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Yankees Magazine: Home Sweet Home Away From Home

On Nov. 17, Notre Dame and Syracuse will renew their rivalry in a familiar setting
Yankees Magazine

On a steamy and hot day in upstate New York, the Syracuse Orange football team has just concluded its afternoon practice. Training camp is in full swing for Dino Babers' squad, which won four games in each of his first two seasons as head coach.

A few minutes after the workout, Babers has found his way back to his office and changed into dry clothes. After walking past a bronze bust of Syracuse football hero Jim Brown, he sits down on a couch.

On a steamy and hot day in upstate New York, the Syracuse Orange football team has just concluded its afternoon practice. Training camp is in full swing for Dino Babers' squad, which won four games in each of his first two seasons as head coach.

A few minutes after the workout, Babers has found his way back to his office and changed into dry clothes. After walking past a bronze bust of Syracuse football hero Jim Brown, he sits down on a couch.

"That's quite a conversation piece," Babers says. "When I was growing up, my dad told me in no uncertain terms that Jim Brown was the greatest football player in history. Not one of the greatest, the greatest. He was the original G.O.A.T."

Babers isn't shy about his passion for tradition and history, especially when it relates to football, and so it's not surprising that his team's upcoming game against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17 has already seeped into his thoughts.

"Football coaches aren't supposed to look too far ahead," Babers says. "And November is like a lifetime from now. But, we're talking about Yankee Stadium. It's been fun to think about how special it will be to take the field where the Yankees play. Long after our players are done playing the game, they will find themselves sitting around with their children and grandchildren, and the Yankees are going to be on TV. They will be able to share the story of playing at Yankee Stadium, and that's pretty special.

"For me, I think about the fact that I will be coaching against some of the best collegiate athletes in the world," he continues. "They are going to be well coached, and the game will be viewed by millions of people. Hopefully, there will be a few moments during the game where I can relax a little bit and just reflect on where I am."

While Babers is happy to concede that no one will ever match the legendary status of Brown at the university, the thought of etching his name and the names of his players into Syracuse's football history moves him every time he walks past the statue of the former running back.

"When you think about the history of this program and what it has done in the past, it makes you want to succeed here," says Babers, who previously served as the head coach at Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois. "Having the opportunity to play a role in bringing it back to relevance is really what motivates me."

Since its inception in 1889, the football program has been relevant and successful in more seasons than not. Starting in the early 1920s, the team became a powerhouse, losing just five games from 1922-25. A few decades later, Brown arrived on the rural campus and ran the team to a Cotton Bowl berth in his senior season of 1956.

Three years later, another all-time great arrived. In three seasons at Syracuse, Ernie Davis dazzled the loyal fan base with his running and receiving prowess, and in 1959, he led the team to an 11-0 record and a national championship. In Davis's final season of 1961, he won the Heisman Trophy, becoming the first African-American player to take home college football's most prestigious honor.

Syracuse hasn't made it back to the top since '59, but it has earned 18 bowl game appearances since 1979 and -- under the direction of Doug Marrone, now the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars -- the Orange captured victories in the 2010 and 2012 New Era Pinstripe Bowls at Yankee Stadium.

The two New Era Pinstripe Bowl victories are just a small part of Syracuse's history in the Bronx. In 1923, the Orangemen (as they were called until 2004) took on Pittsburgh in the first football game ever played at the original Yankee Stadium.

"Did we win the game?" Babers asks after getting a brief lesson about his team's Yankee Stadium pedigree.

To Babers' delight, Syracuse did win the game, 3-0. In fact, the school won a whole lot in the Bronx. Although not as extensive as Notre Dame's history at Yankee Stadium, Syracuse owns a 7-1 record at the original and current Yankee Stadiums. Its most memorable win came against the Fighting Irish on Thanksgiving Day 1963, only six days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

"I like when we win," Babers says. "We need to get those stats to the team. They need to understand our history there, and we need to keep it going."

Babers may not know his team's entire history at Yankee Stadium, and he's admittedly "not a big baseball fan." But in anticipation of the game in the Bronx, he has been studying up on all things Yankees.

