Campus that's beyond belief

by John Henderson

South Bend, Indiana – For all you Notre Dame fans whose acid-laced e-mails I’ve perforated and placed on a roll, I have some good news for you. I have something nice to say about your school.

It is absolutely and spectacularly gorgeous. It is beyond belief. It is more beautiful than I – or any of you who’ve never visited – imagined.

I write this as a lifelong, tried-and-true college football fan who finally realized an eternal dream. I have followed college football since 1963, when I saw my hometown Oregon Ducks thrash Utah, 35-8. The screaming crowd at old Hayward Field, now the track stadium, scared the daylights out of me, but I loved the bands, the bright uniforms and, yes, the cheerleaders.

This was way before I learned college football was more about hypocrisy, cheating and academic fraud than first downs. Still, for more than 40 years I have tightly held onto lone romantic remnants of what I love about college football. That’s why I have always had two lifetime goals: attend an Ivy League football game and visit Notre Dame.

I achieved the latter Wednesday.

If you’re a college football fan, even if you thrashed Notre Dame for firing Tyrone Willingham, as I did, you must visit here. I lived next to the Vatican for a year and a half and Wednesday I had similar thoughts walking past the Basilica of the Sacred Heart as I did walking through St. Peter’s Square. I’m not Catholic – but if the Vatican is the center of the Catholic world, Notre Dame is the center of the college football world.

You feel it from the bookstore to Heritage Hall.

At first, visiting this Mecca is extremely underwhelming. South Bend can best be described as a dump. The downtown is a collection of old, shabby buildings with more dirt than character and most could use a fresh coat of paint.

Heritage Hall is also a bit disappointing. In a giant, wide hallway upstairs from the basketball arena, it’s disorganized and cold, nothing like display rooms at USC and Texas, which glow with the warmth of Paris museums.

But look across the street to Notre Dame Stadium and all images from behind the Heritage Hall display glass – the pyramid of seven Heisman Trophies; coach Frank Leahy’s shoes; the 1931 newspaper clipping of Knute Rockne’s death – come to life.

The stadium was renovated and expanded in 1997, and more impressive than the 20,000 extra seats is the brick facade they used to match the yellow brick of the Basilica, built in 1892. The whole campus matches, a blend of 19th-century architecture and 1990s innovation.

Walking across campus with the fall colors out is like walking through an oil painting. The points of historic interest are separated by vast quads of grass that could pass for fairways at Augusta. Did you know the head of Touchdown Jesus, adorning the 14-story Hesburgh Library, is 9 feet high? Did you also know that the mosaic is made up of 7,000 pieces of stone from 16 countries?

I also didn’t know that besides Notre Dame Stadium, Touchdown Jesus looks over a beautiful pool and a giant quad lined with maple trees.

Since I’m an avid collector of college sweatshirts and T-shirts, I judge any academic institution by the quality of its bookstore, which is why I now think Notre Dame is the top school in the country. The bookstore, built in 1999 for $21 million, is the biggest and most lucrative in the United States. Amish craftsman did all the woodwork. Picture a cross between Barnes&Noble and Nordstrom’s, then picture 90,000 sales on Saturday when No. 9 Notre Dame hosts top-ranked USC, and you have the Notre Dame bookstore.

But Notre Dame is more than architecture. It’s atmosphere. I saw the football team in their practice uniforms walk by the golden dome of the administration building. I saw students wearing green Notre Dame football T-shirts during Mass in the Basilica, adorned with turquoise and gold interior. I saw a middle-aged man carrying his infant son, trying to teach him to say, “Go Irish!”

I have toured 64 Division I-A campuses, numerous small schools, Cambridge and Oxford in England and the Sorbonne in Paris. Notre Dame may top Princeton as the most beautiful school I’ve ever seen.

I’d love to see Harvard-Yale top this.

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