Like “Knute Rockne,” the “Golden Dome” and “Touchdown Jesus,” the phrase “Play Like a Champion Today” and the pre-game ritual of players touching a sign with the phrase before heading out onto the field is ingrained into Notre Dame football and has become world famous.
But it appears the practice of touching a sign with this phrase started at Oklahoma, which Notre Dame faces in a battle of Top 10 teams this Saturday night in Norman on ABC. This will be the 10th meeting ever between the schools, with the last coming in 1999.
According to Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman, legendary Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson hung a sign with the slogan above OU’s locker room door as early as 1947. Similar to their Notre Dame counterparts, players touched the sign before heading out onto Owen Field.
The current “Play Like a Champion Today” sign in South Bend didn’t appear until 1986. Then-coach Lou Holtz said he came across an old picture of a sign with the slogan in a Notre Dame book and decided to have a new one made. It’s unclear, however, whether the picture in the book predated Wilkinson’s sign, meaning one of Notre Dame’s most famous football landmarks might have actually been stolen from Norman.
Even more evidence that “Play Like a Champion Today” didn’t originate in South Bend? Former 1970s Oklahoma player Sam Muzny e-mailed Trammel saying that Wilkinson adopted the phrase from his head coach at Minnesota when Wilkinson played for the Golden Gophers in the 1930s. According to Muzny, Minnesota head coach Bernie Bierman would tell his players, “GO OUT THERE AND PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY!” at the end of his pregame pep talks.
If only Bierman would have had the foresight to trademark the phrase.
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