A handful of college football game days carry the prestige and tradition that Notre Dame does. Football in South Bend transcends the sport – it’s a foundation block of American pop culture. From Touchdown Jesus to Rudy, game day in South Bend with fresh eyes feels more like a pilgrimage, perfectly symbolic of the catholic values that created Notre Dame.
Just four hours west on the interstate from Cleveland, I’m surprised it took me so long to check off Notre Dame Stadium. But for my annual college football trip with my dad, I couldn’t think of a more perfect choice.
College Football’s Pilgrimage
God, Country, Notre Dame
The University of Notre Dame is a living museum. Campus itself has so many iconic buildings that getting to South Bend early is a must. We rolled in at 10:30 for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff and tens of thousands of Fighting Irish fans had already flocked to campus. The highway in was actually empty, the line for The Grotto was already 50 people long. We were late.
Parking isn’t cheap on game day, assuming you don’t roll in at 4:30 a.m. to find an empty curb in the nearby developments. We settled for the economic (and strategic) option of parking at the adjacent Holy Cross College (Rudy fans, anyone?). While about a mile walk to the stadium, it’s convenient to the interstate going either way with minimal traffic and costs $30 per car.
The walk from the Holy Cross College lot to the stadium takes you past two must-stops: St. Marys Lake and the Grotto. If you’re the praying type, lighting a candle at the Grotto is one of the best traditions on campus. Otherwise, I quick glance and moment of self-reflection will do.
The center of campus is signaled by the golden dome of the Main Building. Pop inside for some classic painting inside the dome.
The other major point of interest is The Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Mass goes on before all games, capped by the players attending themselves. Even walking through the church – which is a beautiful piece of history and art – should be on your itinerary.
Here Come The Irish
Make sure to set your itinerary with pretty strict times. The Victory March (Notre Dame’s wildly popular team walk) begins about 90 minutes before kickoff. The players start at the Basilica and end at the stadium. But get there early – not only does space fill up quickly, but the men’s chorus performs a few numbers for the fans, including the famed Notre Dame alma mater. Leading the players into the stadium was a band of bagpipes.
As soon as the team finishes up, head over to the fountain looked over by the Main Building. Trumpets Under The Dome is brief, but absolutely worth the time. The trumpet section stands on the fountain walls and performs a few songs, including the iconic Notre Dame Victory March. The marching band also performs on the steps of Bond Hall.
On your way into Notre Dame Stadium by way of the main building, grab photos in front of the library, decorated by Touchdown Jesus.
Give yourself time to admire the Heisman and National Championship walls and other memorabilia littered throughout the concourse.
The Cathedral Of College Football
It took most of the entire first half for me to figure out what was different about Notre Dame Stadium. Of course the pageantry and tradition of the entire game day casts a different light on South Bend, but in our seats, something sucked me into the experience beyond the typical game. Notre Dame is a time capsule, preserving football from decades ago.
You won’t find any advertising in the stadium – not so much as one branding logo. The brand of Notre Dame carries enough weight and revenue to the point where the University opts not to advertise to you in-game. There’s no “Local Branded Credit Union First Down!” or intermission gimmick presented by Your Local Chevy Dealership. Anything that could be considered commercial was further pushing the brand of the school.
Before the Fighting Irish run out, Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne recounts his famous Heisman speech. The powerful words fade into live shots of the team patting the Play Like A Champion Today sign on their way to the chute.
Then, to the tune of the nation’s most famous fight song, the gold foil helmets of Notre Dame’s team sprint onto the field.
#9 Notre Dame 44, Central Michigan 17
Excitement around Notre Dame’s 2023 season was at its highest in decades. They landed Sam Hartman in the transfer portal, a prolific passer from Wake Forest. Hartman brought Notre Dame their best QB since perhaps Brady Quinn in the mid-2000’s. This day, he looked every bit the part, connecting multiple times with his receivers deep down the field.
However, the visiting Central Michigan Chippewas held their own in the first half.
Down their starting QB – who was a surprise scratch with an illness – CMU scored twice and trailed just 21-14 at halftime. Of course, talent and size won out and the Irish won the first-ever matchup between the two schools.
Notre Dame had a massive blockbuster on tap against Ohio State the following week. Fans celebrated the win this day, unaware of the heartbreak that would befell them the next Saturday. (Ohio State punched in a game-winning touchdown with one second left to win a dogfight, 17-14.)
Though somewhat late-arriving, Notre Dame fans packed all 77,622 seats. The dedication of Irish fans to this team, this game day, is truly inspiring.
Notre Dame Game Day Grades
Stadium: A. It’s not referred to as “The Cathedral of College Football” for nothing. A simple scoreboard, no advertising, a dedication to Notre Dame’s past – complete with a 1920s aesthetic – makes this one of my favorite venues in college football. The concourses are plenty wide enough to traverse with ease. There’s not a bad seat in the house.
Tradition: A+. Maybe nobody in the country has as many quality and iconic traditions as Notre Dame. It’s so rich with tradition that the pre- and post-game activities often outweigh the game itself. Notre Dame football transcends just college football and lends itself as a template to American football in pop culture. Touchdown Jesus itself would give ND a terrific grade, but the lore goes so much further.
Atmosphere: B. A few stadiums in the country – perhaps built by the same design – are built in such a way that noise escapes. While Notre Dame Stadium was certainly much louder the next week against Ohio State, it just doesn’t trap noise like Nippert Stadium or Death Valley. But the fans are loud when they need to be and the student section is formidable. Maybe a personal preference, the music choice in between plays reminded me of a wedding reception, in that it was the same 10 songs, the most popular from each of the last six decades.
Tailgating: B. Tailgating is plentiful and concentrated south of the stadium. But with so much to do other than tailgate pregame, there’s certainly more widespread schools. Notre Dame doesn’t slack in this category by any stretch.
Fans: B+. Most Notre Dame fans are lifelong. They sell out 30-point blowouts against MAC opponents and are as married to Fighting Irish football as they are to their own spouse. Kids are brought up wearing green and navy. It’s a dedicated and classy fanbase.
Extracurriculars: A-. Maybe South Bend, Indiana, isn’t Chicago or Austin. But the amount of Friday activities on game day and local icons like Legends sports bar, there’s more than enough to do for a weekend around a Notre Dame game day. Most fans appeared to arrive the night before.