SOUTH BEND — May 15 remains the self-imposed date that Notre Dame hopes to infuse itself into an athletics big picture that for the past two months has seemingly had a mind, temperament and timetable of its own.
All as ambiguous as its end game.
ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s life during that time has consisted of a menu of floating hypotheticals that beg for attention and modeling, and perhaps even invite overreaction, measured against the notion that the information used to make decisions to create absolutes during the COVID-19 pandemic could change drastically next week, next month.
“There’s an interesting tension,” he said during a Zoom conference call with local and national media on Tuesday afternoon. “I know you’re facing it in your own jobs — how much time do you spend on those issues before you have more information?
“So we’re trying to strike a balance, but we are going to face a lot of those questions down the road.”
Football is the economic beast that, more than ever, connects all the possible answers for the rest of the college sports world. May 15 represents the first possible clue about when the 2020 college football season will start for Notre Dame, which may not be the same time frame it starts for everyone else.
That’s when ND will announce whether second-term summer classes will be staged back on campus, beginning in early July, or whether the school will follow the recent reactive template of online-only learning.
That doesn’t clean up the dangling details entirely. Reopening campus in July certainly makes the possibility of an on-time start to the season — Aug. 29 — more feasible, but the decision to reopen in the fall instead doesn’t necessarily close that door.
“Imagine, for example — and this is purely hypothetical on my part — that campus chooses to open with the start of fall term,” Swarbrick said. “And that’s the first date the residence halls are open.
“Well we’ve all agreed that six and, more likely seven, weeks will be required to safely prepare the football team. So in the interest of safety, as with the decision to open the dorms, you’d have to figure out a way to assemble those students, to put them in an environment that’s safe, whether it’s a residence hall or you make other accommodations to feed them and to prepare them for the season.
“In that regard, fall sports teams collecting for the purposes of preparing may in fact happen before schools are fully open at a number of places.”
Swarbrick addressed a wide-range of compelling topics Tuesday that provided a wide-angle look at how Notre Dame is navigating the challenges and questions brought on by COVID-19.
Those include changes that will remain for the long term even after the “new normal” eventually morphs into the old abnormal.
“I think recruiting will become more virtual, as an important way to both save money but empower everyone to recruit in a similar fashion,” Swarbrick said.
“I think scheduling is going to change significantly, especially for the Olympic sports. Out of this, regardless of what this year holds, will come a significant need to readdress budgeting issues across colleges and universities generally.
“For our part of it, one of the big elements of that is travel. So I think that you will see among those (Olympic) sports more regional play and less regular-season travel.
“I think there may be even changes made within conferences about how many conference games are required or what the conference postseason tournament looks like — all designed to reduce travel. And I think that would be a very positive development for college athletics.”
Cutting sports, he said, isn’t imminent. The plan at ND is not to go down that road while the school is working its way through the process of figuring out how to make bringing back sports in 2020-21 a reality.
“I think we’ll come out of this having to look at every element of our budget, both the revenue side and the expense side,” Swarbrick said.
“So whether it’s a different approach to travel, whether some sports don’t get a full complement of scholarships available or whether you change your sports program generally and say we’re not going to sponsor future sports, I’m not sure I can think of any school in the country for which those issues aren’t on the table now.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean the reduction of sports will be the leading edge of cost savings, but I do think it would be disingenuous not to say they have to be part of the conversation.”
The following are Swarbrick’s thoughts on other key topics:
There is talk in college football circles about some conferences reducing the 2020 football schedule to conference games only. How real is that and what would that mean to Notre Dame?
“I don’t want to speak for the conference commissioners, but I think they’re considering every option. And I would be surprised if there’s any conference that hasn’t looked at a conference-only alternative.
“We are very comfortable that if it goes that way, we’ll be fine. We’ll play a high-quality full schedule, the same number of games that other teams will play (though not necessarily 12).
