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  • Phil Houk

I'll Always Have 2019 (Part 2)




Part 1 highlighted a 6 decade love affair with the fighting Irish, now find out why 2019 was so special.


In the Spring of 2019 I resolved to go to another level with my coverage of Notre Dame Football. An association with noted ND journalist Len Clark provided inspiration. Yes, I had a very good career outside of journalism that paid my bills, but a lifetime of fandom and 23 years of doing a weekly radio show on ND football brought me to the conclusion that I needed to follow my heart.

I hatched a full-time season coverage plan with Len and his Irish101 brand. Besides my weekly radio show with Tim Prister, we would produce a video “magazine” show Irish 101 Gameday each week, and file three live video reports each game day, and I would write more, a lot more. To do this, besides the hours of study I already was doing each week, I would need to get to all the games early, sit in the press box immersed in the action and attend the press conferences.

It is not that easy to get credentials to cover big time college sports, especially when you are not directly connected to a traditional media organization. I had been granted credentials for occasional games over the years but wanting to go full time was another matter. Aided by my 23-year association on the air with Tim Prister and a little persistence, I was approved.

2019 turned into the most remarkable year of my Notre Dame football odyssey.

The season started at Louisville, and the local old timer's press box chatter was more about basketball than football. The Irish got it done on the field, and we were cramped in a by ND standards, small press box. Uniquely, prime rib was served before the game to the media, apparently a game one tradition there.

But the best was yet to come at home in Notre Dame Stadium.

New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech, Navy, Boston College and I fell into a home game rhythm. Arrive 5 hours before game time, pick up credentials, set up my work station in the press box, maybe meet with friends and sponsors who were tailgating and get my game face on. Before one of the games I learned that a friend, Frank Pomerico, Captain of the 1973 Team, was at the Bookstore signing his book Ara's Knights. I raced across campus, and videotaped an interview with him.

About a half hour before each kickoff Len and I filed a 7-10-minute report live on Facebook and then quickly spread it out to other online outlets. That same process was repeated at half time and last thing before leaving the stadium.

I had been covering football in one form or another for over 25 years and had sat in many press boxes, but this was immersion in the game at the highest level. TV monitors, replays, continuously updated stats, press box announcements, intelligent discussion with journalists sitting all around you.

The ND press box experience is an atmosphere that made me feel at home and I loved watching the Irish in this atmosphere. Of course, there are no high fives, and no cheering, not a problem. A long time ago I had mentally transformed from being a football fan to being a sports journalist, I don’t cheer at games, I analyze. In fact, I’ve been told that sitting with me at one of my kid’s games is a bit like listening to the game on the radio.

Sure, I want Notre Dame to win, but during games when "working" I really have no interest in cheering, rather, my interest is in trying to figure out why something happened and what is going to happen next. Nothing is more satisfying to me than seeing a game situation present and predicting in my mind what might happen next and getting it right because I did my homework the week before. If that makes me a student of the game, I’m all in.

At half time Len and I would file our live report, and then in the 4th quarter, the fun would really start. With about 10 minutes left in the game, we would pack up, get on the elevator and head to field level. With 5 minutes left in the game we were admitted to the visitor sideline for the duration of the action.

We saw some great finishes from that vantage point, especially USC and Virginia Tech. Ian Book’s dance into the end zone to beat Virginia Tech occurred just across the field. USC’s last-minute rally that fell short was right in front of me, and I was within a few yards of the USC coaching staff, and inches away from me: the USC cheerleaders!

Post-game is a dash to midfield with camera clicking, you never know what you are going to see in the next 5 minutes. Then the beehive migrates over to the student section for the always iconic alma mater. I videoed this each game and would then post it within minutes. These videos consistently were the most viewed and shared of all the content I posted.

After the alma mater and the “love thee Notre Dame”, it is more photos as the players and coaches work their way to the locker room. For one of the games I was positioned on the wall inside the tunnel about 20 feet looking out towards the field, randomly clicking photos as players walked by. At one point I realized that there was a player stopped right next to me talking to the kids above and signing autographs, it was Ian Book. Needless to say, I got some pretty good photos of the star quarterback interacting with adoring fans. It occurred to me that when I was a kid, that was ME, in the stands leaning over the railing, calling out for Ara or Joe Theismann.

As the field clears, the media heads to the interview room to wait on Brian Kelly and select players. This is where the stories of the next morning get written. To a newbie it can be just a bit intimidating to ask questions during these press conferences, but I did. I found it to be gratifying to hear some of the quotes I elicited repeated in stories the next day.

After the post-game interviews concluded we would walk back out the tunnel and onto the floor of the now empty, but fully lit stadium. The look of Notre Dame stadium at this time was spectacular and never failed to awe me. This view from standing in the middle of the field, provided the perfect back drop for the post-game reports Len and I did after each game.

After broadcasting my final thoughts about the game, and now about two hours after the action concluded, my 'working' day was done. Many of the other journalists, on deadline, would head back to the press box to write game stories. I headed home.

Each game, at this point, I said my goodbye to colleagues and traversed under the stands to the press exit which happens to be adjacent to the Ara Parseghian statute. When I first saw that I was exiting next to Ara, I was stopped in my tracks. I bowed a bit and reached out to rub the foot of the sculpture. How appropriate I thought, Ara, my college football ‘king’ was right there as I ended my day. I repeated that bit of homage each game.

I then would walk a few hundred yards across the parking lot towards my car and stop and turn. From there I saw the most beautiful man made sight I know of, the world’s most beautiful campus, lit up and in all its glory. An emotional moment and sight that I have only grown fonder of as I age.

My drive after each game to where I was staying was about a half hour and gave me some time to reflect on the day. Of course, I would tune my radio to post game coverage, which goes on for a long time in South Bend.

After the first game I arrived back to family, and my wife asked me a simple question, “how was it?” My response, which came straight from the bottom of my heart, and honestly with a bit of a tear in my eye, was this, “I loved it, I absolutely loved every minute of what I just did. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done”.

As the season went on, including a miserable night at Michigan and an arduous travel odyssey to Orlando for the Camping World Bowl where the Irish successfully ended the season, that feeling never changed.


I loved it, I absolutely loved it, it was one of the best things I ever did.

I will really miss it if I don’t get to do it again due to the craziness of 2020, after all plane tickets had been purchased to start the season in Dublin, Ireland, and to end it at USC. I’ve worked to improve as a writer, I’ve lined up new sponsors, the radio show/podcast has a new and better time slot and FightingIrishPreview.com has been enhanced.

But no matter what the future holds…

I’ll always have 2019.

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