The Story of Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” Sign

In the hallowed halls of Notre Dame Stadium, the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign, with its bold, blue letters, inspires countless Fighting Irish football players. Since Coach Lou Holtz introduced it in 1986, this iconic sign has become a hallmark of Notre Dame football’s spirit and tradition.

History of the Sign

Lou Holtz discovered the phrase in a Notre Dame book, sparking his curiosity. No one remembered the original sign, so Holtz decided to revive this lost piece of lore. He placed the new sign in the stairwell between the home team locker room and the tunnel to the field, linking preparation with performance.

Tradition and Significance

Notre Dame players have made it a tradition to touch the sign before entering the field. This ritual signifies their commitment to excellence and unity. The sign lists Notre Dame’s eleven national championships, including the 1988 victory under Coach Holtz, constantly reminding players of the program’s success and high standards.

Today, the sign stands as a testament to Notre Dame’s storied football legacy. It embodies the values, determination, and unity defining Notre Dame football. More than a pre-game ritual, touching the sign commits players to excellence and the Fighting Irish spirit. It connects them to a tradition transcending the sport.

As Subway Alumni and players look up to the sign, they feel part of a legacy greater than themselves – a legacy of champions triumphing on Notre Dame Stadium’s storied field.

The Artist: Laurie Wenger and the Trademark Journey

Laurie Wenger, the artist who painted the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign for Notre Dame in 1986, played a pivotal role in both its creation and its subsequent commercial journey. Her artistic choices in font and color scheme ignited a new tradition, becoming a symbol of motivation and unity for Notre Dame football.

In 1991, recognizing the sign’s growing popularity, Notre Dame granted Wenger exclusive marketing rights to the phrase. However, it was not until 2006 that Wenger successfully registered the trademark for the phrase, after an initial attempt in 1993 and a legal challenge from Champion athletic apparel in 1995. This perseverance in trademarking reflects the sign’s significant value and connection to Notre Dame’s football legacy.

The trademark rights were later transferred to a group led by former coach Lou Holtz, which includes former players Rick Mirer and Derrick Mayes. This new ownership group, operating under Play Like A Champion Today LLC, has furthered the commercial reach of the phrase through various licensing agreements, including a notable one with Notre Dame.

The journey of the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign from a motivational symbol to a trademarked phrase encapsulates its enduring legacy and the complexities of sports memorabilia in the collegiate sports world.

The Battle Over ‘Play Like A Champion Today’

Illustration by ESPN

An ESPN article shed light on an intriguing aspect of the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign’s history: a longstanding dispute between Notre Dame and Oklahoma over the origin and trademark of the phrase.

The sign, a fixture in Notre Dame Stadium since Coach Lou Holtz placed it there in 1986, was initially inspired by a photo Holtz saw in a Notre Dame history book. However, Oklahoma claims that their version of the sign, introduced by Coach Bud Wilkinson in the late 1940s, predates Notre Dame’s.

In 2021, a company named Play Like A Champion Today LLC, led by Holtz and including former players like Rick Mirer and Derrick Mayes, acquired the trademark for the phrase and entered into a licensing agreement with Notre Dame. This move sparked controversy, especially from Oklahoma, which has used a similar sign for decades.

Notre Dame’s use of the sign and its subsequent trademarking have led to debates over the ownership of such iconic phrases in college sports. While the phrase has become synonymous with Notre Dame, the article highlights the complexities and rivalries in college football’s rich history of traditions.