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From the Archives: What you might not know about ‘The Shirt’

, and | Monday, September 14, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

In the spring of 1990, Notre Dame senior Brennan Harvath (‘91) had an idea: The Student Union Board would sell t-shirts to raise funds for AnTostal — and to unify the student body for the September season opener against Michigan. The idea was a success; over 9,000 shirts were sold, and sales reached over $17,000. 

Harvath’s simple idea eventually became The Shirt Project, one of the University’s largest fundraisers and a staple of the Irish’s football season. This week, to celebrate over 30 years of the project’s iconography, the Archives team revisited some highlights of The Shirt’s history.


Proceeds from 1990 ‘T-shirt for the Cause’ donated to injured student

Oct. 10, 1990 | Scott Brutocao | Researched by Rebecca Fried

Following the success of the first “Shirt” in 1990, a second was made the same year, but for a different purpose — proceeds would be donated to Zheng-de Wang, a sociology graduate student who had been severely injured in a car accident. Wang, originally from Tianjin, China, had been struck by a car in a hit-and-run while walking to his off-campus housing in October 1989. 

Wang was left in a coma for several months, and stayed at the South Bend hospital for 11 months in total. At the time of the article’s publication on Oct. 10, 1990, he had not yet regained his mobility and speech. Wang was also uninsured. 

In support of Wang, a group of Notre Dame students designed a T-shirt to raise money for his recovery. Daily advertisements in The Observer asked students to “Buy It For ‘The Cause.’”

Observer archives, Oct. 3, 1990

The shirt was navy blue, with images of Notre Dame and Miami’s helmets on the front, and a multicolored game ticket, Lou Holtz, the ND athletics logo and scenes from campus on the back.

“Our initial order was 11,000, but we’ve ordered 6,000 more, and it looks like we’ll have to up that,” noted Joe Cassidy, Director of Student Activities. “Every goal I’ve had is being broken.”  

About 32,000 shirts were sold in total, generating over $100,000 for Wang’s recovery.

1994 Shirt committee announces student design contest

Nov. 7, 1994 | Kristi Broderick | Researched by Sarah Kikel

For The Shirt’s fifth year in 1994, the project’s coordinators announced a new twist: The look of the 1995 Shirt would be determined by the results of a student design contest.

Observer archives, Nov. 7, 1994

The contest introduced a new process for designing The Shirt, as the first four Shirts’ designs were selected by The Shirt project’s coordinators. The contest’s essential requirement was the incorporation of a theme, in the tradition of previous Shirts’ themes, such as “The Tradition Continues,” “Onward to Victory” and “Wake Up the Echoes.” 

Students were not expected to submit complete artistic designs, but were invited to send in ideas or rough sketches. The selected design would then be refined by a professional artist, and the winning student would receive credit for The Shirt’s design, in addition to receiving free books for the 1995 spring semester. 

Matt Macura, Executive Coordinator of the Shirt Project, explained the goal of the contest was to “bring the project back into the realm of the University and to the students,“ as The Shirt was meant to be a student-led project.

However, in a Jan. 26, 1995 Inside Column, Tom Lillig wrote that the winning student’s theme and design were “changed entirely.” He also noted that “other illustrations had been inserted throughout the design, and the only remaining images from the original shirt had been re-drawn by the student coordinator.” In response to these unexpected alterations, the winning student asked that his name not be associated with the 1995 Shirt. 

The theme of the official 1995 Shirt design was “Shake Down the Thunder” — featuring lightning, Knute Rockne and a football player with the jersey number 95. 

2002 Shirt sells out, breaks records, unifies Irish

Oct. 2, 2002 | Justin Krivickas | Researched by Evan McKenna

In October 2002, 12 years since its inception in 1990, The Shirt sold out, reaching a peak in popularity. All 44,000 available shirts had been purchased by students, alumni and fans, edging out the previous year’s 41,000 sales. In light of the shortage, an extra 20,000 were planned for production. 

“It’s amazing seeing The Shirt and the design get such a huge following in such a short amount of time,” said Shirt designer Carl Elkins.

Observer archives, Oct. 29, 2002

Elkins’ design won the project’s design contest the previous year, and as the year’s Shirt gained popularity, his slogan did as well. “Return To Glory,” the words printed in gold across the shirt’s front and back, quickly became the Irish’s mantra as their season began with a 4-0 record. 

“I’ve seen ‘Return to Glory’ pop up all over the country in reference to Notre Dame football,” said Elkins. “It’s been in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, a number of other newspapers and the most recent, of course, was the cover of Sports Illustrated.” 

2002’s Shirt was kelly green, a popular choice among students hoping for the powerful effect of a unifying color, akin to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s “sea of red” produced in the stands to support their team.

The Shirt also included a graphic on the back, featuring images of a gold football helmet, the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne and an iconic quote from the former coach: “We’re gonna go, go, go. And we aren’t going to stop until we go over that goal line.” 

2002 marked The Shirt program’s 13th year, and Elkins believed the Shirt’s influence among the Notre Dame community was stronger than ever.

“[A]dding this year’s shirt to the tradition and creating the sea of green that has garnered attention nationwide, I think that there is an even stronger bond … between students during football games and higher spirits among alumni as well,” added Elkins. “Seeing that kind of unity here feels great.” 

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