"A few days ago, we had a player who was hurt and just started practicing again," Babers says. "I was trying to encourage him, and I said, 'You've got to get back out there and work hard. You don't want to end up like Wally Pipp.' He asked me who Wally Pipp was, and I explained that he was the player who Lou Gehrig filled in at first base for one day, and Gehrig didn't miss a game for almost 15 years after that. So, it's been fun to get the players thinking about how special it will be to take the field where the Yankees play."

Following Marrone's departure to the NFL after the 2012 season -- he coached the Buffalo Bills for two seasons -- Syracuse has had just one winning season in the last five years. But going into this season, Babers is confident that things are moving in the right direction.

"We have the opportunity to play 12 games this season," he says. "If we play those games really well, we'll get to play a 13th game or maybe even a 14th or 15th. You never know what's going to happen during the season, but you have to keep your mind clear and continue to work toward the best outcome. That's what we're doing."

As the blue sky above Syracuse gives way to dark clouds, Babers speaks about what it would mean to the loyal fan base in upstate New York if he is able to turn around the football program and get the team to a bowl game, or, in an ideal scenario, return it to national championship contention.

"Everyone is hungry for something good," Babers says as he looks out of a floor-to-ceiling window and watches heavy rain pour onto a granite Syracuse Football sign surrounded by orange marigolds. "There's something to be said for eating whatever is on the table, and that's what they've been doing here for a while. But our fans are looking to eat something that they really enjoy, and if we give it to them, they will be crazy about it. That's what I want to see."

***

Taking a 3-mile walk around the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, on a clear autumn day can stay with a person for a long time. The concrete pathways that weave from one brick building to another are surrounded by perfectly manicured grass. There are recognizable landmarks and monuments that celebrate the history and tradition of the 176-year-old university on each corner of the campus and in the middle of the school's grounds.

Not far from the university's famed Golden Dome sits Notre Dame Stadium, the storied football team's home since 1930. Since the stadium opened, the Fighting Irish have won nine of their 11 national championships. Knute Rockne, the team's coach when the stadium opened and whose name is as synonymous with football lore as any throughout history, is celebrated with a statue just outside one of the stadium's gates -- which, itself, is named after him. In gold letters, the marble base of the statue reads, "Knute Rockne, Head Coach. 1918-1930. 105 Wins, 12 Losses, 5 Ties. National Champions: 1924, 1929, 1930.

Although Rockne captured many of those 105 victories in South Bend, one moment that has been passed down from one generation to the next took place at the original Yankee Stadium. It was there that the coach made a halftime speech -- immortalized more than a decade later by Ronald Reagan in the film Knute Rockne, All American -- imploring his team to make a comeback against an undefeated Army squad in a late-season game in 1928.

Almost a decade before the game, George Gipp, a star player at Notre Dame, had been hospitalized with pneumonia. Rockne spoke of his visit with Gipp, during which the young man told the coach to use his fatal illness as a rallying cry when the team was down.

In Rockne's "Win One for the Gipper" speech, the coach did just that. Notre Dame emerged from the Yankee Stadium locker room and won the game, 12-6.

In the nearly four decades between when Reagan earned the moniker "Gipper" for his poignant acting role and his election as the 40th president of the United States, Notre Dame played in several other signature games at the old Yankee Stadium.

The Rockne statue at Notre Dame faces the Hesburgh Library, separated by a few hundred yards of grass and a reflecting pool. The south panel of the library tower features the Word of Life mural commemorating "Christ and the Saints of Learning." The 132-foot-tall image depicts Jesus surrounded by theologians, doctors and teachers. The mural, with its religious and educational implications, fits perfectly on the campus of the esteemed Catholic university. Football fans, though, know the mural as "Touchdown Jesus," a name that became popular as soon as the 1964 masterpiece was dedicated. From several places within Notre Dame Stadium, "Touchdown Jesus" serves as a backdrop, and it is frequently visible on television during games.

Ara Parseghian was the first Notre Dame coach to roam the sidelines under the shadow of "Touchdown Jesus." He won two national championships between 1964 and 1974, and he finished his career in South Bend with a 95-17-4 record.

Not far from "Touchdown Jesus," in a second-floor office of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Brian Kelly runs the show these days.

In 2010, Kelly took over a program that had been mired in mediocrity since Lou Holtz led the team to its last glorious run in the early 1990s. His focus has been to return Notre Dame football back to its old glory, and although Kelly has yet to bring the Fighting Irish its 12th national championship (and first since 1988), he has accomplished more than any coach since Holtz.

Kelly, who came to Notre Dame following a four-year tenure with the University of Cincinnati highlighted by an Orange Bowl berth, has posted winning records in all but one season since taking over the program, and he brought an undefeated 2012 team into the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.

"I feel like I'm upholding the tradition of Notre Dame football," Kelly says from his office on a late-September morning. "Bringing this program back to prominence is so important because that's what our history is all about. We have a history of winning, and I'm happy that we've been able to return the program to that tradition."

Although Kelly has made Notre Dame football relevant again, he's quick to point out that his goals each season go beyond that.

"We really only have two missions at Notre Dame," Kelly says. "To graduate all of our players and win a national championship. We don't play in a conference, so what else is there to play for? If we were in the American League East, our goal would be to win our division, win the pennant and then win the World Series. But we don't have that here at Notre Dame, so really, it's all about winning a national championship. It's about living up to a standard each and every week and then building off of that."

In the early part of this season, Kelly had the Irish pointing in the right direction. As of late September, the team was 4-0, and going into its Sept. 29 game against Stanford, the Irish were ranked eighth in the nation in both major polls.

"We're an emerging team," Kelly says. "We're a young team, especially on the offensive side of the ball where we have a few freshman starters who are just beginning to figure out who they are as college football players. We have a veteran presence on defense, and they've shown that early on as we continue to develop offensively. We are really starting to see signs of everything coming together, and I really believe that our best football is ahead of us."

In what Kelly describes as a lifetime ago -- although it has only been eight years -- Notre Dame returned to the Bronx for a game against Army. Including Rockne's 1928 victory at the old Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame had amassed a 15-6-3 record at the Yankees' former home, but this was the Fighting Irish's first appearance at the new ballpark.

Tweet from @CuseFootball: 📽 | Take a look at last time we played Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium... Nearly 55 years to the day prior to the 2018 game. pic.twitter.com/EIenQbn02D

"The old Yankee Stadium was a big part of the formative years of Notre Dame football," Kelly says. "Before we took the field at the new Yankee Stadium, right in the shadows of the old Stadium, I wanted every player to know why that venue was important to us. It was important that they knew why we were playing there, and how that game brought us back to our historical roots."

Notre Dame won that game -- the second installment of the Shamrock Series -- 27-3. Since its inception in 2009, Notre Dame has played eight scheduled home games on neutral sites. In addition to Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame has played at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas; Boston's Fenway Park; and Chicago's Soldier Field, among other sites.

"The venues we've played the Shamrock Series games in have all been special," says Kelly, who has emerged victorious in all seven of the games he's coached in the series. "But the opponents have really mattered also. When we played Army at Yankee Stadium, there was a reverence to the game. Playing Boston College at Fenway Park also made that a highly impactful game. We've done a great job of matching up compelling opponents with the unique stadiums the games have been in."

Kelly believes that this season's Shamrock Series contest against Syracuse has the makings of another special day.

"You have a team that's in the state of New York, and that will likely be playing for a high bowl game opportunity," Kelly says. "The game will be on national television and at Yankee Stadium. I think there will be a lot of excitement surrounding this game. Syracuse has already knocked off a really good team with a great tradition in Florida State, and they are going to be a really good opponent and one that is going to be difficult to play."

Kelly is also aware of how taking the field against Notre Dame increases the level of motivation for his opponents.

"We recognize that each and every week, we carry that moniker or that label," Kelly says. "Because of that, we bring in players who want those bright lights on them. They expect to get the very best from their opponents each week. We carry that with a great amount of pride, and that's why it's important for us to play to a standard more so than anything else on a day-to-day basis."

