Waking up the echoes

Even for someone who watches football for a living, going to a Notre Dame home game for the first time is something to cherish

AP

If you are a fan, then you know them.

From the Big House to The Swamp, from Autzen Stadium to Death Valley, from Kyle Field to the Coliseum. The stadiums dotting the American landscape are perhaps more familiar to aficionados of college football than their own local parks.

Over the past 30 years, working alongside Al Michaels and Keith Jackson as a spotter on broadcasts of college and the NFL, I have witnessed close to 1,000 games, perched high above the action with a 50-yard line seat. As the Johnny Cash song goes, “I’ve been everywhere man,” visiting virtually every significant stadium in the country.

Except one.

I had never been to Notre Dame Stadium. And that, as they say, is ironic.

In 1966, as a 10-year old boy, I sat in my Venice, Calif., Pop Warner football jersey and watched back-up quarterback Coley O’Brien (starting that day because Terry Hanratty had been knocked out by Michigan State’s Bubba Smith), take a knee in his own territory on instructions from Head Coach Ara Parseghian, rather than playing for a go-ahead score against the Spartans.  Yes, No. 1 Notre Dame played for a 10-10 tie with No. 2 Michigan State because the Coach felt that it was the best outcome for his bruised, bloodied and beleaguered team.

In my youth, the concept of “winning” a tie was too great to wrap my head around. But the following week, when the Irish came to the Coliseum and trounced the 10th-ranked Trojans of USC, 51-0, to claim the mythical National Championship, I was hooked on the Notre Dame Kool-Aid. It was, I assumed, my destiny to one day lead the Irish onto the field in “The House that Rockne Built” as Ara’s quarterback.

Of course, dreams and destiny rarely intersect. And now, 49 years later, I finally made my Notre Dame debut. Not as quarterback, nor even in the broadcast booth, but rather as a college football sycophant who made a first-time pilgrimage to Notre Dame Stadium to see the Irish and the Trojans meet again.

Because of my position with NBC I had an “open door” to the campus, the stadium and the broadcast facilities to get an inside look at a Saturday in South Bend.

Here, to borrow a phrase, are my “Notes on a Scorecard”.

 

The pre-game

As great as a big game is on the field, so too is the atmosphere on a college campus beforehand. We’re all now infused with the scenes that ESPN’s Game Day depict, but on most campuses the mood and scene on game day Saturdays are much mellower, and much more bucolic, as the fans wait for game time.

Perhaps nowhere more so than at Notre Dame. As I strolled the campus I was struck by just how textbook it was. Most perceive this school as a football factory. But a walk along the paths and through the “God Quad” past the Golden Dome, reveal something more akin to an education factory. Perfectly manicured, seamlessly laid out, dotted with statues of deities, it is an impeccable realization of the Catholic education mission. A pinch-me kind of place.

Surrounding the Stadium was a very genteel tailgate scene. Sure there were the requisite campers and buses with pop-out big screen TVs with the Michigan-Michigan St. game on, but this was not a wild crowd by any stretch. Well dressed and well behaved, the Notre Dame alumni may not quite define “country club-ish,” but you can bet a bunch of them hang out there.

In the press box the pregame was all about business as NBC’s production team prepared for the prime time broadcast. Producer Robert Hyland stood before his entire crew and laid out storylines in a direct and concise fashion. “Let’s make sure we are always aware of No. 2, white,” he told the assembled cameramen, tape operators and graphics builders referring to Trojan sophomore Adoree Jackson. “He plays both sides of the ball and returns kicks and he could be a factor all night.”

As the NBC crew went about their business, longtime Sports Information Directors John Heisler and Tim Tessalone shook hands once again in the press box. Athletic Directors, coaches and players have long come and gone but these two media-relations gurus and historians have been key cogs in their respective programs for parts of five decades.

Announcers Dan Hicks and Doug Flutie arrived, had a quick bite and went into the broadcast booth to get ready for kickoff. Pre-game is a time for the announcers and crew to reflect on all of the information that has been stuffed into their heads during the week.

Interviews with coaches and players, insights gleaned in practice, notes provided by the universities, stories written and read months ago about individual players, all are rethought, because they never know what minutia will become vital material once the ball is kicked. That is the beauty of broadcasting college football: It is live and unscripted. Everything said about the game itself is extemporaneous based on what is actually happening. It is telling a story live as it unfolds.

 

The game

Making my way through the stadium to the field I notice how simple it is. Despite a $400 million renovation-and-addition program (student activity and class facilities are being built right into the stadium structure) that is underway, the dusty concourses, the wooden and metal benches and the scoreboard are all decidedly old school. This is not the college version of Texas Stadium.

Opened in 1930, the stadium was built for a then-princely sum of $750,000. It was labeled the “House that Rockne Built” because it was rumored that the legendary coach Knute Rockne had threatened Father O’Donnell, Notre Dame’s President, with resignation if he did not get a new stadium.

