain fanny packs.  When I was 18 to 25 I would not have been caught in the bathroom with a fanny pack on.  I am not sure there are enough sequins to make a fanny pack pretty and I love sequins.

I really like Bloomington, Indiana.  It is a fun, open, happy little college town.  Not too far from the big city and not too far from happy hillbilly country.  You can’t beat it with a stick.  It is pretty.

My first Big Ten experience was outstanding.  I can’t help but compare the experience to the college football experience at UVA and UT, which is unfair.  It is like comparing apples and oranges.  IU and Bloomington has a lot to offer. I will go back even if UVA is not there.  It is a worthwhile and fun spot and a great first stop on my Big Ten tour.