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Campus crackles with excitement on a Notre Dame Saturday

This has not been a normal fall at Notre Dame University, a 1,250-acre campus on the edge of South Bend, Ind. The hallowed football team -- known worldwide as the Fighting Irish -- had lost an unheard of four straight home games when I visited on...

This has not been a normal fall at Notre Dame University, a 1,250-acre campus on the edge of South Bend, Ind. The hallowed football team -- known worldwide as the Fighting Irish -- had lost an unheard of four straight home games when I visited on Oct. 20.

Still, the pristine campus vibrates with excitement on fall Saturdays. Tailgaters begin setting up grills and portable bars before sunup. A parking spot in the huge lot beside the stadium carries a $40 price tag.

On the rim of campus, I meet a short-haul truck driver who rents out RV space in the spacious front yard of a modest frame home for $100 to $300, depending on the size of the RV.

"It's all tax free, too," he chortles.

For some fans, tailgating may be an end in itself -- a long, outdoor festival prior to entering the coliseum where things turn serious.

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To accommodate NBC, Irish home games start late in the afternoon. Kickoff didn't come until 3:44 p.m.

That leaves plenty of time to walk the campus. Academic halls of stone are framed by tall pines and leafy branches of old hardwoods. There are two lakes down the hill, across the road from The Grotto.

Campus organizations set up kitchen outposts to sell pop, water and burgers to raise funds. Lines are long starting about noon.

This Saturday there are thousands of Southern Cal fans on campus to support the Men of Troy. Large private jets fly over campus bringing in mostly Trojan alumni, I'm told. SC is the "in team" in the Los Angeles basin. By game time, the Trojan faithful in cardinal and gold must number 20,000.

The 80,000-seat stadium -- expanded 10 years ago -- has failed to sell out only once since 1966.

Notre Dame is proud of its top 25 academic rating and its graduation rate for all student-athletes -- slightly above 90 percent, I read. But it is football that has made Notre Dame and South Bend famous. Where better to locate the College Football Hall of Fame?

Football is an economic engine. A cheap motel room is $200 when the Irish are at home. Taxi drivers in five-passenger minivans thrive on moving fans from the combined airplane-railroad terminal to the campus and nearby lodging.

The marching band claims to be the oldest in the land.

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The band gives a concert 90 minutes prior to kickoff on the steps of Bond Hall. Perhaps a thousand of us gather on the lawn to listen on this perfect, bluebird day.

Just before kickoff the band explodes into the stadium through a narrow tunnel. The Trojan band is also here in gold war helmets with purple plumes.

The game is a downer for Irish faithful. Southern Cal is too fast, too strong and has more talent. The hometown crowd has little to cheer in a 38-0 rout that leaves the once proud Irish at 1-7. Two weeks later they will lose to Navy for the first time in 44 games.

I leave early to catch a van-taxi to the train for the 2Β½-hour ride to Chicago. After overnighting, I board the Empire Builder at Union Station on Sunday afternoon. The 10-hour rail trip into the night is quiet and soothing as an Irish lullaby.

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