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Commentary: Off-site home game a success

Sam Werner | Monday, November 2, 2009

When you mentioned to someone that Notre Dame was playing Washington State in San Antonio, the most common response was “why?”

I’ll even admit that I was skeptical of the first “off-site home game” that was part of Notre Dame’s new 7-4-1 scheduling model.

But after a weekend in San Antonio, it’s clear that the idea is a great one, even if the execution could use a little improvement.

The weekend kicked off Friday night with a pep rally in front of the Alamo, one of America’s most iconic venues. Even though the pep rally wasn’t the most raucous I’ve ever seen, the crowd itself was a sight to behold. Notre Dame estimated that close to 8,000 fans attended the rally, and the crowd spilled out onto the adjacent streets.

The speakers included former Notre Dame running back Allen Pinkett and radio broadcaster Don Criqui, and the Band of the Fighting Irish played all the crowd favorites — and threw in a little Lone Star flair by playing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

After the pep rally ended, the crowd moved down to San Antonio’s famed River Walk.  Random “Let’s go, Irish” chants started up and down the river. And a few fans rode down the river back and forth waving a Notre Dame flag and cheering for the Irish.

“I thought that this was a great venue,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “I mean, I thought it was awesome. And I think our players thought that. There was so much excitement in the air. I mean, I give credit to our Notre Dame fans.”

On Saturday, San Antonio might as well have been South Bend. Irish fans owned the streets and the River Walk, but there was a surprising amount of Washington State crimson to be seen, too.

As for the game itself, the Alamodome was about as close to Notre Dame Stadium as you could get, minus Touchdown Jesus. Mike Collins, the voice of Notre Dame Stadium, provided the public address and Officer Tim McCarthy even had a fourth quarter message for the fans.

Numerous people compared the atmosphere of the weekend to that of a bowl game, which is tough to replicate in the middle of the season.

The biggest positive aspect of the weekend, though, was the opportunity it gave to Irish fans in the Lone Star State. For a lot of Notre Dame supporters across the country, it just isn’t possible to get out to a game in South Bend. While there may not have been a huge student presence at the game, it’s a safe bet that for many of the alumni and subway alumni in Texas, this was their first Irish game in quite a few years, if not ever.

“When you get into an experiment like this — and this is an experiment, taking a home game on the road — you need a great partner,” Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said at the pep rally. “And we couldn’t have a better partner for our first off-site game than San Antonio.”

That being said, the weekend wasn’t perfect. Despite the best efforts of Notre Dame and its alumni clubs in Texas, the game did not sell out. If you’re counting this as a true home game, it’s the non-sellout since the infamous 1973 Thanksgiving game against Air Force. The announced attendance was 53,407, about 82 percent of the Alamodome’s capacity of 65,000.

The poor ticket sales could probably be attributed to the weak opponent. As nice as the Washington State fans were, the Cougars just aren’t the type of team Notre Dame should be aiming for with these games. Imagine what the atmosphere would have been like if the game had been against a top tier team like Miami or Georgia, to name two.

Hopefully, Swarbrick and the athletic department will learn from this weekend and make improvements for next year’s game against Army in Yankee Stadium. In all, though, it was a surprisingly positive experience in San Antonio for fans, coaches and players alike.

“If the rest of them go like this, sign me up,” Weis said. “It really was a great experience.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu