A Sun Bowl celebration … in the snow

Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins and other University administrators joined a happy group of Irish players and coaches on the Sun Bowl Stadium field for trophy presentations after the 33-17 Irish victory over Miami on Friday. The celebration was relatively short-lived, no doubt due to the freezing cold and snow flurries. Everyone was ready to head up the tunnel, onto buses and back to South Bend.

About 275 members of the Notre Dame travel party left the stadium around 4:40 p.m. for the El Paso airport, where a Delta Airbus 330A lifted off at 7:30 p.m. for the 1,299-mile trip home. Since the players still have a couple of weeks of Christmas break remaining before returning to campus for the second semester, most stayed in El Paso to catch flights today to their hometowns. Among those who were on the flight to South Bend were quarterback Tommy Rees and center Braxton Cave.

The plane left El Paso a little later than planned and landed at the South Bend airport at 11:50 p.m. (EST), meaning that all on board welcomed in the New Year while gathering belongings and preparing to deplane.

Upon arriving back on campus, the Notre Dame contingent proceeded to Club Naimoli in the Joyce Center for an informal New Year’s celebration, then picked up luggage and headed home.

The unseasonably cold weather in El Paso the last two or three days of Sun Bowl week put something of a damper on various festivities. But there was nothing that could diminish the warmth of the people of that city. In particular, members of the Notre Dame alumni club could not have been nicer and made the trip to El Paso a memorable experience for all.

Notes

  • Many fans arriving at Sun Bowl Stadium for the 12:15 p.m. kickoff Friday found an icy slush on their seats.
  • Light snow fell before the game, stopped during the first half, then picked up again in the third quarter. It was nothing significant, but the game-time temperature of 34 degrees (compared to the mid-50s in South Bend) made for a lot of shivering.
  • The U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachute team brought the game ball, team flags and a U.S. flag into the stadium just before kickoff.
  • Singer Lee Greenwood performed the national anthem and “God Bless America” in the pre-game ceremony. After the Notre Dame and Miami bands played at halftime, Greenwood returned and finished the longer-than-usual intermission with a rendition of his signature song, “Proud to be an American.”
  • The concessions stands ran out of hot chocolate by halftime and, unlike Notre Dame Stadium (and not surprisingly), the restrooms at Sun Bowl Stadium aren’t heated.
  • When the Notre Dame defense stopped Miami on a fourth-down-and-one play with 4:45 to go in the third quarter and the Irish leading 30-3, there was a large exodus of fans from the stadium.
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Posse party and other news

As I write this, it’s about 24 hours until the Notre Dame-Miami matchup in the 77th Hyundai Sun Bowl here in El Paso. But there’s still plenty of off-the-field activity to report on:

  • About 50 Notre Dame staff members and a similar number from Miami attended the El Paso County Sherriff’s Posse Party on Wednesday night, held, somewhat inexplicably, across the state line in New Mexico. It was a casual event with food, drink and a entertainment from a local comedian. Some in of the Notre Dame contingent – including athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Alumni Association assistant VP and associate executive director Dolly Duffy – wore new cowboys boots acquired earlier this week. 
  • While the staffs were at the posse party, the players from both teams went “bowling before the bowl” at the Oasis Lanes and Amusement Center. No word one which team won that competition.
  • Following the posse party, many in the ND contingent headed to the hospitality room at the Radisson Hotel for more food, drink and conversation. I had a chance to catch up with Haley Scott DeMaria, the Notre Dame alumna who made a miraculous recovery after suffering what was thought to be a paralyzing back injury in the tragic 1992 bus crash of the Irish women’s swimming team. Haley tells her inspirational story in the book “What Though the Odds: Haley Scott’s Journey of Faith and Triumph,” published in 2008. She’s here as a board member of the Notre Dame Monogram Club, joined by her husband Jamie and two kids. You can learn more about her and the book at http://www.haleybook.com/
  • Among others in attendance at the post-party gathering were Notre Dame Trustee Dick Nussbaum; Faculty Board on Athletics chair Tricia Bellia; athletic department leaders Bill Scholl, John Heisler, Missy Conboy and Tom Nevela; and Chuck Lennon and Dolly Duffy from the Alumni Association.
  • The El Paso Times reported today that Notre Dame will have a decided advantage in fan support on Friday. That would seem to be true if the crowds in the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore on the road are any kind of indicator. A steady stream of out-of-town and local fans has been purchasing all kinds of ND apparel and memorabilia. At any particular time, there are 40 to 60 people browsing and buying in the makeshift store on the 17th floor of the Doubletree Hotel.
  • An ND pep rally and block party are scheduled for this evening. I’ll report back on those and other events either later tonight or first thing tomorrow.

