Rick Mirer remembers the first time he slapped the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign at Notre Dame.
The wooden sign — 3 feet high, 4 feet wide and painted gold with blue hand lettering — hangs over the narrow staircase in the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium, just high enough where players can reach up to pay homage on their way to the field.
“As a student, I’m touching the sign, and I didn’t know it hadn’t been there 50 years,” said the former star quarterback, who arrived at Notre Dame in 1989. “That locker room was sacred, that stairwell was sacred, that tunnel was sacred, and the sign’s a very big part of that.”
But when Mirer first laid hands on it, the sign had only been hanging for three years at the direction of football head coach Lou Holtz, who was hired in late 1985. The sign was in place for the 1986 season, representing Holtz’s ambition of restoring the luster of a legendary program that had fallen into mediocrity. The idea, he said, came from a book on Notre Dame history he had checked out from the university library over the winter break in hopes of learning as much as he could about the school’s proud tradition. He saw a photo featuring the sign, which was no longer hanging in the stadium.
“I started asking around,” Holtz said. “What happened to that sign? Nobody knew anything about it. Granted, it was probably during [coach Knute] Rockne’s days, I don’t know.”
The sign slap became a beloved ritual at Notre Dame, as Holtz led the Irish to a national championship in 1988 in just his third season. In 1991, NBC, which had just given the university its own marquee TV deal, showcased the sign by placing a camera in the hallway that captured the players hitting it.
“It’s sort of become synonymous with Notre Dame,” Holtz said last week.
That has caused outrage at Oklahoma, where football head coach Bud Wilkinson placed a “Play Like A Champion Today” sign over the locker room door in either 1947 or 1948, according to the school. A version of the same sign has been in constant use at OU ever since; but it has never earned the same mystique that Notre Dame’s draws.
“I came here in the ’60s and it was already up,” said Barry Switzer, the legendary Oklahoma football head coach from 1973 to 1988 who was a coordinator before that. “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.”
On the field, the Sooners have another banner with the phrase surrounded by flags representing each of OU’s seven national titles.
The dispute over who should get credit for popularizing the phrase took another turn on Sept. 15, when a company named Play Like A Champion Today LLC (PLACT) announced it had acquired the trademark to the phrase and had entered into a five-year licensing agreement with Notre Dame.
Even more surprising: The ownership group behind PLACT is headed by Holtz with a group of investors including Mirer and former Irish wide receiver Derrick Mayes. Switzer immediately registered his objections on Twitter, which shined a new light on the long-running debate.
“When the news started making its way around that Lou Holtz had copyrighted the phrase, of course, with social media, emotions get elevated,” said Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma’s athletic director. “Fans started saying, ‘Wait a minute. He can’t copyright that. It’s not his to copyright.'”
It’s a one-sided argument. Sooners fans have complained about Notre Dame “stealing” the idea for years, while Irish fans respond with a shrug and the assertion that they’re the ones who actually made it famous. But Oklahoma’s claim to the tradition is well-documented with photos and old news reports.
“Over the door of the Sooners’ dressing room is a sign reading ‘Play Like A Champion Today,'” reads a 1957 story in the Oklahoma Daily. “Sooner squads have been reading and heeding that sign for years — playing like champions and winning like champions.”
But outside of Oklahoma, the Sooners’ tie to the phrase is largely unknown. Holtz even said it was news to him.
“You just brought up the first time I ever knew that Oklahoma said they had that sign,” he told ESPN.com last week. “I never knew Oklahoma even had the sign. And if they had it in the ’40s, ours was up in the ’30s, I’ll tell ya, because it was an old book. So, yeah, I’m not worried about that. We got the [trademark] to it now, and we’ll move on.”
Holtz couldn’t help but pile on a bit, offering a suggestion to the Sooners, who have played four closer-than-expected games early in the season.
“Right now, the way they played the last couple of weeks?” Holtz said. “Oklahoma needs to hit that sign twice.“
For Notre Dame, the Play Like A Champion deal represents a chance to use some of the Irish’s biggest star power to expand their brand. For Oklahoma, it represents a made-for-TV tradition that overshadows more than 80 years of their history. The two universities’ war of words comes down to one big question: Who should be allowed to own one of college football’s most fabled traditions?
Universities weren’t always on top of protecting their intellectual property. But much like domain names in the early days of the internet, copyrighting names and phrases has become a cottage industry. In the United States, the number of trademarks filed has increased by 146% in the past decade, from 269,000 applications in 2009 to 662,000 in 2020.
There are plenty of turf battles. Texas A&M has owned the trademark to the phrase “12th Man,” meant to represent the support of fans in the stands, since 1990, and has vigorously defended its claim, including licensing it to the Seattle Seahawks in 2006 as part of a legal settlement that acknowledges the term is owned by the Aggies.
In the case of Play Like A Champion Today, a savvy Notre Dame employee took the initiative, outmaneuvering two giant college football programs before eventually selling the rights.
Laurie Wenger, a Notre Dame maintenance shop employee and graphic designer who worked as a sign painter, drew the assignment with specific instructions from Holtz on how he wanted the sign to look.
“It was just another job for me,” Wenger said in 2010 in “Strong of Heart,” an annual book of athletic profiles published by Notre Dame. “Looking back, I should have made it more formal.”
The sign became the most popular destination on campus, according to John Heisler, a member of the athletics staff at Notre Dame for 40 years who has written, co-written or edited 10 books on Notre Dame football.
“It was crazy,” said Heisler, now the senior associate athletics director at UCF. “When visitors came to town, that was the first thing they asked me to see. It was even bigger than football games.”
Wenger started getting requests from people who wanted to buy their own copy of the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign. According to “Strong of Heart,” Wenger’s husband, Ron, delivered the sign to their first customer, who said he had been a walk-on football player.
“When I went down to his basement, I had never seen so much Notre Dame memorabilia,” Ron said. “He had a helmet, a jersey, even a church pew.”
It turned out to be Rudy Ruettiger, the inspirational Irish football player behind the movie “Rudy” and another key piece of Notre Dame lore who had then inspired the Wengers to think bigger. If Rudy wanted one, who wouldn’t?
The Wengers applied for a trademark in 1993. The university didn’t challenge it since it didn’t include the name “Notre Dame” in it.
“It never once occurred to me that somebody would [trademark] that,” Holtz said. “That belonged to Notre Dame.”
Castiglione also said that Oklahoma was unaware, saying he believes Oklahoma’s current legal department would be more attuned to such issues.
“I guarantee if we would have known about it we would have contested it,” Castiglione said. “One would have thought it would have been brought to our attention because we’re being intentional about our branding and our traditions.”
But the initial filing, in April 1993, was contested — by Champion athletic apparel in 1995. The Wengers abandoned their claim in 1997.
Josh Gerben, a trademark attorney who maintains a sports database, said this sometimes happens when a small operation doesn’t have the resources or the desire to fight a large company and deal with the legal fees.
Still, the Wengers continued selling signs and merchandise with the blessing of Notre Dame. Heisler said he once counted 40 products in the university bookstore with those five words on them.
Laurie Wenger, who was born blind in her right eye, was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She told ESPN.com in 2012 that she had to stop painting signs after doing nearly 700 of them. She said she was grateful for the money the phrase generated for her family because it helped cover her medical bills, including for a malignant brain tumor.
“It hasn’t been millions,” she said, “but it’s definitely helped keep my nose above water.”
A new trademark application by the Wengers in 2006 was approved and published in 2008 as a result of years of proof of supplying Notre Dame with official merchandise with the phrase.
“For whatever reason, the university never owned it,” Mirer said. “That kind of blows everybody’s mind. It blew my mind and everybody I’ve talked to about it. It didn’t make sense that Notre Dame didn’t own it, but times have changed. Who would’ve known 50 years ago that a baseball card would be worth $5 million?”
Notre Dame has already been more proactive about protecting its traditions. Aside from the obvious trademarks like Fightin’ Irish, Notre Dame owns the trademarks for such phrases as Domer, a nickname for university alums; Four Horsemen, the nickname of the legendary 1920s backfield of Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden; and Grotto, for the university’s on-campus reproduction of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
But Mirer and his group formed Play Like A Champion LLC last year and set out to land the one that got away. They felt it needed to be owned by Holtz, who went 100-30-2 at Notre Dame, including claiming the school’s last national championship in 1988.
“Coach has to be a part of this,” Mirer said. “This was his doing. This is his legacy. We still have him. The guy’s got a statue.”
Records show the Wengers’ company transferred ownership of the trademark to Holtz’s group in September 2020. Notre Dame officials said although they always had a good relationship with the Wengers, there were several others involved in licensing over the years, and terms of the deal were not disclosed. When reached earlier this week, after one question about the Wengers’ journey with the trademark, Ron hung up and did not answer a return call.
Mirer said he was conscious of the Wengers’ history with the sign.
“Let’s take care of her family, make sure that they’re whole,” Mirer said. “Because she really created it — with some direction, obviously.”
A news release announcing the licensing deal with the school said the PLACT group “will work closely with the University to bring exclusive new product collections to the University’s official retail outlets, including the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore,” as well as a deal with Fanatics, the sports retailer, for its Notre Dame shop. Mirer brought up a deal with Barnes & Noble bookstores, as well.
Gerben, the trademark attorney, said the group has filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for expanded merchandise categories, including golf items, including bags and towels, and alcohol.
Mirer, who owns a winery, Mirror Napa Valley, has already helped produce a Play Like A Champion Today chardonnay, which sold out on its first run. A 2019 Cabernet sells for $40 a bottle.
“It’s a good group of people, and they care about the sign,” Holtz said. “They care about doing it the right way. We have a wonderful relationship with Notre Dame and the bookstore, which is important, which is something the other people didn’t have.”
For Holtz, this new venture is about protecting a tradition he brought to life.
“I don’t know, nor do I care, what anybody else is doing,” he said. “This is what we did at Notre Dame, and it’s become one of the most famous sayings in sports.”
The Notre Dame group’s trademark is on solid legal ground since it has already been registered and defended for years. So where does that leave Oklahoma?
“I’m not saying this in a cavalier way but just in a direct way: We’re going to continue to use Play Like A Champion Today like we always have,” Castiglione said.
There are signs up at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium and announcements over the speakers during games that encourage fans to “Cheer Like A Champion Today.” A sign at the Fine Arts Building, home of the music school on campus, encourages musicians to also “Play Like A Champion Today.”
“We’ve used it on so many different things,” Castiglione said. “I can’t even imagine us changing our practice.”
Gerben said Oklahoma likely won’t have to worry about that.
“I think that if [this group] wanted to enforce the trademark against Oklahoma, I think they’d have a very difficult case and would not be very likely to succeed, given the length of history of Oklahoma’s use,” he said. “I think there is a little bit of a misconception about trademarks, that if somebody owns a trademark to a phrase that they own the phrase. It doesn’t grant them the ownership of the phrase, in general.”
He cited the example of a Burger King in Mattoon, Illinois, that predated the national chain and is therefore still allowed to be called Burger King. But without the trademark, the Illinois outpost couldn’t suddenly expand using the name. Similarly, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office requires applicants to specify uses for their trademark.
“You could have somebody that owns this [phrase] for golf towels and a wine brand and other things, and Oklahoma could still use this in their locker room and on T-shirts around campus, and those two uses can coexist legally,” Gerben said.
Castiglione doesn’t claim Oklahoma as being the originator of the phrase, noting that it is used at schools around the country and at every level. He said all the research the Sooners have done indicates Wilkinson might have brought it with him from Minnesota, where he played for coach Bernie Bierman. And Holtz (who arrived at Notre Dame from Minnesota, incidentally) even said he doesn’t know the name of the book where he saw the Notre Dame photo. Heisler said Notre Dame was never able to find the source.
Castiglione still can’t wrap his head around why a phrase so ubiquitous could (or should) be owned by individuals.
“One would understand if it’s something exclusive to an institution, an institution might trademark it,” Castiglione said. “To trademark something that was never yours to begin with, and trademark it with the idea you were going to protect it for whatever reason, including monetary reasons, seems wholly out of order. It’d be like one of us going out and trademarking ‘Sooner Magic.’ That’s not one single individual’s right to trademark a phrase that really applies to an institution.”
Indeed, the “Sooner Magic” trademark is held by the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents.
Mirer said his group appreciates Oklahoma’s stance and that nothing they’ve done is meant to be a shot at OU. But, he said, there’s also no point in arguing who had the sign first.
“I knew that was a phrase that was used,” he said. “I’d seen that picture before and was very well aware of it. It’s been talked about quite a bit. The reality is, I guess they should have trademarked it. It’s synonymous with Notre Dame. I mean, people see it and completely relate it to Notre Dame, and we want to keep it that way.”
Switzer, of course, can be counted on to provide a rebuttal, even if it doesn’t carry much legal standing.
“I don’t really give a s—, you know?” Switzer said. “We know the truth.”