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Pep rally focus should be students

| Friday, April 23, 2010

Notre Dame football weekends are rich in rituals, from midnight drummers’ circle to tailgating to cheering in the stands. But the festivities start with the Friday night pep rally.

In recent years, however, growing numbers of students have chosen other events — a movie, a party, dinner in the dining hall — over a pep rally. Student government, led by former student body president Grant Schmidt and vice president Cynthia Weber, made some progress in revamping the rallies to attract more students, although bureaucracy hindered any drastic change.

Building on the efforts of their predecessors, current student body president Catherine Soler and vice president Andrew Bell have already helped set up a partial schedule for next fall’s pep rallies before the end of spring football practice. While alumni and other fans are still welcome, Soler said, students and the football team should be the heart of the rallies.

Soler and Bell’s proactive planning shows a commendable first step for their administration. And with the help of Irish coach Brian Kelly, perhaps the University could succeed in making students the priority again. So far, it looks promising.

Old yearbooks show sweaty, shouting students packing into the Joyce Center, Stepan Center and even the now-demolished Fieldhouse for football rallies. They are waving signs, sitting on shoulders and throwing toilet paper. The students look excited, even ecstatic, to be supporting their football team. This is the atmosphere next year’s pep rallies should strive to recreate.

With the Purcell Pavilion under construction, last fall’s pep rallies moved to the newly-landscaped Irish Green. This large outdoor space was perfect for merchandise tents, food stands and children’s entertainments, but few students attended.

The reasons were numerous: There was no special section for students, which all but eliminated the residence-hall pride so integral for other rallies. This free-for-all, standing-room-only setup had students doing the jig into grandparents’ shins. Only a couple football players attended each rally, usually just to deliver a short speech. Without walls or a ceiling, the cheers of the crowd floated away.

Last fall’s USC pep rally was the exception. In honor of the rivalry game, the students had a roped-off section at the front of the crowd, the entire football team attended and former Irish player Raghib “Rocket” Ismail topped it all off with a rousing sermon of a pep talk. If Irish Green pep rallies are a must, then they should be modeled after last year’s USC pep rally.

The student dissatisfaction stretches back to the JACC pep rallies in 2008, when Sorin College even organized a boycott. Students would have to wait through an hour of videos, speeches and dance performances before the team arrived.  Players and guest speakers would then try to rile up the crowd, but with the team wearing suits and seated in formal rows of chairs, there was little feeling of community.

The “us” and “them” separation was evident at the JACC and Irish Green, but Kelly is clearly making an effort to mend this gap by working with student government on the pep rallies.

So far, only four have been planned: the traditional Dillon Pep Rally before the Purdue game, Irish Green before Michigan, Purcell Pavilion before Stanford and a send-off rally at Stepan for the Boston College away game.

This leaves open the possibility of adapting the format and venue based on what works and what doesn’t, while a different setting each week should also keep the rallies fresh.

But the No. 1 priority should be creating an authentic, electric atmosphere. Schmidt and Weber’s administration were able to provide that for at least one Thursday night last fall. The student-only rally in Stepan Center before the Michigan away game was a raucous send-off. Toilet paper flew through the air, not-so-family-friendly chants shook the walls and members of the football team crowd-surfed. The rally was passionate because it was unscripted, unsupervised and brought everyone together.

But the Notre Dame tradition and spirit extends beyond the current student body, and as such most pep rallies should still be open to the public. However, last season’s events at Irish Green tried too hard to be family-friendly moneymakers. In trying to welcome everyone, those rallies lost an important member of the Notre Dame family: the students.