Jack Swarbrick understands the opposing viewpoint here because he used to share it. Why does Notre Dame football, steeped in tradition as it is, ever need to wear something other than gold pants, a blue or white jersey and its iconic golden-domed helmets? The Fighting Irish brand should be too well-known and too powerful for that, even just for one or two games a year.
So why bother?
“I understand people who say you should never change the uniform,” says Swarbrick, who has been Notre Dame’s athletic director for 11 years and is a graduate of the university. “That’s a perfectly valid position to take. It’s a position I had coming here. That was my view as a fan. But past that, the angst about what the alternative uniform looks like is a little silly.”
The uniform in question looks nothing like what you’re used to seeing. On Saturday, Notre Dame will wear matte navy helmets and New York Yankees pinstripes when it plays Syracuse in Yankee Stadium for this year’s Shamrock Series game. The Irish, ranked No. 3 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings, are undefeated and need to stay that way to be sure they’ve secured a playoff spot. The Orange are 8–2, No. 13 in the latest CFP rankings and eager to totally spoil Notre Dame’s plan and seal a New Year’s Six bowl trip of their own with an upset.
These particular alternates are arguably the program’s most shocking iteration yet. The players like it—the uniform is featured during recruiting weekends—but the program drew a sizable amount of Internet roasting in the offseason when the designs were first released, especially since the concept ties two of the most polarizing brands in sports together in one uniform.
“Everybody goes crazy and thinks it’s the worst thing anybody has ever done,” Swarbrick says. “I try politely to point out that it’s not for them. I care a lot about how 120 guys on the team feel about it. Once a year they get to do it, so it’s about them. I spend maybe 10 minutes having a discussion about the uniform before it’s made. We talk concepts, they show me a few drawings, and I’m out because I don’t want to be a designer and people are going to react this way regardless of what we do.”
Notre Dame doesn’t switch its wardrobe often, but it does have a history of deviations. Wearing green jerseys, for instance, started under Knute Rockne. According to school historians, the Irish first wore green shirts in 1921 when they visited Iowa, which handed Notre Dame its only loss that season. Notre Dame wore the jerseys again in 1927 in its first-ever matchup with Navy, for “both player distinction and also for the first time as a motivational tactic,” according to the school website.
Green has been worn many times since, including the famous “Green Jersey Game” in 1977, when the Irish warmed up in their traditional blue tops before taking the field in green and proceeding to blow out USC 49–19. They were wearing a darker shade of green for the “Bush Push” in 2005, when USC beat Notre Dame 34–31 in the final seconds. And just last week, the Irish went with a brighter green for Senior Day and rolled to a 42–13 win over Florida State.
Notre Dame went full-shamrock for the 2015 Shamrock Series against Boston College in Fenway Park, wearing all green as a tribute to the Green Monster. There was also the 1992 Sugar Bowl, when Notre Dame wore white uniforms with green numbers and green socks and upset No. 3 Florida, and many other versions of uniforms in between.
The idea behind the latest new uniforms was to brand them as part of a special event and to give the game its own identity. The Shamrock Series, which began in 2009, is about bringing a Notre Dame “home game experience” to different cities and iconic venues, with various weekend activities like Mass, service projects and academic events. But anytime Notre Dame releases new uniforms, it simultaneously prepares for a wave of criticism.
“People really reacted to the pinstripes,” Swarbrick says. “There’s an interesting dynamic to this because you’ve got two major sports identities fans love to hate here, combined. No one is neutral about the Yankees and no one is neutral about Notre Dame. These elements came together in a powerful way.”
For anyone glancing at Notre Dame’s schedule at the beginning of this season, this game would have been notable for the funky uniforms and the iconic venue. Now it stands as Notre Dame’s toughest second-half test, which will no doubt bring a lot more eyes on those funky uniforms and the unique setting.
The Irish have no room for error in their final two weeks on the road. The stakes are simple: Beat Syracuse in the Bronx and USC in Los Angeles, and they’re in the playoff; stumble in either game, and the future is less certain. A potential “road” loss (Notre Dame is considered the home team in the Shamrock Series) to No. 13 Syracuse might not drop the Irish below a Power 5 conference champion in the eye of the selection committee, depending on how those other games shake out. But Notre Dame would like to avoid that conversation altogether by winning its final two November games on opposite coasts. Syracuse, meanwhile, would almost certainly finish in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s top 12 with wins over the Irish and next week against Boston College.
The uniforms were already going to go down in history. Now they might be part of a game that’s more than just a one-off curiosity.