Showtime series clicked with prospective Notre Dame recruits
At 10 p.m. every Tuesday throughout the 2015 college football season, recruits and their families sunk into their couches, flipped over to Showtime and took an unofficial visit to Notre Dame.
In effect, that’s what “A Season with Notre Dame Football” was — whether intentionally or otherwise. It followed freshman nose tackle Jerry Tillery into a biology class, where he donned protective goggles and showcased the front end of “student-athlete.” It lived inside the locker room before, during and after games. It chronicled Malik Zaire at his most devastated, DeShone Kizer at his most clutch and Brian Kelly at his most magnanimous — the FBS active wins leader molding his latest team.
For recruits, a weekend visit to South Bend provides a limited window into what attending Notre Dame is really like — a trailer instead of the feature film.
The show cracked that window open another couple inches.
“A lot of the families of the guys that I happen to be directly involved with recruiting love the series and really felt like they got a lot more of an inside look into what was going on inside our program in particular,” Notre Dame assistant head coach Mike Denbrock said on National Signing Day. “You go on a recruiting trip, and that’s one thing to kind of get a feel for where you’re at on one particular day or one particular point in time in a program.
“To see it throughout the whole season and see the dynamic that we have with our student-athletes and see the relationship that they have with us and how we work together as a football team and that it really is a Notre Dame community, I think really showed very well to recruits out there and was a real positive for us.”
Of course, audiences didn’t see everything. As with any show, reality was shined-up, edited and condensed. Warts were smoothed over or obscured. The truth was delivered 30 minutes at a time, accompanied by resounding scores and silky narration. When Kizer wanted a private moment kept private, he said the word “Showtime” and — poof! — it was unusable.
It may not have been the whole story, but ask the coaches, and it was a genuine one.
“I think sometimes with Notre Dame there’s always a perception that exists about our program, about our coaching staff, about our head football coach,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said. “I think what this show did for us is it really allowed us to tell a story, and what I loved about it is it told a true story. I’ve been around coaches where, when the cameras are on they’re different, right? They get their camera coaching on.
“During the season, this was exactly what it was like in spring ball when no cameras were on. People got to see an authenticity of our program and the human side of our program and I think that really helped us.”
Signing Day provided the proof. Notre Dame signed 23 players last Wednesday, despite replacing four full-time assistant coaches early in the 2016 cycle. Several of them, most notably Florida area safety and early enrollee Devin Studstill, specifically cited “A Season with Notre Dame Football” as a significant recruiting tool.
But though the Irish received some ancillary recruiting benefits, Kelly maintains that they signed with Showtime for different reasons.
“We didn't do it to try to change those that don't like Notre Dame or are not fans of Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We wanted them to respect who we are and what our student-athletes do on a day-to-day basis. So I think more than anything else, I think it gave them insight as to what their day is like and who they are, and I think if anything, we were able to gain a lot of respect from those that saw what the student-athletes do on a day-to-day basis.”
Come next season, of course, Notre Dame’s day-to-day routine won’t include as many cameras. Kelly has said previously that, though the program’s relationship with Showtime has been positive, they won’t be signing on for any sequels.
The show must go on, though, even without the show.
“I’ve had a chance to recruit to some other programs that are very competitive nationally, but there really is no (other) program where you have absolutely nothing to hide,” Sanford said. “You’re not trying to hide people from your poor academics, because we’re a top-15 education in the country. You’re certainly not keeping them away from certain home games. We’re going to fill up that stadium with 80,795 every single week.
“You love to be on the road recruiting and doing what you do when you believe in the product that you’re selling, and I believe we have as good a product as there is out there in the country.”