Jack Swarbrick dishes on the redefined Notre Dame Stadium experience and beyond
SOUTH BEND — One of the few Notre Dame Stadium gameday traditions that has survived the muting, eliminating and modifying brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is the ND marching band.
Unlike pep rallies, tunnel tours, the player walk, tailgating — among others — all eliminated this fall, with an expected return in the 2021 football season.
Now, the marching band won’t march in 2020. It won’t even be allowed on the field, per Atlantic Coast Conference rules. But it will perform.
Socially distanced. Sitting in the stands as part of the home crowds capped at 15,525 in the 77,622-seat facility. Adding to the ambiance of the first Irish home football games played in a pandemic since a 0-0 tie in a makeup game with Nebraska on Nov. 28, 1918, to conclude Knute Rockne’s first season as ND’s head coach.
“It’s such a part of the Notre Dame experience,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a phone interview Thursday about why the band became a priority in the revamped Irish football gameday structure.
“We agree at the conference level with the decision not to have bands on the field. We think for safety reasons that’s right, but we still wanted it to be part of the experience, as did NBC, by the way.
“So then the discussion becomes where do you put them? How do you make that work? It’s tough, because the band has to be socially distanced, so it’s a lot of seats. But it’s important, and we’re glad they’re there.”
As previously announced, attendance will be limited to students, faculty/staff and families of the home and visiting teams for the first five home games. For the sixth, a Dec. 5 date with Syracuse, there may be a chance for the general public to attend that game.
Fall semester ends just before Thanksgiving, so there will be no students on campus and no campus bubble to protect.
“We don’t know yet,” Swarbrick said of the ticket policy for the first scheduled Irish home game in December since a 40-14 rout of SMU in 1953. “We’ll need to see how we do and how this works, and we’ll work with (St. Joseph County deputy health officer) Dr. (Mark) Fox as we get closer to that to see what might be acceptable.
“A lot of it is going to depend on how Indiana and St. Joe County are doing (with their COVID-19 metrics) when we reach that point in time. If we’re doing really well, I’m hopeful that we might be able to offer the opportunity to lots of area people to attend a game. But it all depends on factors that we can’t control right now.”
There are plenty of factors Notre Dame can control. Here are some notables regarding gameday policies at Notre Dame Stadium, followed by a Q-and-A with Swarbrick that includes information about how some of the decisions were made as well as some big-picture season issues.
• Tailgating, loitering and open containers will not be permitted anywhere on campus.
• Masks must be worn on campus at all times and are a requirement to enter Notre Dame Stadium (except for children under 2).
• Parking lots will open 2 1/2 hours prior to kickoff for ticketed guests. Parking will be complimentary, and game tickets are required to gain entrance to the controlled event lots on game day.
• Fans will be permitted to bring hand sanitizer (not to exceed 4 oz.) into the stadium.
• Stadium gates will open two hours prior to kickoff. For guests seated in the stadium bowl, entry times will be noted on mobile tickets. Ticketed patrons are encouraged to arrive at their suggested entry time and maintain physical distancing while waiting in line.
• Phone charging stations and the seat cushion program will not be available
• Game programs will not be printed. Complimentary digital game programs will be available for fans to download on und.com.
• The Rally House is a new VIP experience where fans can connect with each other and Notre Dame celebrities through exclusive online watch parties prior to and during each home football game.
Fans can purchase a Rally House season pass for all six home games and postseason games for $49 or a single-game pass for $15.
Q: Can you elaborate a little bit more about the Rally House experience and why this was created and what you hope it becomes?
Jack Swarbrick: “I challenged our media staff to develop ways in which our fans could feel as connected as if they were with us. I think that’s our primary responsibility.
“By necessity, we had to implement a policy where it was limited to students, faculty and staff. So all those great fans, who have come for so many years and to whom it’s so important and can’t be with us, we have an absolute obligation to make alternatives available to them any way we can, and that’s the goal.”
Q: Is there anything about the gameday experience on NBC that changes, since most fans will only be able to experience the game that way?
JS: “I think the short answer is no. It should be a lot like what they’re used to, but it’s also why these additional elements that we’re building are so important.
“I could not be more happy with the broadcast crew we’ve drawn. I’m so excited. Mike Tirico is the best in the business, but to have Tony Dungy with us for a season is really special.”
Q: How difficult was it to make the cutoff or no season-ticket holders or public tickets beyond students, faculty/staff and families of the home and visiting schools?
JS: “Where it really started was with the notion that students ought to be able to watch their fellow students play. And so the starting point for us was, ‘We’re going to make a commitment to allow every student who wants to attend a game be able to attend it.’
“And then the other factors sort of came into play. With physical distancing, what’s the impact of that? Once we made the commitment to the students, before we fully understood that it would represent 80 percent of the stadium with social distancing, you find yourself with a very small footprint for anybody else.
“And it was natural then to keep it to the (campus) bubble, to limit the additional seats to faculty/staff.”
Q: Where will the families and the visiting fans sit, so they’re not mingling with the campus bubble?
