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Setting the scene from South Bend

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South Bend, Ind. – Leaves turning from green to blazing shades of garnet and gold confirm it is football season. Visitors striking poses with the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus and the Knute Rockne statue assure you are in the right  place, on the Notre Dame campus, which is buzzing with co-eds jogging and young men playing the last rounds of golf before this perfect fall weather — highs in the 70s, lows in the 50s — turns to winter. It’s Friday afternoon, classes are out, and word is spreading among Irish students that the Seminole football team has arrived and acclimating themselves to the “Stadium the Rock Built.”

The smell of pigskin is in the air. So is the talk of resuming what many up here think could be a national championship run for No. 5 Notre Dame.

While the iconic elements are alive and well on the picturesque campus, there’s a noticeable absence of gray-haired folks in tribal attire. Seating has been reserved for Fighting Irish students and faculty only in the socially-distanced Notre Dame Stadium (80,795).  While it’s a damn shame there will be no tailgating, no fans grilling kielbasas and washing them down with Jameson-spiked lemonades, the degree of difficult for the Seminoles — who are 20.5-point underdogs — has been mercifully lowered.

The Seminoles have won 4 of 6 games against Notre Dame. They come into this contest a three-touchdown underdog and will need the “Luck of the Irish” to upset Notre Dame. But, hey, FSU got two pretty big breaks before the game even begins with a socially distanced stadium, and 21 days between games after the Irish’s game against Wake was postponed due a huge outbreak on the ND team. Two good breaks, and a beautiful fall day for the game of college football, are a good way to start the day.

Here are some notes from around campus:

Notre Dame has its own version of College Town. (photo by Jerry Kutz)

They say imitation is the ultimate form of flattery

After the Seminole players loaded their five team busses, I walked the perimeter of the recently renovated stadium, struck by how similar the design is to Florida State’s Devoe L. Moore University Center Complex, which was built more than 20 years ago. 

When the Seminoles did it, the Gators dubbed it “Jock Palace” and virtually every daily newspaper ran editorials condemning the project, rather than praising it, as the beautification project to the old stadium added four large buildings, one on each side of the stadium, which added more than 500,000 square feet of classroom office space for university functions. 

Notre Dame is called innovative and academic-centric, when it built a facility with similar functionality 20 years later.

Notre Dame’s classroom office complex includes a student center, a study, fitness, career-counseling and student-activities building.  Anthropology, psychology and digital media is in a second building of  the complex. The third is for music and the south building houses a private club/lounge for lease for private events when not in use by the university. Does this sound a lot like the University Center Club and the Dunlap Champions Club in the South endzone of Doak to you?

It sure did to me. But wait. There’s more.

Right after leaving the south end zone of the stadium, we headed across the parking lot to a new, mixed-use development that looked eerily similar to College Town. We ate in an Irish Pub located at the entrance to the complex, in exactly the location Madison Social occupies in College Town, and then strolled past numerous first floor restaurants and shops with residential housing above. The mixed-use project even has a hotel, parking garage and an Urban Outfitters store, just like in Tallahassee. 

Typically, I am told, the area is mad with people the night before a home game.  But not tonight. Tonight it was a happy buzz of good looking, All-American, college kids looking forward to the big game against Florida State on Saturday.

The bubble was pierced

The other big news on campus this week involved Notre Dame president Rev. John I Jenkins who was photographed breaking his own mask and social distancing rules while attending a White House reception last month for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Supreme Court nominee and former Notre Dame Law School professor. Jenkins later tested positive.  

The students and the university board have been up in arms with Jenkins because he has led a very aggressive and comprehensive effort to create a “bubble” over the ND campus so that students can attend in-person classes. 

Notre Dame took an aggressive tack to re-opening, one they are uniquely and perfectly located to achieve. The campus opened on Aug. 10, weeks before most campuses opened and will close on Nov. 10 rather than after Thanksgiving. The university’s logic is students should not leave campus once they arrive and risk bringing an active case of Covid back to campus. 

By staying on campus for the entire semester, and not bringing a lot of fans onto campus, a “bubble” is created. 

The Irish students are seated with whom they reside. If a student has only one roommate, the two receive reserved seats together. If a student lives in a suite with five other students, the six are seated together. As you walk across campus, you see signs that say, “Here we wear a mask,” and “Here we practice physical distancing.” 

The plan seems to be working according to statistics provided on their website. When the students first arrive on campus the rate of positive tests was as much as 6 percent but according to their website the rate of positive cases has fallen to less than 1 percent.