Vorel: Why Notre Dame Stadium needed a video board

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The future of Notre Dame football hinges on a two-sided scale.

On one side, there’s Tradition. The Four Horsemen. The Gipper. Touchdown Jesus, his arms stretched toward the heavens, keeping silent watch from the cheap seats. Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz. Golden Domes and golden helmets. “Play like a champion today.” The fight song and the Irish Guard.

The other side, of course, is Innovation. Technology. The future. The price of remaining competitive in an increasingly lucrative landscape. GPS devices strapped to players’ bodies to monitor their workload. Gaudy alternate uniforms rolled out to woo recruits. Artificial turf, and robot tackling dummies operated by remote control.

Success, for Notre Dame, means striking a balance between the two. Tarnish that tradition, and you sacrifice the primary element that makes your program unique. Ignore innovation, and you fall behind. Fall behind, and you lose football games. Lose enough football games, and what good is tradition? Why preserve the past at the expense of the future?

Tip the scale in either direction, and the program plummets off a cliff. Notre Dame’s leaders fight a constant battle to effectively balance the scale.

“In the minds of many of our supporters it’s the tension between preserving the tradition while embracing whatever developments will enhance the experience,” Notre Dame President the Rev. John I. Jenkins told the Tribune when the Campus Crossroads project was announced in Jan. 2014.

And so, the scale precariously teeters — an endless tug of war between tradition and technology. That tension existed in 1997, when a $50 million expansion added a second deck and more than 21,000 seats onto Notre Dame Stadium. It existed in 2014, when athletic director Jack Swarbrick opted to replace natural grass with FieldTurf for the first time in the stadium’s 84-year history.

It existed in 2007, when then-athletic director Kevin White told the Tribune that not only did he doubt there would be a video board inside Notre Dame Stadium in his lifetime, he didn’t foresee one in former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s lifetime, either.

A decade later, White — in his 10th year as Duke’s athletic director — is 66 years old. Clausen is 29, recently retired from the NFL and currently launching a career in real estate.

And Notre Dame Stadium has a video board.

It’s overdue, and here's why.

Fans take in views from the Duncan Student Center during open tours of Notre Dame Stadium during the New & Gold scrimmage game Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

This video board — the 56-foot high, 94-foot wide face of Notre Dame’s $400 million Campus Crossroads project — represents a vital step towards balancing the scale. It, along with its two accompanying ribbon boards, addresses a competitive disadvantage that has festered inside Notre Dame Stadium for decades.

Former Tribune columnist David Haugh once suggested that “the place begs for a JumboTron on the scoreboard and a jolt in the stands.”

He wrote that in 2001.

And sure, if we’re being technical, Sony stopped manufacturing the “JumboTron” later that same year. But you get the point.

Isn’t it time — finally — for Notre Dame Stadium to become more imposing and less inviting?

“I know this is controversial, the same way (it was controversial) when they changed the playing surface from grass. I get it,” conceded Mike Bonner, Notre Dame’s executive producer of live events, who will be tasked with running the video board when the Irish host Temple on Saturday. “What I’d say to the people that say, ‘Oh, we don’t need that!’ is, this is going to help our home field advantage.

“You’re running videos and prompts at the right time. Third down for the opponent. Fourth down for the opponent. Those are the things we’ll be able to visually enhance. Those are the videos we can run out of a timeout while the team is standing on the sideline to get both the crowd and the team into the game.”

The Blue team attempts a field goal during the New & Gold scrimmage game Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

Granted, a video montage will never matter as much as competent coaching, elite recruiting and effective player development. A video board — even this one, all 4.8 million pixels of it — won’t singlehandedly win a game or land a five-star recruit.

But it helps. Every pixel, every highlight package, every eardrum-pounding decibel helps.

Plus, it is possible — no matter what the anonymous message board militias say — to embrace innovation without simultaneously selling your soul.

“If you look at many pro stadiums with the big video boards, they look like a circus,” Jenkins told the Tribune in 2014, when discussing the possibility of adding a video board. “They just don’t have that traditional feel, and we don’t want to lose that.”

They don’t have to. Notre Dame’s video board, Bonner insists, won’t feature a Kiss Cam. No Flex Cam. No Dance Cam. No Lift-Your-Baby-In-The-Air-Like-Mufasa-In-The-Lion-King-Cam. No Dab Cam. No game where the object is to guess which of three animated helmets is hiding a football.

No advertisements, either.

The fear, for many Notre Dame football fans, is that the program will eventually waver; that if revenue becomes scarce, Ben’s Pretzels or Papa John’s will buy real estate on the video board; that the aforementioned tradition will be sullied with a price tag.

If that day comes, the fan base has every right to rebel.

But I’m not convinced that day is coming.

“That’s really not within our tradition and our brand,” Bonner said of video board gimmicks and advertising. “What I like to say is that we will be doing an appropriate show. Yeah, I think we want to do a show that coach Rockne would be proud of.”

Prior to Notre Dame’s open scrimmage on Aug. 20, Rockne made a surprise appearance. When the stadium opened, the video board sprung to life, rolling through perhaps the most celebrated pregame speech in college football history.

“We’re gonna get ‘em on the run,” Rockne roared, decked out in a full suit and bowler hat, the picture crackling in black and white. “We’re gonna go, go, go, go! And we aren’t going to stop until we go over that goal line! Don’t forget, men! Today’s the day we’re gonna win!”

Later, a few minutes before kickoff, a simple sentence stretched across the screen.

“This is the house that Rockne built.”

It faded out, and an extra word was added.

“This is STILL the house that Rockne built.”

Yes, the benches are wider. The playing surface is artificial turf. The concourse is covered with monitors. And, above the south end zone, there’s a big, towering television staring Touchdown Jesus right in the eyes.

But Touchdown Jesus is still there. The Golden Dome is still there. The banners are still there. The statues of Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian are still there. The fight song is still playing, accompanied by the Irish Guard.

Wipe away the window dressing, and this is still Notre Dame.

A video board will help balance — not break — the scale.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Fans stand near the large video board connected to O’Neill Hall during open tours of Notre Dame Stadium. Tribune Photos/MICHAEL CATERINA 
Fans tour O'Neill Hall during open tours of Notre Dame Stadium during the New & Gold scrimmage game Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA