The bookend experience flashed through Jack Swarbrick’s mind as he watched a wall of humanity Saturday night coming toward him with relentless conviction to celebrate on Notre Dame Stadium’s turf.
The Irish athletic director’s kindred memory to the one unfolding in front of him in the moment — Notre Dame’s No. 4 toppling of No. 1 Clemson, 47-40 in double-overtime — was a Notre Dame Stadium upset of a loaded sixth-ranked USC team in 1973 when Swarbrick was an ND student and the Trojans were the defending national champions.
“They came in with a 23-game undefeated streak,” Swarbrick said Sunday. “A lineup of virtually all NFL players. That was everybody on the offensive line, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham. The wideouts were amazing. Pat Haden was the quarterback.”
Notre Dame’s 23-14 victory vaulted the Irish from No. 8 to No. 5 in the AP poll on their way to a national title.
“Everything about that game was a comparable experience to Saturday night,” Swarbrick said.
Everything but the context of Saturday night’s game being played in a pandemic and the field storm that took place afterward looking like a potential COVID-19 super-spreader event to a curious college football world.
Notre Dame’s active cases on campus have surged into the 200s after being reined in at 26 roughly four weeks ago. The optics at the stadium in the postgame stampede/celebrating implored answers.
Swarbrick, in a one-on-one interview with the Tribune, provided a behind-the-scenes look at Notre Dame’s pregame plan for such a scenario, where the school goes from here in the aftermath and lessons learned from the five home football games that have included limited fans.
Saturday night’s crowd was the largest of the capped capacities at 11,011.
Q: Where were you when the crowd stormed the field?
Jack Swarbrick: “I was on the field, just north of the sideline, so just past the kicking net there. Students were rushing past me. They all avoided running into me.”
Q: I’m watching it from above (the press box) and you could just see the crowd spill onto the field like a dam breaking. What was running through your mind?
JS: “That’s a good description, and it’s a really important one, because we had all kinds of measures in place for this game and things we wanted to do. And I was really pleased with those plans.
“You’ve got three possible outcomes. One is a loss. You hope that doesn’t happen, but you’re not dealing with a field storm. One is a decisive victory, and I think you can manage what occurs.
“The other is a game, whether it’s a knockdown, two-point conversion against Miami or an incompletion on the last play of a second overtime, it’s one where you know you face the challenge of a field rush.
“And you don’t know which consequence you’re going to face. You plan for all of them. And I was pleased with those plans. We had a lot of extra security deployed.
“You have to relieve the front end of a crush. You have a different safety issue if you don’t. And that was visible. It was there.
“And we talked about it before: ‘If this happens, you get this mass incoming, you have to let people come or you’re going to have broken bones and other problems.’
“In that context, we said, ‘Here are the things we have to do. We have to protect Clemson and make sure that they’re not interacting with our student body and allow them to get off the field.’ And I thought that went very well.
“I was really pleased. We deployed security from the tunnel entrance for them all the way to their bench. They were great in sort of getting in that line and going through there. So really pleased with how that worked.
“The second was to try to encourage our players to get off the field quickly. And (coach) Brian (Kelly) — as you’ve read, heard — talked to them about that. We were trying to. We were encouraging them. But in the emotion of the moment, we were only somewhere successful with that.
“Some went right up the tunnel immediately. Others wound up getting engulfed by the crowd, celebrating with them.”
Q: Were there any other protocols or planning in place other than those that you mentioned?
JS: “A lot of extra security, obviously, extra police detail and extra ushers. In the normal course, as we did for this, any student who presented a particular risk was not allowed in. So we voided over 500 tickets of students who either were in quarantine for close contact, were in isolation for having tested positive or failed to show for a surveillance test.
Q: Speaking of testing, were all the students who were at the game tested in the past week?
JS: "I don’t know the weekly number, but I know we have tested — from the dashboard, over 68,000 tests. Over 59,000 of those are surveillance tests. I would guess, especially given the increase (in infections) we’ve had since Halloween, I would guess there was a lot of surveillance testing last week.
“As you well know over 68,000 tests over a student population of about 8,600, that’s a heavy investment in surveillance testing.”
Q: Has the voiding of student tickets been in place all season or was that unique to the Clemson game?
JS: “The voiding of students who were in isolation or quarantine has been in existence throughout the season. The voiding of tickets of students who failed to show up for surveillance testing was new for this game.”
Q: What are the steps the university will and needs to take in the aftermath of the field storming.
JS: “Well, surveillance testing will continue. And, in fact, as we are very close to the end of the semester, the program is very focused on making sure that everyone who leaves to return to their homes or elsewhere in the country test negative before they leave.
“So every student is going to be tested here, and we’re done (on Nov. 20).”
Q: Does Notre Dame track at all what the gameday experience has turned into in terms of outbreaks or campus spread as a result of fans coming to the games?
JS: “Absolutely. Keep in mind we limit this to students, faculty and staff and player families. We know exactly where you’re sitting. If you test positive, we'll provide the ticket manifest to the university. They know who you were supposed to be sitting near.
“They interview you about your game experience, as they would about your dining experience or your residence hall experience. So yeah, it’s very much a part of the contact tracing. And frankly seat locations help you do that.”
Q: Has the experience been pretty similar from one game to the next in terms of how much contact tracing you need to do after a game?
Q: Any plans for what you’re going to do for the crowd for the Dec. 5 Syracuse home game, since the students will be long gone?
JS: “We’re trying to wrestle through that right now. We hope to have an announcement about that sometime this week. We do not yet have a final decision.”
Q: Because there’s been such a significant spike in cases in the last four weeks, is there any change to how the football team interacts with the rest of the campus in terms of classes, dining halls, etc. Have you had to make some intentional changes?
JS: “As you’d anticipate. there’s even more emphasis on what we’ve been doing. Keep in mind because of the modification for the housing policy this year because of COVID, the vast majority of our football team lives off campus with other football players.
“So nothing about their experience outside the classroom, in terms of who they’re housing with, what they’re eating has changed. Nor have the messages we have been sending and that we hope they’re taking.
“We all acknowledge that the postgame last night represented an exception to that. We encouraged them to get off the field quickly. Not all of them did it. We’ll see whether that represents increases and a difference in our testing experience this coming week.”
Q: “What’s the most valuable lesson you/Notre Dame has taken from this ongoing process of trying to play football through COVID-19?
JS: “It has been reaffirming. The quality of the young people here at Notre Dame, they’ve been great.
“Has the social distancing been perfect? No. Could we find somebody who didn’t have a mask on? Sure. But by and large for about 8,000 students, 7,500 students, they have been great.
“I don’t know that I’d put it in a category of surprise, but our philosophy of giving our preference to attend the game to students results in a very different dynamic than all the other places we go, where they allocated them to traditional fans.
“Those people will sit in their assigned seats without exception. If I sell you four seats, when we got to Georgia Tech or we got to Pitt, it’s very organized. Our students are going to move around more. They just are,
“That’s a little bit of the tradeoff we made when we preferenced our students in that context. We’ve asked certain things for them to change — social distancing — and they’ve been great.
“But you don’t get the perfect array that you do when you look at an NFL game or something else, because they (ND students) are going to move around more.
“Again, if it was more reaffirming an expectation that students will sit exactly where their ticket says in this environment with only 11,000 people in the stadium, it probably isn’t going to happen. So you have to focus more broadly on messaging to them: If you leave your seat, please maintain social distancing.”
Q: Did you storm the field in 1973 after the USC game?
JS: “We sure as hell did.”