'Inevitable' change gets underway at Notre Dame

'Inevitable' change gets underway at Notre Dame
May 20, 2014, 11:45 am
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It's either progress or heresy, depending on which segment of the fanbase is talking. But it's underway: On Tuesday, crews began removing the natural grass field from Notre Dame Stadium, which will have artificial turf installed over the summer.

There's something to be said for traditions and doing things differently, but there's more to be said for giving the program a better chance to win. With artificial turf, Notre Dame will have consistency between its practice fields and gameday surface while avoiding the pitfalls of trying to maintain natural grass in the often-harsh November weather conditions of Michiana.

[MORE: Notre Dame selling stadium grass for nearly $150]

Former Irish running back Jerome Bettis provided some perspective on the turf switch, which he described as "inevitable."

"We try to want things to stay the same, but unfortunately the dynamics of college athletics have changed, and so we've gotta kind of level the playing field," Bettis said last week at the Irish Legends Charity Event last week at Olympia Fields Country Club. "Right now we're behind the curve. Usually, your tradition is a benefit. But in our particular situation it's been a crutch."

Notre Dame Stadium expanded by 21,000 seats during the 1990s, and will undergo another round of expansion this decade -- though most of the construction will be on academic-oriented buildings at the venerable stadium. Coach Brian Kelly talked at Olympia Fields about the possibility of installing "information boards" as part of the Campus Crossroads project, though nothing has been decided yet. That'll be the next battle fought by the traditionalists.

Prior to the 2012 season, as the battle of natural vs. artificial turf was still being fought, athletic director Jack Swarbrick talked about the challenge of modernizing Notre Dame while keeping it akin to the "Augusta of college football." But Augusta National isn't trying to entice 17-year-olds to come play its storied course instead of, say, Pebble Beach or Cog Hill.

That's why, for example, Notre Dame's experimented with some bold, polarizing uniform designs for its annual Shamrock Series game. What mattered was the players loved the look and those uniforms surely were noticed by recruits, too.

[MORE: Notre Dame not looking for NFL-minded recruits]

It's a difficult balance to strike, though, because history and tradition are so important to Notre Dame's image. But Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat weren't around 50 years ago, let alone seven or eight years ago. Kelly talked about the importance of graphic design in recruiting blue-chip high schoolers, something that wasn't necessary when recruits chose Notre Dame because it was Notre Dame.

"You have to do something to change the mindset of the 17-year-old kid that wants to go to one of these SEC schools and wants to go to a Pac-12 school or something like that," Bettis said. "I think it's necessary, and obviously it's going to rub some people the wrong way, the traditionalists. But I think it's necessary if they love the university like we all do they should understand that it's time to grow and build."

That's not to say Notre Dame has lost its status as an attractive destination for recruits. Since Kelly took over, he's never brought in worse than a top-20 recruiting class. Notre Dame made the 2013 BCS Championship and almost always plays a nationally-televised game. It's a program that still has plenty of sizzle on a national level.

History and tradition are a big part of that sizzle. All the championships, all the Heisman winners, all the NFL draft picks (eight this year) won't go away with "Crazy Train" or artificial turf.

[MORE: Samardzija realizing 'crazy' impact of time at Notre Dame]

As Bettis said, sometimes Notre Dame's tradition has been a "crutch," something to lean on in the face of competitive disadvantages. The natural turf at Notre Dame Stadium got to the point where it was a competitive disadvantage, so it's being replaced -- no matter how traditional it may be.

"We can't even practice out there, and we want to be able to get out there with our team," Kelly said of the natural grass after Notre Dame's spring game last month. "We want some safety issues to be not part of the equation. And look, I think everybody is in agreement; if we can get the best surface there and grass, we'd love to have that. We just haven't been able to get to that."