“My hope — and one of the things I’ve encouraged a little bit in my conversations — is whether a possible model is a conference schedule plus-one. There are so many great sort of plus-one games — traditional rivalries that occur among schools
“We would love Wisconsin to still be able to play Notre Dame in Lambeau (Green Bay, Wis.) this year or Arkansas to still visit. So we’ll have to see how that evolves, but I am not concerned about our ability to have a challenging, robust schedule, even if conferences go to a conference-only model.”
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk recently was quoted that the Aug. 29 opener with Navy in Dublin, Ireland — technically Navy’s home game — is still on. How does that look from Notre Dame’s vantage point?
“At this point, it’s still on the schedule. As Chet mentioned our focus — in part because there’s no reason to have a different focus — is on moving forward toward it.
“We get more information on it every day — more information from Ireland. We get a better sense of the state of college football generally and whether it can begin on time. But until so many of the blanks are filled in, we’re not at a point yet where we’re prepared to do anything but plan for it.
“Having said that, we recognize the risks. We recognize all the things that can happen in the next weeks and months to decide we can’t do that. But at present, it’s still on the calendar and we’re still preparing as if we’re going to play it.”
With states and universities likely varying greatly in their approaches to reopening, are you concerned there might be a competitive advantage for some schools based on those differing criteria?
“I’m not concerned about a competitive advantage or disadvantage. I’ve accepted long ago in this pandemic that that’s a natural consequence. And I have told our coaches over and over again, ‘Do not focus on that issue.’
“‘Focus on health — your health, your staff’s health and most importantly the health of our students. And we’ll go from there. Whatever the consequences are, they are.
“So there will be great disparities that I think are inevitable in this. The NCAA will do what it can to regulate them, but you’re still going to have circumstances where schools aren’t open and others are, or states haven’t reopened and some have.
“As was stressed with the Vice President (Mike Pence), we face very different circumstances than the pro sports, who I think can figure out how to begin and begin all at once despite state differences. Most of our members are state institutions and we are certainly all colleges and universities.
“Those two complexities are enormous when you’re trying to figure out how to get going again.”
Is there a concern about liability risks and potential lawsuits with reopening stadiums and arenas?
“I think we share that concern and that risk with every enterprise that opens — with every restaurant, with every hotel, with every theme park, with every movie theater.
“I think all that we can do is make sure that we are complying with the best standard available to us — rely on the experience and expertise of the scientific and medical communities, which colleges and universities tend to have a real advantage in terms of access to those resources.
“Be guided by those and move forward. We can’t let the threat of that risk fundamentally change the experience of our students, whether they’re student-athletes or students on campus. So that balancing act is tough, but we’re not alone, and we just need to make the best choices we can.”
The university announced some pay reductions for its academic and athletic leaders. In this light, is there ever going to be a good time to announce head football coach Brian Kelly’s contract extension — assuming that’s at or near completion?
“Some people had asked me in the preceding weeks why we hadn’t made an announcement about cuts for athletic administrators and coaches when other universities and conferences had. And the answer was simply because that would occur when the university made the announcement.
“And the university has made that announcement. I’m pleased to say that the contribution that will come from athletics personnel as a result of salary adjustments will be over $1.5 million.
“As it relates to the extension of Brian’s contract, I view the two as separate in the sense that you have to make decisions to maintain great faculty, great administrators at the campus, great educator/coaches regardless of the circumstances.
“Our decision with Brian has been ongoing for a long time. And as soon as we get the opportunity to not meet by Zoom, I look forward to hopefully making an announcement about it.”
Given that you have an exclusive TV arrangement with NBC, is there flexibility there that if college football is played in less-than-filled stadiums this season to compensate for lost revenue with perhaps a spike in TV ratings?
“No. There’s nothing about the contract that addresses those circumstances, and I wouldn’t anticipate asking for that.
“I think our partnership is such that as both of us go through the challenge of this — and keep in mind that the broadcast companies have significant challenges themselves — we want to be the best partner that we can be. So our goal was to meet our commitment as to provide the content but not to ask for anything special beyond that.
“If our schedule is altered, we’ll be having discussions about what can be done to accommodate that. NBC has a very crowded sports calendar and broadcast calendar. They’re great partners, but if they have to have that discussion about when we play, we’ll have that discussion.”