Evening update

It started snowing — seriously, snowing! – in El Paso around 4:30 p.m. and now, at around 8 p.m., the snow is sticking to the ground and it’s freezing.

After battling the elements, I had the pleasure of attending a reception and dinner next to the El Paso Convention Center hosted by Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves and Vice President for University Relations Lou Nanni. After we all thawed out, a group of about 100 alumni and friends of the University enjoyed dinner and brief remarks from Father John and Lou.

I’d love to tell you about the pep rally at 4:45 but must admit that I wimped out and stayed inside.

It’s supposed to be in the mid-40s and sunny for the game tomorrow … sounds much more like weather for the Irish than the ’Canes.

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A “humble town” welcomes the Irish

I spent some time this morning talking to Eric Salas, president of the Notre Dame Club of El Paso. He and other club members have worked tirelessly the last three weeks preparing to host the Irish team, staff and fans to their “west Texas town.”

“In selling out the Sun Bowl in less than 24 hours, and with the Catholic identity of El Paso, you can see just how much Notre Dame means to the city, not just in football, but spiritually as well,” Eric said. “It’s been cool to see how much the University means to the people here.”

Eric was born and raised in El Paso and earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Notre Dame in 1998. He returned to his hometown, working in construction sales, and is proud of this city of 700,000 on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“When the various bowl possibilities were being mentioned, it was coming down to El Paso, San Diego (Holiday Bowl) and Orlando (Champs Sports Bowl). The only thing in common among those cities is they all end in ‘o’. This is a very humble town, which is reflective of the Catholic values you find here.”

The El Paso club is composed of 100 to 125 active members – alumni, of course, but plenty of Irish fans and parents of current and former students. It was selected by the Alumni Association as a club of the year in 2008.

“We’re really more like a family than a club,” Eric said.

Some other news and notes:

  • The Notre Dame bookstore on the road is on the 17th floor of the Doubletree Hotel in downtown El Paso. It opened this morning and immediately had 50 or so customers, most local residents.
  • Anyone who knows Chuck Lennon, associate vice president and executive director of the Alumni Association, won’t be surprised that he was the first person I saw bright and early this morning in the hotel lobby.
  • The country and western ballad “El Paso” – which begins: “Out in the west Texas town of El Paso …” – originally was recorded by Marty Robbins in September 1959. It won a Grammy in 1961 and a variation of the song is the official fight song of the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP).
  • Notre Dame alum Mike Golic was pictured on the front page of today’s El Paso Times. He’s in town to support his sons, both members of the Irish football team, but he took some time Tuesday to help a local radio station announce its new affiliation with ESPN Radio. As most know, Mike is one half of “Mike and Mike in the Morning” on ESPN.
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El Paso alumni club has plenty of plans

The Notre Dame Club of El Paso has put together a variety of events for Irish fans traveling to the Sun Bowl, beginning with a happy hour for young alumni and the young at heart at Union Plaza downtown from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday (a happy three hours, apparently).

In conjunction with the Notre Dame Alumni Association, the club has organized a pep rally at 4:45 p.m. Thursday at the Art Festival Plaza Center in the El Paso Convention Center. Attendees are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item in support of a club service project.