A few seasons after defeating Army at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame won the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl over Rutgers, improving its record on the new ballpark's gridiron to 2-0. The experience of working with the Yankees on those occasions left an impression on Kelly, and have made him anxious to return to the Bronx on Nov. 17.

"It starts with the Yankees and their tradition, history and iconic brand," Kelly says. "We feel like we are pairing with a partner that is so much like Notre Dame. The Yankees and Notre Dame both have tremendous brand power, and we do things in a similar fashion. The second thing is that makes it special is the fact that we have such a strong alumni base in the New York area. So you take an organization like the Yankees, which has so many similarities in terms of its history and tradition as a sports organization, and you take the New York metropolitan area, and you have a great partnership."

***

A few hundred feet from Babers' office, several Syracuse players are in a dining hall, finishing lunch and enjoying what little downtime they have during training camp.

Like so many other players in the room, Kielan Whitner, a senior linebacker and one of the leaders on the team, is anxious for this season to start more so than any other in his career.

"There's definitely a different feeling around here this season," he says. "It takes a little time for coaches to get their cultures set and set their expectations and get everyone on the same page. But now, everyone knows what to do and how to do it. The culture has shifted, and we are headed in the right direction. We just have to put all of the pieces together."

One of the pieces that Babers and his team seem to have figured out already is how to beat ranked teams. In Babers' first season, Syracuse knocked off Virginia Tech, the eventual ACC Coastal Division champions. That win was the Orange's first against a ranked opponent in four seasons, and it was just a precursor to last year, when Syracuse defeated College Football Playoff semifinalist Clemson at the Carrier Dome.

"We have a great college town here," Whitner says. "The atmosphere in the Carrier Dome during both of those games was electric. It was truly the Loud House. The fans were into it from beginning to end, and long after both games ended. Those were great days to be a Syracuse football player and to be part of this community. We want more experiences like that."

Syracuse's struggle to win late in the season has hampered the team in recent years. After the big win against Clemson last season, the Orange failed to come out on top in any of their final five games. But this year's squad hopes that is all in the past.

"We hope that we're sitting in a good spot when it's time to make the trip to Yankee Stadium," Whitner says. "The games in November are the ones that stand out the most, and that's where we've struggled the most. We began talking about that on our first day of training camp this year. We need to prepare ourselves to play well in November so that we have a chance to play in December."

Whitner is aware that beating Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium will be perhaps the biggest challenge for Syracuse this November. But he also understands what a victory on that stage would mean.

"As a Syracuse athlete, there is so much great history that came before me," Whitner says. "Guys like Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little wore the same uniform, and I try to carry that legacy every time I put my jersey on. The fact that Syracuse teams from long ago and not so long ago won games at Yankee Stadium means a lot. We want to uphold that tradition. We want to put on a good show like the players who wore our uniform before us did. Doing that will create memories that will live on forever."

***

Tweet from @NDFootball: The Fighting Irish.The @Yankees.Two Iconic Brands.One Uniform.One Night.Yankee Stadium.November 17 - 2:30pm.#GoIrish ������ #ShamrockSeries pic.twitter.com/bH6yr4BfiG

 A few doors down the hall from Kelly, Brian Polian is busy preparing for his team's Sept. 29 game against Stanford, but ever since it was announced that Notre Dame would be playing at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17, that game has been on his mind.

The recruiting coordinator/special teams coordinator and son of Bill Polian -- the Hall of Fame executive who built the early 1990s Buffalo Bills teams that won four consecutive AFC championships and the Indianapolis Colts' Super Bowl XLI championship team -- was born in the Bronx and lived there until he was 6 years old.

"I was so excited," Polian says. "I just made my first trip to the new Yankee Stadium this summer, and when I walked in, I told my wife that I couldn't believe that we would actually be playing there. It's almost surreal."

When he was growing up, Polian was at the old Yankee Stadium frequently, and afternoons watching the Yankees play there remain some of his favorite childhood memories.

"I've been to the old Stadium dozens of times, and I have a great appreciation for how iconic it was," he says. "But I also recognize how iconic the new Stadium already is. I feel like I will look back at the end of my coaching career and be proud that I got to coach a game in that building."

