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Mike Lopresti | | September 1, 2017

Notre Dame's new football stadium is a modern ode to Knute Rockne's vision

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Ah, Knute. You should see what they’ve done to your house.

There’s a student center attached to the west side of Notre Dame Stadium now, complete with its own walking track and climbing wall and ballroom with the names of every dorm overhead. There are anthropology and psychology departments on the east side, which have nothing to do with beating USC but everything to do with research. There are recital halls on the south side, meaning the band is not the only bunch of kids with instruments making music.

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What in the name of George Gipp is going on here, you wonder? It’s called the Campus Crossroads Project, which was designed to turn your iconic 87-year-old football stadium into a multi-purpose, 365-day-a-year destination that will be as busy on school days as it is on Saturday. 

Look around, Knute. This is what a whole bunch of planning and work and $600 million can do. It gets its first big public showing this Saturday for the Temple game.

Someone counted up the entire complex and concluded there are 105 faculty offices, 137 other offices, 33 psychology research labs, 24 spaces for music rehearsals, five fitness studios and 2,000 square feet on the climbing wall.

Oh, and two goalposts.

Inside the stadium, there are patios now with a fine view of the Golden Dome from the ninth level. There are 150 TV monitors on the concourses and a video board the size of a zip code, with a control room of 6,000 cables that would do NASA proud. So now they can either show replays of touchdowns against Navy or, possibly, land on Mars. The other night, for the student body, they played “Rudy” on the board. He looked a lot bigger than 5-foot-nothing, 100-and-nothing, like the man called him in the movie.

This ain’t 1930 anymore, Knute. You can tell by the enhanced WiFi. But they keep stressing that nothing – absolutely nothing – was done counter to your spirit and wishes, since it was your aura that got the stadium first built, as a nice place for you to beat Army.

“That was exactly the question we kept asking ourselves, what would Rockne do?” said senior deputy athletics director Missy Conboy, one of the key people who moved this project along.

“Rockne was an innovator. He built a stadium for 60,000 people at a time that South Bend was a tiny little community. We always said he would be ashamed that we hadn’t done anything to update it.”

No detail was too small to study. The planners even visited Augusta National to see how modern amenities can coexist with a reverence for tradition, and nobody does that better than the Masters folks.

Take the stadium seats. Many are new. Know what they did with the old wooden ones? Used them for walls and tables and lockers and anywhere else that caught their fancy. More than 19 miles of wooden bleachers recycled.

Notice all the traditional brick and the Art Deco lettering, light fixtures, iron works and program covers turned into signs overhead. All carefully evoking yesterday. There are yardlines on the floor of the concourse, telling fans where they are in relation to the field before they ever go inside the stadium bowl to their seats, an idea from Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. The Notre Dame locker room got a reboot, but the windows to the outside world are the same from the old stadium.

“I think Rudy climbed in that one,” Conboy said. She was kidding. Maybe.

The past is everywhere, arm in arm with today. All the concession stands take credit cards now, but notice the brick walls nearby, with the imprinted game tickets from decades ago. The roofs of the new buildings are all green with vegetation, which should make the sustainability people happy. One of the posh hospitality areas upstairs is called Seven on 9, paying homage on the ninth level to the seven Irish Heisman winners. “We’re fully prepared,” Conboy said, “to rename it Eight on 9 or Nine on 9, should the opportunity present itself.”

When recruits and their families walk into their lounge, the first thing they’ll see on the left wall is a huge diagrammed play. And not just any play. It’s the pass that Tom Clements threw out of his end zone to tight end Robin Weber to more or less clinch the 24-23 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 1973, sending Notre Dame to the national championship.

Ara Parseghian drew up that diagram himself for planners at his home last year, but not before studying the play on YouTube to make sure he remembered everything right. A 93-year-old man and YouTube. A play completed a quarter-century before this season's recruits were even born. Yep, that’s the motif of the place: Then and Now.

So no worries, Knute. With such attention to detail, they weren’t about to stomp on any holy ground. The locker room might be freshened up, but it’s the same 13 steps down to the field, beneath the same “Play Like A Champion Today” sign that Joe Montana once slapped.

And about that tunnel to the field. Your famous pregame speech is engraved in limestone there for all to see. But a new tunnel was also added in the northeast corner for the visitors, from their own redone locker room. So both teams no longer need jostle with one another over turf, taking the field from the same entrance. Had this been in place in 1988, the famous Notre Dame-Miami rumble might never have happened.

Conboy is as Irish as the leprechaun, captain of the women’s basketball team and 1982 grad, and a sports administrator for 30 years. She understood the gravity of this task.

“It was incredibly daunting,” she said. “But I felt like I at least wanted to be part of a team that was trying to protect the traditions that needed to be protected, but enhancing them in other ways. Our job was to make sure we celebrated the stadium in a way that the traditionalists would be excited, but we added innovation in a way that a millennial would appreciate it.

“When you come to Notre Dame you come here because you want to be part of the tradition, so you can’t lose that in the redo. But you need to have something for everyone.”

Which is why, amid all the tributes to the past, there are more modern hospitality options than you can shake a shillelagh at. But most of all, new academic-oriented buildings on three sides, which makes the facility look either like the Smithsonian or a college campus – which it is. Nothing went up on the north side, though, lest Touchdown Jesus be blocked out, and the masses be miffed.

“Let’s put it this way,” senior associate athletics director John Heisler was saying during a tour stop on the north side. “That’s why the video board is not on this end.”

  Knute Rockne adorns the massive video board at Notre Dame Stadium.
It’ll take 4,200 ushers/security/concessionaires et. al. to make it all go. 

“I am incredibly excited about the fans seeing this. Operationally, that’s where I get nervous,” Conboy said. “On game day, you just never know if you’ve covered every potential scenario. It’s not nervous about people liking it, I think people will like it. At least I hope they will.”

So Knute, what do you think of the old place? Care for an anthropology lecture, or a crack at the climbing wall?


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