But in recent years, it seemed that Notre Dame was falling behind. Far too often, Irish fans heard comments about impressive facilities out of the mouths of prospective recruits, but those comments were usually being made about Irish recruiting rivals rather than about Notre Dame.
Enter the Guglielmino Family Athletics Center -- Notre Dame's answer to staying at the front of the pack when it comes to state-of-the-art athletic facilities. At almost 86,000 square feet, "the Gug" is an impressive sight and should put Notre Dame on top when elite athletes are looking to train at the finest facilities.
When Irish athletic director Kevin White was hired in 2000, he saw the immediate need for improved facilities at Notre Dame. He spearheaded the journey to see the Gug constructed from start to finish, a journey that started with him and other athletic department officials checking out the competition.
"I think the motivation was to make sure that all of us, not just from an athletic standpoint, understood what else is out there relative to facilities," said Associate Athletics Director John Heisler. "Let's make sure we understand what it is that they have at Texas or USC or North Carolina or Michigan or wherever it is."
"This group of people spent an entire week going around to as many institutions as they could, touring the facilities. They were looking at stadiums, locker rooms, team rooms…. They were trying to get a sense of what are other people doing, making sure we didn't have our head in the sand. I think that really helped to know what everyone else was doing and what their commitments and priorities were moving forward."
The Notre Dame administration saw other non-competitive needs when they decided to build the facility. "Part of the motivation was not only to make sure that we could be competitive with what's going on in the world relative to facilities, but also to try to centralize the football aspect of it," Heisler said. "Look at our current setup. We have the football coaches' office center here in the Joyce Center. We've got our locker room in the stadium. We have our weight facility in the Loftus Center. We had players viewing film in the stadium, and we had our training facility in the stadium. We were trying to find as many different places as we could just to accommodate their needs.
Another concern, according to Heisler, was the players' health. "We don't have any locker room or shower facilities in the Loftus Center. If they're finishing at 7 PM and there's a snowstorm out there, they're being thrown out into the elements at some odd times when you may be sweating after spending an hour or two working out, and that's not ideal.
Heisler was quick to point out that while the Gug was built to centralize football operations, the other 25 sports will also benefit from the new facility. "This ends up being a combination facility because even though it will be a home for our football program, certain aspects of it will benefit all 26 of our programs. "Since the expansion of the stadium in '97, that was our primary rehab venue. Anyone that was coming in for treatment had to go to the stadium. Now the Gug will become that rehab site, so their space has substantially increased. There's a running track in there that will allow us to do some new things relative to speed training. Additional equipment in there will be able to accommodate more people at one time. The ability to accommodate more student athletes is a huge benefit."
Outgoing Senior Associate Athletics Director Bernard Muir, recently named Athletic Director at Georgetown University, was also extensively involved with overseeing construction of the Gug and he gave us some more specifics about some of the amenities added to the facility.
"It will be state-of-the-art as far as interior design," Muir said. "We're working with a company called ‘Z Design', and they do a lot of building space work for Division I institutions. You'll walk in the building and you'll have the same feeling everywhere you turn in terms of consistency of the look of the facility, which we're looking to incorporate into other programs as well."
"It will also reflect the history and tradition of Notre Dame football," Muir continued. "The locker room will be a football practice locker room. When a recruit walks through there, there will be the same feeling about the history and tradition that they're representing when they put on that uniform."
One of the main drawing features for any top athlete is the players' lounge, which will usually include many high-tech gadgets and act as a meeting place for the student-athletes. "We're still working on some of the finishing touches on the player's lounge," Muir said, "but there will be a computer center that will have a little outlet for them where you can have several players check e-mails or do a little homework before or after practice. We'll have a big screen TV, and they'll have TVs in the locker room where they can tune into Sportscenter … or CNN, we like to hope. They'll have a lounge-type area as well."
While the many impressive cosmetic features that make a building exciting have yet to be added, both Heisler and Muir think the reaction from both coaches and athletes so far has been very encouraging.
"I think it's been very positive," Heisler said. "Even when the exposure to it hasn't really given people a complete sense of what the facility will really look as a finished product."
"I think for the most part, they've been pretty excited," Muir agreed. "That's just not our football athletes, but that's all the athletes. Once they walk into the strength and conditioning area, which just went from 7,000 to 25,000 square feet, they get the feeling that we're turning the corner here and making a sincere effort to be the best across 26 varsity sports, and hopefully put us in a position to win a few championships."
August 1 is the target date for opening the Gug, but Heisler is hopeful that date can be moved up. "There's some probability that we can improve on that a little bit, but certainly the expectation is we'd be able to move the football operation over there no later than August 1st," he said. "Certainly if we can improve on that, the easier that transition will be."
The Notre Dame athletic department will constantly monitor the landscape of college sports to try to stay at the front of the facilities pack and make sure such a drastic catch-up is not required again. "We have to monitor and stay up on the technology aspect of it," Heisler said. "Every time you turn around someone has some new-fangled video system. You have to make sure what you're doing and what you're offering is top-flight and continue to evaluate what you have for all sports.
"We're embarking on a facilities master plan, and this is the first phase of it. Certainly, as we move forward with all of our programs, we're trying to find the best facilities that fit the Notre Dame character possible. The Gug is the first step, and we have plans in place that will affect each one of our varsity programs."
There is no question that the Gug will be a huge recruiting tool, not only for Irish head coach Charlie Weis and his staff, but for all the sports programs at Notre Dame. Notre Dame has shown a real commitment with the construction of this new facility, and they've given Weis a fighting chance to restore Irish football to its once-proud place amongst the elite of college football.