Shamrock Series has become a mini-bowl game for Notre Dame

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

The admission came really as no surprise, and the logic makes sense. Why, Brian Kelly wondered when he became the Notre Dame football coach five years ago, would the school give up a true home game and replace it with a neutral-site affair.

In 2009, Notre Dame had successfully pulled off the first installment of former athletic director Kevin White's vision, which involved taking the show on the road and revisiting some of the barnstorming days of old.

That season included a Week 8 game against Washington State at the Alamodome in San Antonio, and a wildly successful weekend culminated with a Halloween night thrashing of the Cougars. Coincidentally, that was the last win of the Charlie Weis Era as the Irish went 0-for-November, sealing Weis’ fate and paving the way for Kelly to move from Cincinnati to Notre Dame.

So, when Kelly first saw the 2010 schedule, one of the games that had to jump out was the Nov. 20 tilt against Army at Yankee Stadium. Yes, it was a game in which his Irish most certainly would be favored, but it was sandwiched between a visit from a talented Utah team and the regular season-ending trip to USC.

The potential for distraction certainly was there. It would be the first football game ever played at new Yankee Stadium (and don't forget that Kelly is a born-and-bred Boston Red Sox fan). So yes, Kelly was skeptical.

Then they played the game, and for a few days the week before Thanksgiving that year, Notre Dame took over the Big Apple. The band performed at Times Square. Yankee Stadium became Notre Dame Stadium East for a night. East coast recruits noticed. The Irish wore green uniforms. And the momentum that had started the previous year with White's dream really got rolling.

"I really didn't understand the implications of the Shamrock Series and really what it meant. I think it's been really good for us because it gets us into some geographical areas that make sense," Kelly said this week as the Irish prepare for the sixth installment, this one coming against Purdue on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. "I think not understanding it at first, I have come to really appreciate it and think it's worth doing because we're playing in some great venues."

In the beginning

White's idea came about when the NCAA approved the rule that schools could play a 12th game every season. (White declined an interview request for this story).

"That was a little bit of a decision for us in terms of, OK, what are we going to do with that? Do we want to play another home game, do we want to play eight home games every year? Just which direction do we want to go?" said Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler, who at the time worked closely with scheduling.

"It was really Kevin's idea to think that this was a great opportunity to do something completely out of the box, in effect take a home game and take it on the road. Take these different elements to it and go some place where you haven't been and create a matchup that is just something different."

The first San Antonio game — ND will play there again in 2016 — certainly was different. The pep rally at the Alamo was raucous. The Saturday afternoon Mass held downtown was so heavily attended that churchgoers stood outside the downtown cathedral.

Irish faithful followed the band to the Alamodome. And the Halloween night crowd included fans dressed in costumes, and it was so revved up that the Washington State players were booed — loudly — as they left the field following pregame warmups.

"I think the University pretty quickly realized that this was going to work and it was a pretty neat thing and we're going to not only keep doing it, but we're going to add more elements to it," Heisler said.

The next year the Irish took New York by storm. The following year it was on to the Washington D.C. area, and it was also the year the school started using the Shamrock Series name. In 2012 ND played Miami in Chicago, the only hiccup being that the game was the same weekend as the Chicago Marathon. Last year it was again in Texas, this time the Dallas area.

And now Indianapolis.

“You may question Indianapolis as to why that makes sense for us as a geographical area, but there are other reasons to play this game in Indianapolis,” Kelly said. “Lucas Oil Stadium, obviously, in Indiana, let’s not forget our home base. We have done so well recruiting in this state. There are great players here that we want to call. I guess it’s the old adage, you’ve got to pull your own state.”

Football aside, one of the key elements in the Shamrock Series game gaining footing was that all have been played at night. When the games first began, Notre Dame rarely played home night games, and the ability to broadcast a primetime ND game opened the eyes of NBC executives.

