By: Renee Peggs
Seen at a bistro in Albuquerque.
There's another one! In a gym near Denver.
From Miami to Montpelier, Hoboken to Honolulu, across the plains of Texas, from sea to shining sea. The Shirt is recognizable and recognized as a symbol of loyalty worn by University of Notre Dame football fans everywhere - and especially here at Notre Dame, where it all started and where it matters most.
Twenty-five years ago, Brennan Harvath, a senior marketing major from Michigan, brought life to the idea that had been banging around in his head for two years. As a trumpet player in the Notre Dame marching band, Harvath was struck by the significance of unity among band members which he saw and felt by virtue of their band uniforms. He wondered what it would be like - what kind of effect could be produced - if the student body were to adopt a kind of "uniform" for football games and present as a single unified whole in support of the Fighting Irish.
Thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit, Harvath already had experience designing, ordering and selling shirts for a variety of causes. In fact, by his senior year he had even earned the nickname "T-Shirt Guy" in his residence hall, St. Edwards Hall, in homage to his persistent peddling of fundraiser apparel.
As chair of the Student Union Board's 1990 AnTostal spring festival, Harvath built support for and enthusiasm around the idea of a shirt for the entire student body. With AnTostal as a platform, he dove headfirst into an endeavor that called forth the legacy that is the student section for Notre Dame football and gave it legendary status. No other university in the nation - not a single one - has ever boasted a for-students/by-students initiative with anything close to the sustainability and success of The Shirt at Notre Dame. In fact, The Shirt is the number-one highest-selling article of collegiate apparel in the United States. WE ARE ND!
During the summer before his senior year, Harvath wrote literally hundreds of letters to University administrators, student government officers, hall presidents and other campus personnel telling them of his idea and generating excitement behind it. As the Michigan game came only two weeks into the 1990 fall semester, time was of the essence.
Hall presidents collected pre-orders and payment from their residents the first week of school, and 7,000 shirts were ordered. (Incidentally, this is how Harvath met his wife, who happened to be a hall president at Saint Mary's College) According to a Twitter interview transcribed as a blog post on www.theshirt.nd.edu, Harvath "called a local T-shirt company in [South Bend] and gave them the concept. We used many of the Notre Dame logos and icons, including the likeness of Coach Lou Holtz, which required his permission, and put it on top of a football with the flood lights shining on the sky. It only took them about a week [to print all those shirts]," Harvath says. Not so any more. In November of each year, The Shirt Committee president works with the vice presidents, the outgoing president and staff advisor Bob Franken (print media specialist for the student activities office) to sift through dozens of applicants to find the 10 or so individuals whose demonstrated skills will combine to form a successful and efficient Shirt Committee.
Committee meetings begin immediately in order to stay on-target for The Shirt unveiling prior to the Blue-Gold Game in April of the following year. Initial discussions focus on selecting the company to manufacture and print the shirts, but that decision is heavily influenced by and inseparable from choice of color. Creative types start piecing together images and graphics while the business-minded among the team members research printing companies and compare quotes. Up to this point, the Shirt Committee has always reserved independence in selecting its manufacturer; the University's new relationship with Under Armour will not affect that independence.
"This year," says 2014 Shirt Committee president John Wetzel, "we knew we wanted a color that resembled a blue-grey October sky. Alta Gracia had that perfect color." One of the premier manufacturers of collegiate athletic wear, Alta Gracia Apparel is a factory in the Dominican Republic that, under new management, became a fair-trade organization in 2007. In fact, the apparel manufacturer is now known as one of the safest, most lucrative places of employment in the Dominican Republic, with wages more than three times that nation's average.
This is the third consecutive year for an Alta Gracia shirt. With sales of more than 155,000 units in 2012, the first Alta Gracia shirt generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for Notre Dame students and a living wage for 135 Dominican workers and their families. The 2013 shirt by Alta Gracia was even more popular, with more than 156,000 units sold.
Other shirt manufacturers have included adidas, Champion, Jerzees, St. Clair Apparel, and way back to the beginning with Hanes. The original 1990 kelly-green shirt simply read NOTRE DAME IRISH in block letters on the front, while the back featured Harvath's own hand-drawn images of the library mural, the Basilica, the dome, Notre Dame stadium, the crowd, the Leprechaun, the University seal/insignia and Lou Holtz.
After selling 7,000 shirts as pre-orders to students on campus, Harvath decided to order another 2,000 for sale to fans throughout the game weekend. More than 500 of the second batch were sold during the pep rally Friday evening, and the remaining 1,500 sold out by noon on gameday. Kickoff against Michigan wasn't until that night of Sept. 15, and there was additional demand for the first shirt all afternoon. All told, those first shirts at $10 apiece brought in some $40,000 profit. Two dollars per shirt were given to the residence halls, and the rest was earmarked for AnTostal, just as Harvath had promised.
