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Return to Grace

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In the midst of a surprising undefeated football season and Notre Dame’s rise to the No. 1 spot atop the national college football polls this weekend, hopeful Irish fans continue to draw parallels between 2012 and 1988, the last time the team won a national championship.

But when it comes to lighting the No. 1 sign atop Grace Hall, that parallel is not merely speculative.

Design professor Robert Sedlack was a resident assistant in Grace during his senior year and the 1988 football season, and he played a crucial role in making the Irish’s No. 1 ranking known to all of campus.

“It just so happened that I was an RA on the 11th floor of Grace and had the keys to the penthouse,” he said. “So lighting the sign fell on my to-do list, and I had to go up in the morning and the evening to turn it off and on each day.”

Sedlack began his lighting duties after the then-No. 2 Irish jumped ahead of then-No. 1 UCLA following a 22-7 victory against Navy and the Bruins’ upset loss to Washington State. He said he and his friends began preparing to celebrate that change shortly after it happened.

“Once it looked like we were going to achieve that No. 1 ranking, some buddies of mine built the sign out on the roof of Grace,” Sedlack said.

They took a page out of the book of Fr. Gerry Lardner, Grace Hall’s rector at the time and a Notre Dame graduate student during the team’s 1973 championship season. The tradition of the No. 1 sign began after that season, when it was initially placed outside Moreau Seminary, University Architect Doug Marsh said.

“Fr. Gerry was a great rector and we had a good group of RAs that year, so he wanted to kind of redo [the sign] and so the guys rebuilt it,” Sedlack said.

But the relighting of the sign came as something of a surprise after the first three mediocre seasons Sedlack and his 1989 classmates experienced.

“Our freshman year was so awful … a guy once offered my roommate $10 for a pair of tickets he tried to sell for the last game of the season,” Sedlack said. “You fast forward to senior year, and tickets for the Miami-Notre Dame game at home were going for $1,000 each.”

Between his freshman and senior years, Sedlack saw receiver Tim Brown win the Heisman Trophy his junior year and leave the team somewhat in limbo when he graduated.

“I think we thought we’d be OK [without Brown], but I don’t think anybody thought we’d be the best in the country,” Sedlack said.

“You could make the argument that my classmates and I were at Notre Dame during the best years for Notre Dame football,” he said. “Our claim is that you can’t understand how incredible it is to win a national championship having not had a crappy freshman year.”

Sedlack said he feels this year’s team has followed a similar trajectory in its long-awaited return to national prominence.

“We were awful three years ago, so to suddenly have such a great team is exciting,” he said. “I’m really thrilled, most thrilled for the team.”

Sedlack said he still takes pride in his former duty as an RA, bringing his wife and children to take pictures on Mod Quad, telling students about his experiences and sharing photos and emails with classmates.

“I feel proud to be associated with [lighting the sign],” Sedlack said. “Grace was a fantastic dorm with a good crew of RAs, and we got along well with our rector. Not unlike this year, it was a magical season.”

Marsh said the 8-foot-tall sign atop Grace now remains lit so long as any Irish sports team is ranked No. 1 in the nation. Prior to its lighting Sunday, the sign was most recently lit for the University’s fencing, women’s basketball and women’s soccer teams. The last time it was lit in honor of the football team was in 1993, when the Irish topped the Associated Press poll.

Contact Kristen Durbin at kdurbin@nd.edu