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USC, Notre Dame — and tailgaters — are going under the lights

Notre Dame is hosting its first night game since 1990 as the school tries to increase its TV audience and rev up the 'intensity' of its home crowd. But a later start will give tailgaters more time to drink — and South Bend police will be on the lookout for intoxicated fans.

October 20, 2011|By David Wharton
  • Notre Dame Stadium will be hosting its first night game since 1990 when the Fighting Irish play USC on Saturday.
Notre Dame Stadium will be hosting its first night game since 1990 when the… (John Gress / Getty Images )

A stormy sky that dumped rain on South Bend over the last few days is expected to clear by this weekend, leaving sunshine and nice weather for football.

Maybe too nice.

With Notre Dame playing a rare night game at home — against rival USC, no less — university officials and local police worry about legions of Irish fans tailgating for hours and hours beforehand.

"Weather is a big factor," said Capt. Phil Trent of the South Bend Police Department. "If it's a great day to stand around, they'll tend to get much more intoxicated."

This Saturday amounts to a giant experiment for a school that stopped scheduling night games more than two decades ago, in large part, because of unruly crowds.

"There were some concerns about the atmosphere not being consistent with the Notre Dame approach," Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said. "There had been some misbehavior."

Administrators decided to give it another try this fall because of the larger television audience and broader exposure that come with a prime-time kickoff. In recent weeks, Swarbrick has met with student groups to spread the word.

Just like the team, he told them, you need to be on top of your game.

Football under the lights can be a concern at any university. The equation goes like this: Tailgating is part of the game-day experience and alcohol is a part of tailgating. More time to drink equates to more drunk people in the stadium.

"In a college environment, you want everybody to feel safe and have a great time," said USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, who served as a television commentator for Notre Dame football for 12 years. "I guess you do worry about it more when you have later games."

When Michigan played host to its first-ever night game earlier this season — with Notre Dame as the visiting team — the university augmented campus patrols and educated ticket-takers on spotting inebriated fans before they entered the stadium.

South Bend police say that incidents of public intoxication and drunk driving routinely increased when the Irish played at night through the 1980s.

"There's a jail built inside the stadium," Trent said. He said police would shuttle arrestees "from the stadium to the St. Joseph County facility."

While common to college football, such behavior bothered administrators at a Catholic university where a mural of Touchdown Jesus overlooks the field.

Saturday's 4:30 p.m. game will mark only the eighth late kickoff in the 81-year history of Notre Dame Stadium, and the first involving USC. The Irish began dotting their schedule with night games in 1982 but stopped after 1990 because, Swarbrick said, "It became a little too difficult to handle and control the environment."

Not everything about playing under the lights was a negative. Former Irish linebacker Michael Stonebreaker recalls facing Michigan in 1988 and 1990.

"It was just the atmosphere," he said. "It was a lot more electric."

As former coach Lou Holtz, now an ESPN studio analyst, put it: "Those games are a rarity and it's different."

In 1988, the Irish kicked a field goal with 1 minute 13 seconds remaining and escaped with a 19-17 victory when Michigan missed its last-second attempt. The fans were so loud, officials held up the game and finally threw a penalty flag against the home team because the opposing offense could not hear its quarterback.

"Frankly, we'd like to get back to that a little bit," Swarbrick said. "While our student section provides a great deal of volume, the rest of the stadium needs to match that intensity."

A few years ago, administrators began searching for ways to ramp up the excitement. Believing that security and crowd management at their stadium had improved, they gave night games another look.

It also helped that Notre Dame had installed permanent lighting as part of a $50-million expansion and renovation during the mid-1990s. "Before, they had to bring in portable lights and I worried about bad shadows," Holtz said.

The current coach, Brian Kelly, sees positives that reach beyond a large television audience and more cheering from the stands to disrupt the Trojans offense.

The unusual schedule gives him and his staff additional time to meet with a contingent of recruits on campus this weekend. That includes highly regarded lineman Arik Armstead, who recently de-committed from USC.

"There will be a lot of noise," Kelly said. "A lot of hype."

And a lot of people watching closely from behind the scenes. If all goes well, night games could return as part of the football schedule in coming seasons.

"That's the home-field advantage," Stonebreaker said. "People have a little more time to tailgate, so they're a little rowdier."

Maybe too rowdy for local cops, some of whom are already grumbling about a long Saturday with "all hands on deck," Trent said.

Police will beef up DUI patrols and keep an eye on tailgaters expected to start their parties under a sunny morning sky.

"I'm not going to lie," the captain said. "We'll probably see extra arrests."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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