Notre Dame's changes to Irish Guard stir outcry
SOUTH BEND -- They have led the Notre Dame Marching Band onto the football field for decades, tall and strapping young men who project an image of strength.
For members of the kilt-wearing Irish Guard unit, service has meant acting as an imposing symbol for Notre Dame -- precision marchers who have the added honor of raising the U.S. flag at ND football games.
Now, the university is about to tinker with that image.
Gone is the 6-foot-2 height requirement. Participation will be limited to two years, instead of the traditional three or four years.
And no more open tryouts. Instead, the Guard will come from a pool of students who have at least one year's experience as a musician or manager in the Notre Dame Marching Band.
"We want to make the Guard an integral part of the band," said Kenneth Dye, the university's director of bands. "Ideally, membership in the Guard will be a leadership position in the senior year, like drum major."
Some students and fans, however, aren't cheering the changes. The moves, they argue, will water down a proud and noble tradition.
Some have made their views known through an online petition, titled "Restore the Real Irish Guard at Notre Dame," on Change.org. The petition has garnered more than 1,100 signatures so far.
"With three to four years experience, the traditional Irish Guard performed with military precision," the petition states. "With the height requirement, stature, and posture, it presented a most imposing sight. To create resume builders for a small number of Band members hardly justifies the destruction of a Notre Dame football tradition."
Graduating senior Chris Cali called the changes "disheartening" in an interview. He served on the Guard for three years, including this past year as the unit captain.
He was drawn to try out in a grueling audition process after watching the unit during his first year at Notre Dame.
"I thought the Guard was an awesome symbol of prestige and valor," he said. "Whenever you saw the Guard and heard the trumpets playing, you got goosebumps."
With little previous musical experience, Cali said he wouldn't have been permitted to apply under the new guidelines. And he's disappointed for younger students.
"That experience won't be available to many future incoming students," he said.
Dye knows that some Guard alumni are opposed to the changes, though he points out that most of the reaction he's received so far has been positive, particularly from band members. Regardless, he says the changes are here to stay.
"This has been decided with the support of the administration," he said. "It is something we need to do so the Guard can be with us for years to come."
He also points to the potential benefits. Elimination of the height requirement, for example, could provide the opportunity for more female students to serve on the Irish Guard. Over the years, two women who met the height requirement have participated.
"We want to encourage women to interview and try out under the revised process," Dye said. "We think we'll get a much better cross-section of the student body."
The Irish Guard was started in 1949 by then-band director H. Lee Hope. The guardsmen originally played bagpipes, although that practice was abandoned after a few years.
Last month, underclassmen members of the 2013-2014 Irish Guard found out that they would be replaced.
Eleven band members have been chosen to serve on the Irish Guard for fall 2014. The revised unit will have eight members (rather than the previous 10) on the field, and three alternates.
All 11 students selected for the fall squad are men. The Guard uniform will remain unchanged, Dye said.
To protest the changes, a group of 10 recent guardsmen wrote a letter to the Observer, the campus newspaper.
"Knowing that the lore and tradition of the Irish Guard has persisted for 65 years, we firmly believe that there will one day be a reversion to the traditions that shaped the image and (role) of the Irish Guard as a symbol of Notre Dame," the group wrote in the letter, published May 2. "Until then, we mourn the loss of yet another great tradition at this university and an end to a long line of the most valuable community of which one could be a part."
As part of the online petition at Change. org, others opposed to the move have also voiced their opinions.
"I'm an ND Band alumna who was a uniform #1-wearing bass player and later became an ass't Drum Major....and NEVER once did I feel discriminated against because I was too small to be in the Irish Guard," wrote Karen Shopoff Rooff, of Austin, Tex.
"The 'Irish Guard' you've proposed is not the Irish Guard. It's the band playing dress up. Keep the tradition," commented Chad Silker, of Ballwin, Mo.
"What you are basically doing is discriminating against the students that are not a part of the band and that in itself is wrong," wrote Mark Zavala, of Pflugerville, Tex.
Some Guard members have attracted unfavorable publicity over the years.
In September 2003, three Notre Dame students, including a guardsman, were injured during a street fight in downtown South Bend. The guardsman was unable to march at the home football game that weekend because of his injuries, the Observer reported at the time.
Also in 2003, a website run by a former guardsman posted a list of every Guard member dating back to the group's start, except for Molly Kinder -- a 2001 graduate who served as the first woman member of the Irish Guard. After news reports about Kinder's exclusion, the website was shut down.
The previous years, in 2002, the Guard was banned from the field for one home football game as punishment after several guardsmen were shown on national television asleep on the sidelines.
Regardless of the past controversies, Dye says he believes the new changes will benefit the Irish Guard, and make for a better experience.
"We decided this was the best way to go," he said.