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Irish Expansion : Notre Dame Is Considering Plans to Increase Capacity by 20,000 at Its Storied Stadium, Which Has Remained Virtually Unchanged Since It Opened in 1930

October 23, 1993|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — USC's football team will arrive at 63-year-old Notre Dame Stadium about midmorning today.

Stepping off a chartered bus, the players and coaches probably will feel the bite of a Midwest autumn morning as they head to a blue door that reads, "VISITOR." They will see an array of red and gold sweet gum, sugar maple, birch and sycamore trees decorating the lawn between the old stadium and the Notre Dame Library.

The Trojans (4-3) will play the second-ranked Irish (7-0) today in one of the country's storied stadiums, but the facility didn't achieve that status because of its visitors' locker room.

Some high school locker rooms are larger. USC players will find eight showers, two training tables and two rows of blue metal dressing stalls. It will be crowded.

But when the Trojans are ready to play the 65th game of this intersectional rivalry, they will walk into a place where so much tradition and history of college football have occurred.

This is the place that Rockne

built, college football's Yankee Stadium.

And Notre Dame Stadium (capacity: 59,075) looks almost as it did in 1930, when it opened.

But now an expansion project is being discussed.

Design schemes have not been decided, but there is a move afoot to increase capacity by 20,000 in a stadium that Knute Rockne helped design in 1929.

Two designs are being considered.

One calls for simply increasing capacity by creating a facility that would resemble Michigan Stadium. The other option is a horseshoe-shaped second deck that would resemble Ohio State's stadium.

Either way, more Notre Dame graduates will be able to see their team play.

Notre Dame had 16,000 tickets available for alumni for today's game. There were 37,870 ticket requests. Each applicant had to "donate" $50 to the university to earn the right to participate in a lottery for the tickets.

With one exception, Notre Dame Stadium has been filled for every game since 1966. The exception: a 1973 game played on Thanksgiving.

Rockne foresaw capacity crowds. In fact, it was widely reported in 1930 that the stadium was designed to accommodate a second deck that would hold 60,000.

The 1930 season was Rockne's first and last in the stadium. His last game was a 27-0 victory over USC in the Coliseum, assuring the Irish of the 1930 national championship.

The next March, Rockne, 43, died in a Kansas plane crash. He was on a business trip, en route to Los Angeles.

He's buried at South Bend's Highland Cemetery.

Even for opponents, the experience of playing at Notre Dame is a highlight.

"I would hitchhike back there, if I had to, to participate in a USC-Notre Dame game," USC Coach John Robinson said.

He remembered the 1977 USC-Notre Dame game, when Notre Dame unexpectedly charged onto the field wearing emerald-green jerseys.

"I'll never forget it--for five minutes, you couldn't hear," he said. "You could feel the sound on your face."

Robinson's players will feel the intimacy of a stadium where the first row is only 25 feet from the sideline. The stadium seems to be rectangular, but in fact its seating sections were built at 20 angles to the field.

Only the players' tunnel at the north end zone interrupts the symmetry.

No theater seats here. There are 60 rows, and only on the top row, the 60th, can you lean back on anything--a brick wall.

Outside, the severe, Gothic brick facade conjures images of a prison. But when Notre Dame Stadium was built in four months by 500 laborers (cost: $750,000), this was a landmark construction.

And one with a lot of empty seats.

The first game was a 20-14 Notre Dame victory over Southern Methodist, in 1930. Attendance was only 25,000.

In 1925, 65,000 saw Notre Dame play at Yankee Stadium. More than 74,000 saw the first Notre Dame-USC game at the Coliseum in Los Angeles in 1926. The next year the teams drew 120,000 to Chicago's Soldier Field.

Yet, with the most modern stadium in America, the 1930 Notre Dame national championship team didn't come close to playing before a capacity crowd at home.

Now, of course, demand for tickets has gone so far in the other direction that a committee is meeting monthly, putting together the stadium expansion plan to submit to the university's board.

* NOTRE DAME

Mike Downey takes a look at the fact and fiction of Football U. A1

* TODAY'S GAME

USC hopes to end a 10-game losing streak to Notre Dame when it takes on the Irish at South Bend, Ind. C8

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