JS: “Obviously there are limits to avoiding that. There will be trips to concessions stands and restrooms, so you can’t insulate them completely. They’ll have their own entrance and they’ll have their own area in which they’re seated.
“Our parents will be seated similar to where they’ve been seated in the past, and the visiting team families will have their own section more toward the south side of the stadium.”
Q: Will any of the premium seating areas be in use?
JS: “Not for premium seating purposes. We’ll use some of that space for football families, spouses of coaches, etc. We’ll use part of it for the football staff, which can’t be on the field this year because of the strict restrictions. That’s largely it.
“(University president) Father John (Jenkins) and I will continue to have access to the upstairs area, but it’s just for very limited purposes.”
Q: How will concessions work?
JS: “Fewer stands. Fewer stand-alone kiosks. And mainly pre-packaged. Cashless transactions.”
Q: When the game is over, how do you keep there from being congestion with fans getting out of the stadium?
JS: “We think that we’re OK, given there are only 15,000 people spread around that much geography, that it will happen a little naturally. So we’re going to monitor it for the first couple of games. If we need to try and discharge people by sections, we would. But our instinct is it will happen pretty naturally.”
Q: How do you create the home-field advantage?
JS: “As you might expect, at the conference level, they’ve adopted very specific rules on artificial crowd noise. There’s really not an opportunity to do anything unique with that. It’s limited.
“There’s a limit on the decibel level. The intention is it’s background noise as opposed to being spiked up and down based on the play.
“You hope our venue, in and of itself, creates a significant home-field advantage, just because it can be an intimidating venue to have to come in to play in.
“But beyond that, you probably are able to produce less of a home-field advantage, but you’ll face less of a home-field advantage on the road, too.”
Q: I would imagine at some point the ACC is going to come up with guidelines regarding a threshold to cancel/postpone a game in terms of overall players missing or a position group being wiped out? Where is the ACC with that process and what might that look like?
JS: “I think we’ve just got to be vigilant from game to game, looking at where we are. You could imagine a relatively small number of players being out causing a problem if they’re all of a similar position group, from a player safety standpoint.
“You could also imagine another scenario — I hope we never have it — where you have a relatively high number of positive tests, but they don’t impact your ability to play the game or the contact tracing doesn’t take additional people out.
“There’s just no way to start to say, ‘If we have X number of tests we don’t play.’ And I’m so encouraged by our (testing) results to date.”
Q: The NCAA has essentially given every active player another year of eligibility. But as teams start adding players through recruiting and the transfer portal, have you been given any guidelines about expanded roster sizes and how those would be calculated?
JS: “None. Until you have some other rule to follow, you’ve got to continue to operate under the current one. I know there will be discussion about this, but it will be after the season. So I don’t expect any further instruction on it until after the season.”
Q: Now that we’re less than 10 days away from the opener and on the runway for a fall Notre Dame football season, what do you feel most good about and what still worries you about what lies ahead?
JS: “I’m most proud of our student-athletes. You had about 1% positive rate in testing. That’s happening because they’ve been so great about doing everything they’ve been asked and very vigilant. And they’ve prepared for the season really well.
“I’m not surprised by it. That’s the nature of this place, but boy am I proud of them.
“What am I most worried about? I’m worried about the things we can’t control. I have great confidence in our team. I have great confidence in our plan for home games. I have great confidence in the testing protocols that the ACC has put in place.
“Are we going to run into communities that can’t host a game? Or states that adopt travel restrictions or things that are completely out of our control that could have a significant consequence on the season?
“I think we couldn’t be better positioned for the things we can control.”
Q: How will travel be different from past years — and let’s assume there aren’t travel restrictions?
JS: “Among the differences will be we’re really going to be locked down when we arrive. There won’t be any interaction with family or friends when we arrive at visiting sites. I hate that, but obviously, it’s the right thing to do.”
Q: When the student population experienced a surge in outbreaks shortly after arriving on campus for fall semester and Father Jenkins quickly pivoted to remote learning, had Notre Dame not pivoted back to in-person learning, is there a chance we would not have had fall football at Notre Dame?
JS: “After 28 years as a lawyer, you learn never to answer hypotheticals. I’m going to pass on the hypothetical and say, 'I’m really happy, but not surprised, that our students responded to Father Jenkins’ call.'”
(Home Games in CAPS)
Sept. 12: DUKE, 2:30 p.m. EDT
Sept. 19: SOUTH FLORIDA, 2:30 p.m. EDT
Sept. 26: at Wake Forest, TBA
Oct. 3: Open
Oct. 10: FLORIDA STATE, 7:30 p.m. EDT
Oct. 17: LOUISVILLE, 2:30 p.m. EDT
Oct. 24: at Pittsburgh, TBA
Oct. 31: at Georgia Tech, TBA
Nov. 7: CLEMSON, 7:30 p.m. EST
Nov. 14: at Boston College, TBA
Nov. 21: Open
Nov. 27: at North Carolina, TBA
Dec. 5: SYRACUSE , TBA
Dec. 12 or 19: ACC Championship Game at Charlotte, N.C., TBA