Also on Thursday, a Notre Dame Block Party at Union Plaza is scheduled from 8:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. In addition, the community’s Sun Bowl Fan Fiesta will take place from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. outside the convention center. The 13th annual event will feature free face painting, animal balloons, clowns, magic, inflatable games, a battle of the university bands, performances by local bands, food, drink and a concluding fireworks display.

Since the game itself begins at noon local time, the Irish tailgater will begin early – at 7 a.m. and lasting until kickoff on the corner of Mesa and Robinson. Admission is $10. Fans without tickets can watch the game from the site of the tailgater. Mass will be celebrated one hour after the game at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 1111 N. Stanton St., with Bishop Armando Ochoa presiding, followed by a post-game party, again on the corner of Mesa and Robinson.

More info on the El Paso club’s plans is available at http://elpaso.undclub.org.

For a behind-the-scenes look at what the Irish football team is doing this week in El Paso – on and off the field – check out the daily diary by Notre Dame walk-on quarterback Brian Castello in the South Bend Tribune. Here’s the link to his Tuesday entry:

http://www.southbendtribune.com/article/20101227/SPORTS13/101229664/1021/Sports

My son Connor and I leave out of O’Hare tonight for El Paso, arriving around 10:15 p.m. Looking forward to seeing lots of ND people over the next few days.

Finally, not that I’m obsessing about the weather, but the predicted high temperature in El Paso at the start of Friday’s game is now down from 47 to 42 … and, to add insult to injury, the Friday high in South Bend is now up from 44 to 48.

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El Paso priorities

I’m trying to decide what to pack for my trip to El Paso. The forecast is calling for temperatures in the 60s on Wednesday and Thursday, but 47, mostly cloudy and a 20 percent chance for rain and snow (!?!?) for the game Friday. Seriously? I live in South Bend and am accustomed to cold temps, but 47 seems a little chilly for the great Southwest. I mean, it’s supposed to be 44 in South Bend on Friday. Note to self: layer.
Bright side: The weather in El Paso on Friday definitely will favor the Irish.

From all I’ve heard, the hospitality in El Paso for Sun Bowl teams and fans is amazing. As a friend said to me the other day: For a bowl game to now be in its 77th year, they must be doing something right.

Side trips to Juarez, Mexico, once were a regular part of the Sun Bowl experience. Extreme violence in the border city has changed that, however, and Notre Dame officials have told those in the official party – students, faculty and staff – to stay on the U.S. side, and are advising the same to anyone else attending the game. The good news is that El Paso is one of the safety cities in the United States.

An on-the-road Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore is open from noon to 8 p.m. on the 17th floor of the Doubletree Hotel in downtown El Paso. Notre Dame Alumni Association staff members also will be at that location to provide information on various events and activities.

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Getting ready for El Paso

My son Connor and I are starting to gear up for our trip to El Paso and the ND-Miami matchup in the Sun Bowl. We visited on Thursday night with four others who will be attending — Missy Conboy, a senior associate athletic director, and her husband, Bill Mountford, who works in the university’s Office of Information Technologies; and Tricia Bellia, a law professor and chair of the Faculty Board on Athletics, and her husband, A.J., also a professor of law.

 They’re heading down on Sunday as part of the athletic department contingent. Connor and I don’t leave until Tuesday evening. It won’t be a long trip, but I’ll try to provide some behind-the-scenes posts on Notre Dame people on hand for the game.

 Meanwhile, check out a very good story in Saturday’s South Bend Tribune on the history and ferocity of the Notre Dame-Miami rivalry in the late 1980s. It was written by Jeff Carroll, a former reporter for the Tribune and author of the book “Perfect Rivals: Notre Dame, Miami, and the Battle for the Soul of College Football,” published this year by ESPN/Random House books.

 http://www.southbendtribune.com/article/20101224/SPORTS13/101229792/1001/Sports

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