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A Grander Notre Dame : Sixty-Five Years After Rockne's Meticulous Design, Fabled Stadium to Get First Make-Over

October 20, 1995|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Since 1931, buses bearing USC football teams have been rolling up to the visitors' locker room at Notre Dame Stadium, roughly every other year.

The old rust-and-cream brick fortress, designed by Knute Rockne himself, is regarded by many as the most hallowed of all college football stadiums.

It isn't pretty. It isn't even very comfortable. No theater seats here. There's a five-inch wide slab of California redwood to sit on. The visiting team's locker room, 1,400 square feet, would be considered too small at most high school stadiums.

It has the look and feel of kind of a giant high school stadium.

But it's Notre Dame Stadium, and that says it all.

A baby born the day Notre Dame dedicated its new stadium with a 20-14 victory over Southern Methodist in 1930 would have turned 65 16 days ago.

In all that time, South Bend, Ind., America and the world have all had make-overs.

Not Notre Dame Stadium. The place still looks exactly the way Rockne wanted it to look. But not for much longer. It's about to get bigger.

The USC team that walks onto the field Saturday will be the last Trojan team to see this stadium as Rockne envisioned it when he supervised its design in the late 1920s.

Immediately after this season and during the 1996 season:

--Twenty-six rows of 21,915 more seats will be added to the stadium's rim, raising capacity from 59,075 to 80,990.

--A three-level press box will be built atop the west side.

--The superstructure supporting the 26 new rows will be a free-standing structure, fitted to the stadium's old exterior. The new exterior will wrap around the stadium and be covered with--this may not be suitable reading for football followers over 45--brick veneer .

At the end of Notre Dame's home season Nov. 4 against Air Force, construction crews will set up camps around the stadium and hallowed old bricks will begin tumbling down. Cranes and pile drivers will move in.

Next season, the site will look more like a major construction area than a college football setting, although the Irish will play home games there, as usual.

"Our hope is that when next season begins, the 'Tinker Toys' will be in place," said Mike Smith, Notre Dame's director of facilities engineering and the university's point man for the project.

"The superstructure for the new seating should be in place next season and the new press box might even be ready for use, although not completed."

Smith said there was discussion at one point of taking capacity up to more than 90,000.

"We could have gone up higher, but the administration decided it didn't want the stadium to compete with the library, the church and the other main buildings," he said. "As it is, the present top row is 40 feet above ground and it will be 70 feet with the new configuration."

Construction people are already moving in.

Steve Bognar was in the quiet old stadium Thursday morning, walking about the old redwood slabs, taking notes on a clipboard. His South Bend company was awarded a contract for stadium masonry restoration.

This is real trickle-down economics. As a result of the $53-million project, Bognar's 50-employee firm will grow to 60, mostly masons who will earn close to $25 an hour.

Bognar was studying the old stadium's crow's feet, noting places where masonry had become pitted and blackened by decades of grit and grime, and where the faces of old bricks had fallen away.

"We can clean a lot of this up with steam hoses and chemical cleaners, but replacing the bricks is much harder," he said.

"When this place was built, the bricks had that light rust and cream color because they were made in coal-fired kilns. They're all gas-fired today, and the colors come out completely different."

Why is all this necessary?

Because luckless old Notre Dame grads who couldn't seem to win the ticket lotteries had become sullen couch potatoes forced to watch the Irish on TV.

For example, for Saturday's 67th USC-Notre Dame game, 16,000 tickets were available for alumni. There were roughly 38,000 requests. Another sore point: Each lottery applicant had to "donate" $100 to Notre Dame.

The project will be financed by the issuance of $53 million in tax-exempt, fixed-rate bonds maturing in 2025. Notre Dame revenue from increased capacity will exceed the debt service on the bonds by $47 million over the next 30 years.

In 1930, the stadium was built in four months for $750,000.

Expansion won't eliminate the need for ticket lotteries, but odds on winning will rise.

Curiously, years went by before Notre Dame could consistently fill its stadium, considered the most modern in America. The stadium was less than half full for its first game and didn't have its first capacity crowd until 1931.

And that, appropriately, was for the first USC-Notre Dame game in South Bend, when USC achieved arguably its greatest football victory, a 16-14 shocker over a Notre Dame team that had won 26 in a row.

Rockne coached only one season in his stadium. He was killed in a Kansas plane crash on March 31, 1931, at 43.

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