SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On Thursday, Notre Dame’s president released a video in which he warned about rising COVID-19 cases and implored students to redouble their efforts to follow safety measures and end the semester without “a major stumble.”
On Saturday night, after the football team’s 47-40 double overtime upset of No. 1 Clemson, thousands of students rushed the field to celebrate, cramming close together and surrounding players and coaches. Several students could be seen on the NBC telecast and in photos not wearing masks or with masks pulled down.
Criticism of the incident cascaded through social media in light of the pandemic and an abrupt spike in cases the past several weeks. Notre Dame’s active cases on campus have surged into the 200s after being reined in at 26 roughly four weeks ago. The optics at the stadium in the postgame stampede/celebrating implored answers.
On Sunday, Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins issued a letter in which he expressed disappointment with the students’ “widespread disregard of our health protocols” at gatherings over the weekend.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, in a one-on-one interview with the South Bend Tribune Sunday afternoon, provided a behind-the-scenes look at Notre Dame’s pregame plan for such a scenario, where the school goes from here in the aftermath and lessons learned from the five home football games that have included a limited number of fans.
“We had all kinds of measures in place for this game and things we wanted to do, and I was really pleased with those plans,” Swarbrick said. “You’ve got three possible outcomes. One is a loss. You hope that doesn’t happen, but you’re not dealing with a field storm. One is a decisive victory, and I think you can manage what occurs.
“The other is a game, whether it’s a knockdown, two-point conversion against Miami or an incompletion on the last play of a second overtime, it’s one where you know you face the challenge of a field rush.
“And you don’t know which consequence you’re going to face. You plan for all of them. … We had a lot of extra security deployed.”
Obviously, the game came down to a dramatic final play in which the Irish secured the upset victory, its first over a No. 1 team since 1993. At that point, Swarbrick explained, different safety issues came into play as the students began to surge from the stands onto the field.
“If this happens,” Swarbrick said, “you get this mass incoming, you have to let people come or you’re going to have broken bones and other problems.”
The plan for that scenario was to try and protect the players on the field with the extra security and users on hand for the game.
“In that context,” Swarbrick explained, “we said, ‘Here are the things we have to do. We have to protect Clemson and make sure that they’re not interacting with our student body and allow them to get off the field.’ And I thought that went very well. We deployed security from the tunnel entrance for them all the way to their bench. They were great in sort of getting in that line and going through there.”
The other prong was to get Notre Dame players off the field as soon as possible. Players were warned to do so before the game in the event of a victory. Some did, others were seen continuing to celebrate with students longer than others.
“We were encouraging them.” Swarbrick said, “but in the emotion of the moment, we were only somewhat successful with that. Some went right up the tunnel immediately. Others wound up getting engulfed by the crowd, celebrating with them.”
St. Joseph County’s deputy health officer, Dr. Mark Fox was among the many who took to Twitter after the game to express concern.
“Approve of the win, but this is concerning,” St. Joseph County’s deputy health officer, Dr. Mark Fox, tweeted in reaction to a photo of the students on the field. “At least there are masks and all undergrads were tested this week!”
Messages left by USA TODAY Sports asking for comment from the Atlantic Coast Conference were not immediately returned.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Notre Dame this season has restricted seating at games to 20 percent capacity, with tickets sold only to students, faculty, staff and families of players. They are supposed to follow several protocols, including wearing masks and social distancing. Students who test positive for the virus before the game are not allowed to attend.
The team also has strict testing protocols for players and coaches.
A little more than 11,000 fans, most of them students, attended Saturday’s game.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen any college storm the field. That was a cool experience,” Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams said after the game. “(Coach Brian Kelly) told us to get inside after the game as fast as we could.”
Kelly, as Swarbrick reiterated, confirmed during his post-game press conference that he warned his players that fans would rush the field, “and with COVID being as it is, we gotta get off the field and get to the tunnel.”
The Fighting Irish needed a two-week break earlier this season because of a COVID-19 outbreak, but it didn’t keep them from entering this showdown with Clemson unbeaten
The university, like the South Bend region and much of the country, has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Notre Dame reported 17 cases on Friday, with 220 active cases overall. The university has reported 1,345 total positive cases since the start of the fall semester.