Rockne coached in Notre Dame Stadium for just one season. His 1930 squad was a perfect 10-0 and won a second straight National Championship after beating USC 27-0 in Los Angeles in the finale. The following spring Rockne’s Fokker Trimotor aircraft lost its wings in mid-flight as he was heading to Los Angeles for the filming of “The Spirit of Notre Dame.” The TWA flight plummeted into a wheat field near Bazaar, Kansas, killing Rockne and seven others.

You can’t make this stuff up.

As I descended the stairs onto the field the words of another great broadcaster, Keith Jackson, came to mind. The moment was indeed all about the “color and the pageantry.”

A brilliant blue sky on a cool autumnal evening contrasted with the perfectly Irish-green field. The yellow pants, white jerseys with cardinal-red numbers of the Trojans and the gold pants, blue jerseys with white numbers of the Irish intermingled on the field as the athletes warmed up. It was exactly how I pictured it 49 years beforehand in my adolescent dreams. The only difference was I was not throwing or catching passes.

As a I write this, a good 24 hours after the fact, the left side of my brain is still ringing with the sound of “Victory March”, the Notre Dame fight song, and the right side with “Fight On!”, the USC counterpart. I’m not sure how often each was played during the game but it was incessant.

I settled in at the right 20-yard line on the Notre Dame sideline to take in the festivities. As the teams took the field, the place was electric. Never mind that USC was coming off their second loss of the season the week before to Washington and that Notre Dame had a two-point blemish on an otherwise perfect season after a loss at Clemson. This had the feel of a national championship moment. It was the 87th rendition of the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football.

The game began with a bang as USC, under interim Head Coach Clay Helton, marched down the field to score a touchdown on its opening possession. The efficiency of the drive and the seven-point lead brought the stadium to dead quiet, barring, of course, the sound of the Trojan Band on the far sideline playing “Fight On!” with renewed vigor and confidence.

It took just one play for momentum to swing. DeShone Kizer (the Coley O’Brien of this year’s team, who took over at quarterback after an injury to starter Malik Zaire in Week 2) dropped back on first down, glanced right and then turned to his left to throw a perfect spiral to Will Fuller who had dashed behind No. 2, the aforementioned Adoree Jackson right in front of me.

Less than four minutes had been played and the crowd of 80,795 had already seen two touchdowns. The rest of the first half was football heaven as the teams battled to a 24-24 tie at the break.

Clockwise from top left: Hicks getting ready; in the booth; Moossa in the truck; Hyland pre-game

 

The truck

I had left my spot on the sideline in the second quarter to watch a couple of series in the broadcast truck. Here the scene was both as chaotic and controlled as it was on the field.

In front of a phalanx of video monitors displaying an ever-changing array of shots from live cameras, replay machines and graphics previews, producer Rob Hyland and director Pierre Moossa orchestrated the game that was being watched by 3.958 million viewers. The broadcast would rank as NBC’s most-watched USC-Notre Dame game since 2009.

“Take six!” said Moossa with authority to his technical director Brad Woodall as USC moved into scoring position. “Take five, ready to roll 80, take 80 … now!” Using a language that would seem obtuse to an outsider but was perfectly understood by the half-dozen or so people in the truck, graphics, live action and taped pieces merged to form what viewers have become accustomed to as a “football broadcast.”

Hyland, for his part, kept an eye on both the evolving action — “Let’s get a shot of Helton here” — and a finger on the switch where he communicated with his two announcers.

When Sheldon Day of Notre Dame was called for a late hit, Hyland instantly recalled what the Notre Dame lineman said during practice a few days before. “Strong dislike! … Strong dislike!” he said to Dan Hicks. Hicks took the cue.

“That’s on Day, Doug,” said Hicks on the broadcast. “Remember he told us in practice that he had a ‘strong dislike’ for the Trojans.”

As much as the Trojans and Irish require teamwork, so too does the broadcast crew in their pursuit of a winning telecast.

Oh, and I was there in the truck when Cody Kessler hit Adoree Jackson for an 83-yard touchdown pass. Just as Hyland had suggested could happen in the pregame meeting.

 

The booth

In the third quarter, I took the stairs to the fourth-floor broadcast booth, a place where I am very comfortable.

Dan Hicks, who had just returned from South Korea where he had hosted the President’s Cup golf broadcast for NBC, was in his element standing adjacent to analyst Doug Flutie.

As the Irish broke the huddle on 3rd and 8 in the fourth quarter, Hicks intoned, “Kizer brings the Irish to the line of scrimmage.” With a quick glance at his spotting board, manned by spotter Mike Hunniford, he noted wide receiver Corey Robinson was “lined up on the near side and he is the guy they like to go to in these situations.” Sure enough, Kizer looked that way and Dan finished his prelims with, “And he hauls it in!” as Robinson scored what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.

Hicks has taken his role as play by play man for Notre Dame football to heart. Being married to a Notre Dame graduate and the father of a USC daughter does not distract him from the task at hand. Nor does sharing the booth with someone he used to watch from his couch some years ago.

While Ara was gone and neither a helmet nor a jersey nor a starting position awaited me, my trip, my pilgrimage, to Notre Dame was complete. The 41-31 victory by the Irish leaves them in solid position for a major bowl, and with a little over five weeks left in the regular season who knows what can happen.

Wake up the echoes.