Oct. 11, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Even a Stanford fan can appreciate a football weekend in South Bend, Ind. Whether you loathe or love Notre Dame, it belongs on your bucket list.
I speak from experience, having covered a handful of Stanford games at Notre Dame Stadium for the old San Francisco Examiner. I have seen three Cardinal victories – two as a reporter, one as a fan – and can testify there is no other experience like it.
It isn’t easy to get to South Bend. Most out-of-state fans fly to Chicago and drive in just under two hours or take a 2½-hour train ride. If you’re not in a hurry, the latter is a fun and relaxing way to travel, and plan on being surrounded by a sea of green.
First-timers should attend the Friday Night Pep Rally on campus, a time-honored tradition. Much like the old Stanford Big Game bonfires, it attracts thousands of students, alumni, fans and visitors. The head coach and team show up, along with the cheerleaders, leprechaun, band and pom squad. Often, a guest speaker takes front stage and whips the crowd into a frenzy.
Local watering holes are packed. Many fans have arrived in town by a seemingly endless of procession of buses from throughout the state.
Plan on rising early Saturday, because there is much to see and do. While many consider the Farm the most beautiful campus in the country, Notre Dame is a special place. Make sure to visit the grotto, a quiet, special place for reflection. Also plan a visit to the bookstore, where the lines are almost as long as the list of available items with Notre Dame logos.
Like Stanford home games, tailgates start early. The surroundings aren’t as nice, but there is no shortage of food and drink.
About two hours before kickoff, players and coaches emerge from their Team Mass at Basilica of the Sacred Heart and make a slow walk to Notre Dame Stadium. Ninety-minutes before game-time, the Notre Dame Band presents a concert in Bond Hall, then marches to the stadium. They are escorted by the Irish Guard.
About the Irish Guard. They look like football players. The minimum-height requirement for the 10-member group is 6-foot-2, and they are attired in traditional Scottish kilts. Formed in 1949, they are essentially bodyguards for the band, and they don’t smile much. They take their jobs very seriously, and look like they could step into a Fighting Irish uniform at a moment’s notice.
Tickets for home games are scarce. Saturday’s game against Stanford marks the 228th-straight sellout. Since 1966, the only non-sellout was a Thanksgiving Day game against Air Force in 1973.
Notre Dame Stadium was built in 1930 and holds 80,795 spectators. It looks and feels old. More than 2 million yellow bricks were used during original construction.
Ticket-takers offer a sincere welcome when you enter the stadium, even if you happen to be wearing cardinal and white. You can’t miss towering Touchdown Jesus outside. Seating is tight and there is no nonsense once inside. Ushers always have their backs to the field and don’t watch a single play.
As you might expect, the stadium is loud. The best way to quiet the fanatical Fighting Irish fans is to play well, which the Dennis Green team of 1990 did, beating top-ranked Notre Dame, 36-31. As Stanford players departed the field, they were politely cheered by crowd.
Green set the tone early for the win. If memory serves, he asked the bus driver to circle Notre Dame Stadium before the game and shouted to his players, “Move over! Here comes the damn Stanford Cardinal!”
His players didn’t disappoint. Fullback “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell scored four times. Two years later, I returned to Notre Dame Stadium and chronicled the Bill Walsh-led Cardinal surprise of the sixth-ranked Irish, 33-16. It was particularly satisfying for Walsh, who had worked as a TV analyst for Notre Dame games on NBC. Stanford, sparked by quarterback Steve Stenstrom and running back Glyn Milburn, spotted Notre Dame a 16-point lead, then scored 33 consecutive points. Safety John Lynch was a terror on defense. On the first play of the second half, Lynch hit rugged Jerome Bettis so hard, the fullback lost the ball and his helmet, fueling the Cardinal comeback. Walsh was so elated afterward, he actually skipped off the field, again to appreciative applause.
Fast forward to 2010. For the first time, I attended the game as a fan and watched Jim Harbaugh guide his team to a dominating 37-14 victory. It was eerily quiet most of the game, except for a few hundred Stanford faithful. One of our group nearly created an incident when he pulled out pen and paper to conduct a friendly scoring pool. Within seconds, an usher was on the scene and suggested he put away the paper if he wanted to watch the game in person.
Seated near the goal line, I watched in awe as Cardinal fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic scored on a 1-yard run, then found the end zone on the next play from scrimmage on an interception return. Again, Notre Dame fans nodded appreciatively. Don’t get me wrong. Fighting Irish fans hate to lose. Walking through the pre-game tailgates in Cardinal colors, our small contingent was heckled more than once. But overall, it was a memorable experience. As you leave the stadium, the same ticket-takers thank you for coming.
It’s a nice touch. But there is no place like Stanford.
-- Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
* * *
Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport’s beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com. On Friday, Mark will introduce his father, former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Gordy Soltau, into the 49ers Hall of Fame.