“Part of the allure for NBC was that we weren’t really interested in playing night games here at that point,” Heisler said. “Now, we’ve obviously jumped into this a little bit, but at some point that was very attractive for them because of the ability to put a game in primetime, so they liked that part of it.”

TV did, however, cause something of a hiccup. For last year’s Dallas-area game, Baylor was originally going to be the opponent, but the Big 12 TV contract would not allow Notre Dame to retain the television rights against a Big 12 opponent within the conference’s footprint. Thus Arizona State.

Beyond football, though, there have been other opportunities for the University.

“I think the University has really decided that this is just a huge opportunity to kind of promote and market itself and expose the whole institution in some places and to some people that maybe don’t get to South Bend,” Heisler said. “That’s kind of why, in addition to the football part of it, we’ve tried to take all these other elements so that it’s a lot more than just a football game.”

More than a game

Mike Seamon is a 1992 Notre Dame graduate with a degree in business administration. Two years later he received his MBA from the university. One of his titles now is the Associate Vice President of Campus Safety, and a few years back university President Rev. John I. Jenkins asked him to take on the responsibilities of Director of Game Day Operations.

“Your first answer is, ‘Yes Father/President, I will be happy to do it,’” Seamon said with a chuckle.

One of the big tasks involved with Seamon’s added duties is being heavily involved with the execution of the Shamrock Series game.

“It’s bringing everybody together to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing, this is what we want to achieve,’” he said. “My job is to make sure we’re all rowing in the same direction, we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, we’re not double-scheduling things, that what we are putting in there makes sense.

“And a good sign for us within the university is that so many people want to put events on that weekend. Now, that’s one of my challenges, which was unforeseen, is actually having to say no to some people because you don’t want to overload it. You want it to make sense.”

What Jenkins charged Seamon with was pulling together five core elements that are replicated on the home-away-from-home games – academic, faith, athletic, service and celebration of Notre Dame family.

“All six of the Shamrock Series (weekends) will have those elements in it, but yet each of them are unique based upon the city or the region where we’re visiting,” Seamon said.

One of the first “musts” that the university identified was bringing the band. No questions asked.

“We knew if we were really going to make this a home game weekend,” Seamon said, “we had to bring the band.”

There are tweaks. This weekend's festivities include a 5K run, and the football luncheon has been replaced by a business luncheon in order to better build relationships with government and business leaders in the state capital. Faculty members will make the trip.

Because Jack Swarbrick was a lawyer in Indianapolis prior to taking the ND athletic director job, he was especially instrumental in pulling the necessary parties together for this year’s game. Other cities, according to Seamon, have taken note.

“Now, I think Jack’s biggest problem is everybody wants us,” Seamon said. “How does it fit in the schedule and where does he want to go and where do they think it makes sense. But now that people have seen the success of these weekends, it’s a mini-bowl game in 2½ days. And that’s why our fans love it, because there’s so much to do.”

What lies ahead

Seamon offered that the Shamrock Series games are worked on two years in advance. Within two weeks of this game another trip to Boston will be made. Alamodome officials are making the trip to Indy to watch how this year’s game is run.

And around the time the clock hits all zeroes late Saturday night, a group that will include Seamon, Jenkins, Swarbrick and Heisler, among others, will be situated on the field.

“And we look at each other and we always shake each other’s hand and we say, ‘What a great weekend,’” Seamon said. “And we’ve won every Shamrock Series game, so we’re equally successful on the field as we’ve been off the field.”

Sunday morning, Seamon will get in his car and begin the trek back to South Bend. The first hour or so of the drive will be spent thinking of all the people he needs to acknowledge and thank for a job well done.

“But by the time I hit Kokomo or Rochester, I’m going to be thinking about Boston almost exclusively,” he said. “... The second hour and a half or so will be, ‘OK, where are we in our process, and where do we need to go.’”

Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins, left, and ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick see many benefits in the Shamrock Series experiences. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)