In her written History of The Shirt, 2014 Shirt Committee vice president Molly Howell says, "The success of The First Shirt was unexpected and overwhelming. Nine thousand t-shirts were produced and sold in just weeks, and demand showed that several more thousand might have been sold as well. The student body and Notre Dame fans had quickly jumped at the opportunity to buy and wear the same shirt on gamedays. They liked the idea of a uniform, and they were quick to receive Harvath's idea.
"Harvath also commented on the charitable aspect of The First Shirt and how its original purpose was to unite and support the Notre Dame student body. The community responded very well to that incentive and giving back to students."
Interestingly enough, in its incipient year, The Shirt rolled out with not one but two iterations, thus the discrepancy between number of shirts and number of years in shirt history. Where a spring festival and a football game had been the driving forces behind the original The Shirt, it was tragedy that fueled the idea for its successor. In October 1989, Notre Dame graduate student Zhengde Wang had been hit by a motorist and seriously injured. Sister Jean Lenz, at that time the assistant vice president for student affairs, and Joe Cassidy, director of student activities, approached Harvath and the residence hall presidents with the idea of doing a second Shirt fundraiser to help offset Wang's substantial medical bills.
Shirt number two, "the t-shirt for a cause," had even more support than the first shirt. After design and production were finished, the Notre Dame athletics department helped with promotions: the Second Shirt - and most importantly, its cause - gained national media attention. More than 32,000 Second Shirts were sold both before the Miami game and after the Irish victory on Oct. 20, 1990. Harvath and the Notre Dame administrators were able to present a check for $100,000 to Zhengde Wang.
Howell's History read: "The success of the Second Shirt solidified what Harvath and others had realized before - The Shirt Project [was a perfect] fit at Notre Dame, and was on its way to becoming a tradition. The charitable [origins] of the project- uniting and supporting - aligned with the University's values and spirit of family and thus appealed to every member of the community."
Twenty-five years later, the tradition has never been stronger. The Shirt Charity Fund now has an endowment of nearly $2 million that continues as a resource for students with extraordinary medical conditions requiring payment beyond their means. In addition, the project allocates $100,000 every year to the Rector Fund, which assists students who lack the means to purchase nonessential items, like football tickets, that greatly enhance the undergraduate experience. The Shirt also helps fund more than 400 student clubs and organizations on campus, thereby offsetting the Notre Dame student activity fee, which, unlike similar fees most other colleges in the nation, has not risen in more than a decade.
For the 25th anniversary, the 2014 Shirt Committee wanted to demonstrate an intentional connection between The Shirt past and present. This year's shirt is actually made of a 60/40 cotton/polyester blend in dark blue-grey heather. Even though the blended material and the non-solid color are firsts in shirt history, they combine to give The Shirt a vintage feel which honors that history. The shade of blue absolutely falls within the range of colors traditionally associated with the Fighting Irish.
In recognition of Harvath's original motivation, the designers of The Shirt 2014 also prioritized the unity which has been both sustenance and result of Shirt production for two-and-a-half decades. The connections between the students, the football team and its historic home are all essential threads inextricably woven into the fabric that makes up the legacy of Notre Dame home games.
"This year we wanted to capture the full gameday experience and include every member of the Notre Dame community who is part of this great tradition," says Howell. Wetzel says: "This design deviates from the style that has been used in recent years. The graphic was organically created by our talented designers rather than based directly off of images as it was in previous years."
Two of those designers, Victor Roh and Camden Hill, worked together to capture the full essence of Notre Dame gamedays - not just the players and coaches but the band, the fans, the stadium - the spirit of Notre Dame that pervades every game weekend and wakes up the echoes from games of yesteryear.
"The design features the stadium, which is something [permanent]," says Roh. "Students come and go, players come and go, but the stadium will always be there. When [graduates] come back to their alma mater, they'll always find the stadium in the same place."
The front of The Shirt 2014 features a stylized version of Notre Dame Stadium's north entrance, against that heather-colored backdrop that hearkens to the "blue-grey October sky" of the famous Four Horsemen article. The phrase "Then. Now. Forever." adapted by Shirt Committee member Kevin Frost acknowledges the legendary history and tradition of Notre Dame football while pointing out the legacy which the University continues to hand down through its unwavering commitment to athletic and academic excellence.
On the back of The Shirt, the inside of the stadium is shown from the perspective of the south end zone, at that rousing moment when the football players run out of the tunnel and onto the field through the marching band. The stadium is literally encircled by the words, "WE ARE ND!" which, of course, is a fairly accurate representation of gameday reality for Irish fans.
A special 25th anniversary logo is featured on the left sleeve and inside the neckline of The Shirt. "We wanted to ensure that this shirt was exciting and innovative [to honor the 25th anniversary,] and we hope that we have conveyed this in our decisions," says Hill.
So, wear it proudly, all season long.
The Shirt 2014 can be purchased at The Shirt Project's website (theshirt.nd.edu), the LaFortune Student Center box office and all local outlets of the Notre Dame Bookstore, including stadium souvenir stands. Your purchase not only continues a Notre Dame tradition but also provides a significant basis of extended-family support for Notre Dame students. Thank you, and go Irish!