A few weeks ago I asked some of the people I work with what they would want to read on my blog. One of the things that came up was my past experience as an athletics equipment manager. They knew I had gone to the University of Notre Dame as an undergrad and at least one knew I was a full-time equipment manager there, but neither knew what I really did in those roles. My experience as an equipment manager began during the time that I was a student and was further developed well after graduation – about 4 years. There are many different stories I could tell about my time at ND and/or as an equipment guy in general, but I’ll reserve those for some more appropriate time. For the purposes of this blog I’ll simply keep the commentary to duties, responsibilities, a few of the perks of the job and a bit more about my history. Part 1 – Student Managers Organization, or “SMO.”
The storied past of the University of Notre Dame and its athletics programs often speaks for itself. The story I intend to tell here is one that is often under the radar and one that very few people know about. If you’ve seen the movie “Rudy” or know anything about the Notre Dame Football team, you know about the Golden Helmets and the managers that paint them. This is the story of the team behind the team, the Student Managers Organization at the University of Notre Dame.
The Student Managers Organization at the University of Notre Dame has its roots dating back to the late 1920’s during the time that Knute Rockne was the football coach there. Coach Rockne enlisted a few students to help him out with various responsibilities as it related to the university’s athletics programs. Over time, the SMO evolved to cover numerous duties of varying levels of responsibility for literally every sports team at Notre Dame. Of course as different coaches were fired and hired by Notre Dame, their expectations of control over their respective programs influenced some of the changes within the Student Managers Organization. As the needs of the coaches and teams changed, so did the organization of the SMO. Perhaps the biggest change to the University of Notre Dame as a whole was the admittance of its first female class of students in the fall of 1972; since it’s founding in 1842, Notre Dame had been an all-male campus. As a result of this decision and future passing of the legislation called “Title IX,” the SMO began to cover the newly minted varsity women’s athletics programs as well.
When I joined the Student Managers Organization as a freshman during the Winter of 2003, the program was much different from what it is now. At that time there were 21 senior student managers, 21 junior student managers, about 50-75 sophomore student managers and roughly 300-400 freshman student managers who managed various responsibilities for 26 different teams. The SMO was open for all students to join during the winter of their freshman year and fall of their sophomore year and only during these times. If you were not a freshman or sophomore, you couldn’t join the SMO. The aspects of the program that make this type of student job unique are that, at the beginning, it is open to literally every student who wants to join in addition to the level of responsibility held by the junior and senior student managers.
As a freshman or sophomore you sign up, get your work gear package of shoes, jacket, polo, and a few workout shirts and get on the work schedule. At this level, your basic responsibilities are to assist the junior and senior managers with whatever it is they need. This could be anything from shagging foul balls at practice, running bases, filling up water bottles, moving equipment, videotaping practices or folding laundry – very basic tasks, but important ones for the people running the teams. Perhaps the best or most fun parts of being a sophomore student manager is working football practice, assisting with locker room duties and prepping the players’ helmets for the famous 23 carat gold paint. The helmet prep process is actually quite involved and happens before every game. First, the helmet exterior must be cleaned and free of any dirt or grime. Next, the existing paint must be smoothed out with paint thinner and any flakes or rough edges removed and evened out. After that, all the vent holes, ear holes and all other openings must be covered and sealed with tape or plastic. Finally after all that prep, the junior managers would actually mix the paint with the gold flake and apply 1-3 coats, depending on various independent variables.
At the end of the sophomore year, just before the spring football game, all of the managers at this level would go through an intensive peer evaluation process. Part of that process included a peer ranking of all the sophomore managers from 1 to however many there were in the group with only the top 21 making it to their junior year. Those top 21 sophomores would be allowed to continue on as junior football managers whose main responsibility was to learn from and assist the senior managers, a title they would assume the following year. At the end of the football season their junior year, those 21 managers would then rank their peers again from 1 to 21 with the top male and female managers getting a full 100% tuition scholarship, the next 9 managers getting a 75% scholarship and the rest of the managers in that class would receive a 65% scholarship. In addition, the top ranked manager would have their first choice of sport assignment, the second ranked manager would choose their assigned sport and so forth. A few of the manager positions would be assigned to more than one team of the same sport; for example the golf manager worked for both the men’s and women’s teams. From this time on at the midway point of the junior year, the juniors were instructed to shadow and learn from the senior managers in preparation for their own senior year as the head sport manager.
The senior managers were the true leaders of the Student Managers Organization and their roles with most teams was much like that of a full-time operations manager – scheduling practices and facilities, coordinating laundry and equipment services and organizing travel details including meals, hotels, and flights, in addition to daily office tasks and directing summer camp operations that the team might host in their respective off-seasons. The senior managers would be responsible for most of these tasks in addition to their responsibilities to their education as students.
Overall, my experience as a student manager at Notre Dame was an incredible opportunity to learn the business of sport with real world, hands-on experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The time commitments were significant and the responsibilities critical, but certainly worthwhile growing opportunities that have given me the tools and understanding I couldn’t have received any other way. I remain very appreciative for the people who gave me a chance to succeed and am ever grateful to them. I hope you enjoyed this entry; my next post will be about my time as an athletics equipment manager as a professional and discuss my work history in that field.
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