The unveiling of the Campus Crossroads project Saturday against Temple will draw much pomp and circumstance, especially with the new video board and premium seating to augment the general anticipation that comes with any opening day.
Former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis used to refer these type of days as “a dog and pony show.”
Vital to the Fighting Irish team and coaching staff is remaining mindful that a game still needs to be played. Maybe the last time so many ancillary events occurred prior to a Notre Dame home game was the 2011 USC contest:
• For the first time in 21 years, Notre Dame was hosting a night game.
• Beautiful new gold helmets with real gold leaf coating were issued to match the color of the Golden Dome.
• Piped-in music was introduced for the first time in Notre Dame Stadium — including Ozzy Osbourne — to help manufacture crowd noise, although there were a few hitches with it.
• Thousands of complimentary towels also were passed out to twirl around in the stands.
• Finally, never in history had the Fighting Irish hosted so many big-time prospects for a game to take in all the festivities. Among them five-star recruits such as defensive lineman Arik Armstead, offensive lineman John Theus, safety Shaq Thompson, running back Keith Marshall and quarterback Gunner Kiel. Only Kiel would wind up with the Irish, although he would transfer following his freshman year.
Unfortunately, there was also a game to be played — and before Notre Dame knew it the Trojans built a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter and went on to a two-touchdown victory, making Lane Kiffin the first first-year coach at USC to win at Notre Dame Stadium since 1931.
“Our whole thing this week was not about the hype,” Kiffin said afterwards. “It was about preparing really well, finishing games off and not letting the other stuff get involved. You get the sense that this was their Super Bowl here, and all of the official [recruiting] visitors and moving it to a night game. … So it’s even more pleasing to come in here with all of that stuff going on around — and our players played really well.”
Kelly already hinted in training camp that with the massive new video scoreboard on the south end of the stadium, the players can’t let it become a distraction and must concentrate even harder on the task at hand. Thus, he had the team practice regularly inside the stadium, and even held a game-day like routine for the Aug. 20 open scrimmage to the public inside the new surroundings. Everything was mirrored to recreate a game-day atmosphere, from the pre-game walk to the video board getting utilized, and even a halftime speech.
“That’s typical but even more so here with the stadium and the look of this so different,” Kelly said. “I was prepared for that and we went through that to really take that out. Secondly, we practiced in the stadium a lot more so they get comfortable with the surroundings, so when we come out here it’s time to play.”
Notre Dame also almost lost to a heavy underdog Georgia Tech in 1997 when the stadium expansion was dedicated. The Yellow Jackets led 13-10 in the fourth quarter when they missed two field goals, allowing the Irish to eke out a 17-13 victory.
“We talk to them about getting into their zone, but they’ll burn up if they get into their zone too soon,” Kelly said. “It’s really about communicating about when to get into that zone. We walk over to this locker room two hours before the game — that’s a time to start working toward your optimal zone.”
The physical health status of the team is as strong as Kelly can ever recall.
“I hate to even talk about it,” he said, hoping not to jinx himself. “The preparation is as good as I have had as a head coach in all facets.”
The splitting of the technical and tactical in practices, and the mental and physical, also has had him encouraged.
“There’s a time to work on your technique and there’s a time to work on game planning,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of parceling those out, so our players know when we’re working on game plan and when we’re working on technique and building the programming for each one of them. All of those together I think has made this the best prepared team that I’ve had in a long time.
“They have built who they are over nine months. They are going to be who they are … That’s why I’m excited and really looking forward to watching this group play.”
It’s still about preparation, focus and execution on the field, not what’s going on all around it.