Swarbrick: Decision on turf for Notre Dame football coming in early 2014

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – For those who have been wondering if they’ve seen the last game played on natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium, the suspense won’t be prolonged much longer.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Friday the university will make a decision about whether to replace the grass field with synthetic FieldTurf sometime in January or February, and that the Notre Dame football team will be playing on the ultimately preferred playing surface starting with the Aug. 30 home opener with Rice.

What the Irish won’t be playing on is a hybrid field, something the Green Bay Packers use in Lambeau Field and a field alternative the Irish actually played on in their 2012 season opener at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland.

“It involves a level of expense, systems that probably don't make sense for us,” Swarbrick said Friday, during a press conference that primarily addressed ND’s football schedules from 2014-16 but veered into other pertinent topics. “So you have synthetic and grass.”

It appeared ND was moving down the FieldTurf path in 2012, but the Notre Dame Stadium grass surface held up so well that season that the decision was made to give it another go in 2013. However, the field was replaced three times between March and October of 2013, and by November it was a slick, divot-pocked surface that frustrated Irish head coach Brian Kelly, the Irish players and Swarbrick.

So the school delved back into research mode.

“If we were to stay with natural turf, real grass, we're going to go way down and rebuild the field,” Swarbrick said. “We're not going to take the top six inches off. We're going to go all the way down to the base, drainage, do a complete rebuild of the field.

“One of the reasons it's been so bad, we take off one layer of sod and put down another layer of sod. We haven't addressed the real issues we have to address.

“What is the timetable for that? It is a big project. How would that work? How would that work with commencement? What is your confidence that the field will be what it needs to be versus the timetable of synthetic? From a financial perspective, it's a push. The cost of what we would be talking about with grass is probably going to be a comparable investment.

“So all that is being developed now. We’ve talked to all the providers of both systems. We have bids from them. We're working through the analysis. Sometime in the first quarter we have to make that decision and decide which trigger to pull.”

Stadium expansion/renovation update

If all goes well at a trustees meeting in late January, Notre Dame could begin work on a stadium expansion/renovation project by the end of the 2014 season.

“We’re thrilled with how it’s progressing,” Swarbrick said. “You don't get a lot of opportunities to do something like this at a university where you have a project that touches almost every element of it. So you've got the academic units who will be in the building, very engaged, the academy who is playing a big role, student affairs, rec sports, digital media, athletics, the administration.

“All of these functions will be incorporated in these buildings as currently conceived. This has been really fun and exhilarating for everybody involved. The progress has been great - getting to a real level of detail. That's where we need to be as we head into the winter trustee meeting, where we'll do another review of it.”

The trustees will meet Jan. 27-31 in Rome, Italy.

The school announced on May 2 it was studying stadium expansion and renovation, and originally the hope was to get a go-ahead in October. The most noticeable football change would be the addition of premium seating that would push the capacity of the stadium from its current 80,795 to an estimated 84,000.

 “There's no set deadline for it, but we hope we come out of that (meeting) with the ability to move forward in a substantive way,” Swarbrick said. “So it's full speed away.

“Assuming we get the go ahead this winter to start the fundraising and the detailed architectural drawings, best-case scenario would be following next season we'll start working. It would take us two more seasons when you're thinking about this to get it done. A very big project, but a very exciting one.”

The issue of possibly adding a JumboTron to Notre Dame Stadium would be addressed/resolved as part of the larger stadium renovation/expansion discussions.

Snowflakes fall during the waining moments of the first half in an NCAA college football game between Notre Dame and BYU on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER