HomeSportsNotre Dame & Oklahoma Arguing Over Who Started ‘Play Like a Champion Today’ Sign Tradition

Notre Dame & Oklahoma Arguing Over Who Started ‘Play Like a Champion Today’ Sign Tradition

by Thad Mitchell
Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

Two college football powerhouses, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, are both staking claim to a popular motivational phrase.

“Play like a champion today” is the last thing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sees before taking the field. The phrase is etched into a wood slab and hangs inside the team’s home stadium. It is a long-held tradition that each Notre Dame player touches the sign before heading onto the field of play. The simple slogan has become very popular and other teams use it as well to ramp up motivations.

The tradition was believed to have been established first at Notre Dame under the guidance of legendary coach Lou Holtz in 1986. Holtz had the slogan placed inside the tunnel that the team runs out and onto the field. The players slap the sign as a reminder that they are to play like champions each and every game. To not touch the sign as a player runs through the tunnel is a college football sin. The pregame ritual gained national attention in 1988 during the Fighting Irish championship season.

Now, however, some are questioning if the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is really the first team to utilize the slogan. College football historian and ESPN writer Dave Wilson recently wrote a piece on the origin of the “Play Like a Champion Today” origin. He notes that it is the Univerity of Oklahoma Sooners who first used the slogan in 1947 or 1948.

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Barry Switzer, former head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners football team, says the sign was in place when he began coaching in 1966.

“I came here in the ’60s and it was already up,” Switzer says. “The ’50s players said Bud put that up. Every time the players went to the practice field, the game field, whatever, they had to go underneath that sign.”

While it may have been Oklahoma that first used the slogan and sign, it is Notre Dame that made it famous. During the team’s national title run in 1988, television crews placed a camera in the tunnel to show the players slapping it. That camera is still there and the team is often shown before games going through the tradition.

“It’s sort of become synonymous with Notre Dame,” Holtz said recently. Revered as one of the greatest college coaches of all time, Holtz coached the Fighting Irish from 1986 to 1996. Switzer, who spent most of his career with Oklahoma, is also considered a coaching great.

Of course, the best way to settle this beef would be for the two teams to play each other and settle it on the field. It doesn’t seem like that will be happening soon but you can bet both teams would play like champions.