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January 31, 2014

It's all about the University of Notre Dame

When the University unveiled the $400 million Campus Crossroads Project of and surrounding Notre Dame Stadium, there were those who expected the emphasis to be much more heavily weighted on the football program.

There were no such promises, at least not as the main emphasis of the project promoted by the University. This was - from the infancy of the project and a planning standpoint - a move to enhance the University of Notre Dame as a whole, which in turn has a trickle-down impact on the football program.

But a trickle-down impact was not enough for some. They wanted to hear and see how that money would tangibly make “the Notre Dame game-day experience” better. They wanted to hear and see how that money would be spent to specifically enhance the football program. They wanted to hear and see - today, not five years from now -- how that money would help lead the Notre Dame football team to more victories.

Bricks and mortar don’t do that, although elaborate sound systems and graphics - the creation of a more intimidating atmosphere -- certainly play a role in creating a home setting that makes it more difficult for visiting teams to achieve success on Notre Dame’s home turf.

Notre Dame, however, made no specific promises of a video board that would blow the opposition out of the water. In fact, they didn’t include any such structure in the drawings, only an acknowledgment that a new scoreboard would be placed on the south end of the stadium and that there would be improved broadband connectivity. They didn’t greatly emphasize the acoustical advantages to be gained by the east, west and south structures, which will naturally make the stadium a more intimidating, harrowing experience for the opposition.

They didn’t come out and show an unequivocal competitive advantage to be derived from the project.

Of course, if you can’t see and imagine that, you have a shortsighted view of the project, the football program and, above all, the University of Notre Dame. On any and every level, this is a great thing for the University of Notre Dame -- its students, its benefactors, its football fans, its football players and its pursuit of quality football players on the recruiting trail.

To say that this project addresses the students “too much” and not the football program enough is myopic. Anything that modernizes Notre Dame and makes Notre Dame Stadium a bigger and more spectacular venue as a whole is good for the University and good for the football program.

To say that Notre Dame would be just another Midwestern school with high academic aspirations without the centerpiece of its existence - football - is true from a fan’s perspective, but misses the mark from a University perspective. Yes, football made Notre Dame famous, but it remains a facet of the University, not the primary reason for its existence.

Football success gets the headlines; academics and the cultivation of a spiritual environment makes the University of Notre Dame the unique place that it is with the football experience enhancing but not earmarking its existence.

This is not the University of Notre Dame versus Notre Dame football; it’s all a part of the University of Notre Dame and the experience. Anyone who truly understands Notre Dame acknowledges the importance of the Notre Dame football program, but it remains a segment and an integral part of the Notre Dame experience, not the primary reason for its existence.

While some who contribute to this project will have a great affinity for the football program, the vast majority of benefactors of the University - who have created an $8.7 billion endowment - do not share their wealth with their beloved Notre Dame because of the football program.

They share their wealth because the University of Notre Dame has created a Christian environment for which alumni as well as most subway alumni cling to and gravitate towards. Millions of dollars roll into Notre Dame every day, and their generosity has, in most instances, nothing to do with football or athletics in general, but rather, a strong affiliation to what Notre Dame represents and what it does for many not nearly as fortunate.

What Notre Dame has done is take the football stadium - the center of its universe on six Saturdays per football season - and made it the centerpiece of the campus for faculty, students, research, hospitality, fans, etc. In the process, the project has a two-birds-with-one-stone impact on the men’s and women’s basketball programs, which will move into the Rolfs Sports Recreation Center right next to the Joyce Center/Purcell Pavilion. In addition, another 3,000-to-4,000 seats will be added to Notre Dame Stadium as well as “premium seating” to encourage benefactors to be even more generous in the future.

Every Notre Dame undertaking requires a bit of hyperbole, and this endeavor is no different.

Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins touted the project as an “integrated model” of “bringing together athletics, faculty and academics, research and a student center.” Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick took it a step further by calling the project “a powerful symbol where you can take the stadium and say we believe in the integration of athletics into academics.”

That’s public relations-speak.

When Notre Dame extricated itself from the imploding Big East and landed in the Atlantic Coast Conference, it was celebrated as a groundbreaking move for Notre Dame athletics, which it was/is.

When Swarbrick unveiled the 2014-16 football schedules, they were released via a press conference for something that merely required a press release. When the Irish signed a $90-$100 million partnership with Under Armour to supply Notre Dame with its athletic apparel for the next 10 years, it was promoted as the largest deal of its kind in the history of intercollegiate athletics.

When the Campus Crossroads Project was unveiled, Jenkins called it the largest project by the University in its 172-year history.

Notre Dame likes to emphasize its higher ideals and the spectacular nature of its endeavors in everything it does.

But the Campus Crossroads Project is not an “integrated model” of bringing together “athletics, faculty and academics, research and a student center,” nor “a powerful symbol where you can take the stadium and say we believe in the integration of athletics into academics.” There are schools all over the country that have tied academic facilities to athletic facilities.

As it pertains to these claims, this project is, in fact, bricks and mortar being used for academic facilities that will be attached to other bricks and mortar, which have been used for football games since 1930. It is not an actual integration between athletics and athletics. It is not an enhancement for the student-athlete, at least not as it pertains to the student portion of that phrase. It does not prove that Notre Dame is more committed to the student-athlete by undertaking this project.

It is simply the best use of space on a campus that needs more space for its academic endeavors and has intelligently tied it in to its famous athletic facility. It’s a symbol of the integration of athletics and academics, not an actual integration of athletics and academics. The Notre Dame student-athlete will not become a better and more committed student through this project, unless of course he benefits from the knowledge gained within the walls of the new bricks and mortar. But that would be achieved regardless where the structure was placed on campus.

The bottom line is this project makes Notre Dame better, and by making Notre Dame better, it increases the University’s chances of being successful in the classroom, in its attempts to lure scholars among faculty and students alike, and on the playing field while raising the level of pride in the University.

It modernizes Notre Dame and, in the process, makes its greatest sports-related symbol - as symbols go, it still pales in comparison to the Golden Dome and the Grotto - a campus focal point as opposed to a place to pay homage to Notre Dame football six times a year.

When this structure is completed, the Notre Dame football fan will get what he was looking for - a more difficult place for opponents to play, a more user-friendly facility, and a much-enhanced game-day experience. Of course, the make-up of the Irish fan base will always have much more to do with how intimidating Notre Dame Stadium is on game day than the facility itself.

The majority of Notre Dame’s fame may have come from its football program, but that is not the reality of Notre Dame, but rather, the perception of Notre Dame in a sports-crazed society.

The reality is that the Campus Crossroads Project is a great thing for the University of Notre Dame. All it takes to understand the benefits for Notre Dame football is some foresight and vision to see the forest through the trees.





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