By the time he was a teenager, Polian and his family had relocated to Buffalo, and he was frequently on the sidelines next to Marv Levy, assisting the Hall of Fame coach. Despite the distance from Buffalo to the Bronx, Polian still followed the Yankees closely, as did his family.

"I know I'm going to have to come up with a lot of tickets for family members," he says.

As excited as Polian is about the game itself, he's also enthusiastic about the special uniforms Notre Dame will be donning in the Bronx. The design of those uniforms combines the pinstripes and Yankees script with Notre Dame's iconic interlocking ND logo.

"The combination of the Yankee pinstripes and Notre Dame written across the front is both stunning and symbolic," Polian says. "We feel like we're the New York Yankees of college football. Not everyone loves us, but everyone knows who we are. Both brands are universally recognized, and these uniforms bring that together."

***

"The last time it happened, the Beatles were hot. The last time it happened, the '66 Mustang was the baddest thing on the road. I'm telling you now, you just put yourselves on the map."

That's how Babers begins an impassioned postgame speech in the home locker room of the Carrier Dome following his team's 30-7 rout of Florida State on Sept. 15.

The victory over the Seminoles -- Syracuse's first over the longtime national power since 1966 -- further validated Babers' preseason proclamation that his team was about to turn the corner in 2018, and a victory against Connecticut a week later gave the Orange a perfect 4-0 record to start the season.

Syracuse's early-season success only heightened the anticipation for the game at Yankee Stadium. The university's director of athletics, John Wildhack, was certainly excited about the game from the moment it was scheduled. But the idea of bringing a contending team to the Stadium to take on Notre Dame -- for a game that he firmly believes the Orange can win -- represents something far greater for Syracuse's student athletes, alumni and fan base.

"It will be a great experience for our team and our fans, and it will be a really great experience if we win," Wildhack says. "To play at a venue like Yankee Stadium puts our program on a very visible stage. We're building a program under Coach Babers, and we have a really good culture and great leadership. We are looking forward to playing Notre Dame."

***

Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick and the university's vice president for campus safety and event management Michael Seamon have been at the forefront of planning out the Shamrock Series from its earliest days.

When the idea first began to gain traction, Seamon knew that in order for the event to reach its potential, it would have to be much more than just a football game.

"Bringing the team to an alternate location is one thing," Seamon says from the Notre Dame campus. "But for the Shamrock Series games to be true home games, we felt that we had to take all of the elements that we showcase and celebrate in South Bend, and bring them to the sites."

With that direction, Swarbrick and other members of the athletic department identified venues that were most appealing to Notre Dame.

"We've played in some great venues throughout the series," Swarbrick says. "Yankee Stadium is at the top of the list, and we are thrilled to return there this time around. The Yankees have integrated the history of the franchise everywhere you go there. The most famous players in Yankees history and the traditions of the Yankees are celebrated in the Stadium, and we wanted to come back to that."

Besides the game, there are several other elements that Seamon believes will make the upcoming installment a special experience for the Notre Dame faithful and for football fans in and around New York City.

"We will be bringing our marching band of 400 people," he says. "We'll have academic lectures with our professors and academic symposiums. We'll celebrate Mass on gameday at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and we will have a wide variety of social events, like pep rallies, concerts, receptions and tailgate parties. Our goal is to take all of the elements that people normally come to South Bend to experience, and we replicate them in these special places."

Since 2009, the reception from the cities that have hosted the Shamrock Series, as well as from loyal Notre Dame followers, has been overwhelming.

"The hunger that our fans have for this game has been unprecedented," Seamon says. "For many of our fans, this will be the one away game they go to each year. It has become a ritual for many of them, and they immerse themselves in all the things going on in these cities. It has really has caught on in the cities we have been in, as well. People who wouldn't normally be interested in college football find themselves getting caught up in the excitement."

The enjoyment among fans of Notre Dame has been matched by that of the student-athletes.

"We love to take our players to places that have a tradition like ours," Swarbrick says. "We like to bring them to venues associated with iconic franchises. It's great for our players to walk into the Yankees' clubhouse and get dressed in front of the nameplates of so many famous and highly accomplished players on the Yankees. That will be an experience they never forget."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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