During the first half of the Blue-Gold game, athletic director Jack Swarbrick joined Alex Flanagan on television to break the game’s biggest news. After years of struggling to maintain the natural grass surface inside Notre Dame Stadium, the university will be installing a synthetic surface inside the stadium.
The handling of the news was noteworthy. With a press corps watching the game from the press box, the university shared the news with their fans on television first, a group far more surprised than the media, who all but knew the decision was more a matter of when, not if.
The grass will come up in the stadium right after commencement in May, with the new surface hopefully ready by mid-August. While Swarbrick hit the standard talking points with Flanagan on the air, the official release provided more of the rationale behind the decision.
“We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field,” Swarbrick said in the statement. “However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the Stadium we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface. That, combined with the likely impacts of future construction at the Stadium, led me to conclude that we would continue to struggle to maintain a grass field that meets the expectations of our student-athletes and fans as it relates to appearance, performance and safety.
“Synthetic turf will assist our game preparation because our team will be able to play and practice on the same surface. We will also be able to utilize the Notre Dame Stadium field for practices on home football Fridays and other occasions, whereas that is currently unrealistic. Additionally, this change allows us to eliminate the risk to players posed by the asphalt perimeter that has to be maintained around our current field.”
Brian Kelly talked about the decision after the game, echoing Swarbrick’s sentiments, and actually surprised that the question wasn’t the first one he fielded.
“I think you look at the conditions of the field today, going out there and it’s really about getting a surface where there’s some consistency week‑in and week‑out for our players,” Kelly said. “I think today was an indication. We can’t even practice out there.
“We want to be able to get out there with our team. We want some safety issues to be not part of the equation. I think everybody is in agreement. If we can get the best surface there in grass, we’d love to have that. We just haven’t been able to get to that. This is my fifth year here at Notre Dame and we haven’t been able to get to that.”
While some bristled at the handling of the news, this isn’t the first time Swarbrick mentioned that the decision was being weighed. When Notre Dame’s expansion to the stadium via the Campus Crossroads project was announced, Swarbrick acknowledged that the university was weighing their options of retaining natural grass or putting in a synthetic surface.
After researching many of the successful natural surfaces that are maintained in northern climates (there aren’t many, over three-quarters of the NCAA FBS programs in the Midwest and Northeast utilize an artifical surface, including 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams), Swarbrick knew extensive structural changes were needed inside the stadium.
“We will do one of two things,” Swarbrick told The Observer in December. “We will either go in and really rip the whole thing out, I mean, go way down and create a whole new sub-surface, and everything about the field will be re-done, drainage, sub-surface. Or we’ll go to synthetic.”
Multiple times, Swarbrick has mentioned the significant cost savings associated with bringing in a synthetic surface. And while some fans bristle at money being a factor when the university sets forth on a $400 million dollar initiative, there’s no proof that a hybrid natural surface would work throughout the renovation process, as the grass would need constant monitoring and growth year round, necessitating the addition out of a greenhouse apparatus.
Those explanations surely aren’t enough to calm a certain subset of the fanbase, who expects tradition to be upheld with natural grass (and no videoboard, luxury suites or ticket price hikes.) But junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell all but spoke for the players after the game.
“You see how terrible it was out there? Come on now,” Russell told the Chicago Tribune. “When we played USC last year that field was terrible. So I’m excited.”