Part One: A conversation with Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick
Editor's note: Columnist Tom Noie sat down with Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick to talk about everything but college football. This is the first of a two-part series.
SOUTH BEND – There's a new commander in chief of the first-floor corner office in the Joyce Center.
Notre Dame head football coaches long called the space home before construction of the Guglielmino Center shipped everything in that operation to the northeast area of campus. When football moved out, Irish men's basketball coach Mike Brey moved in for a few years until the program snagged the stand-alone space that became Rolfs Hall.
Now, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is to call the corner of the old building home.
Swarbrick and the athletic department offices moved down one floor this time last year to be closer to the Notre Dame student-athletes and the sports he oversees. The pandemic then hit and the building basically was barren for the better part of the 2020-21 school year. Swarbrick updated the decor, moving more toward South Florida chic than the ski lodge social look that Brey left behind.
On Friday, Swarbrick met with the Tribune to discuss a variety of sports other than college football. Following is part one of the morning’s 35-minute discussion with Swarbrick in his office. Here he talks mainly about the men’s and women’s basketball programs. On Monday, he’ll touch on other topics/sports/issues in an athletic department that he has led since 2008.
Q: Notre Dame has missed four straight NCAA men’s basketball tournaments. Is it NCAA or else this season for head coach Mike Brey?
A: No. I never look at any program in that way, because each year is its own experience. You may have injuries, you may have something else. I mean, look where we were (in 2016-17) when Matt Farrell gets hurt and Bonzie Colson gets hurt. The team, coming out of Hawaii was so well positioned at No. 5 in the country. All of a sudden, that year changes on you.
So no, it’s not NCAA tournament or else. Do we need to improve? Absolutely. Mike is the first to say that and the players embrace it. But no, there’s no hard fixed standard on that.
Q: Shouldn’t this program at least get to the NCAA tournament every year?
A; That’s the goal, but each season is different. Look, how many current Atlantic Coast Conference coaches would love to be able to say they won the ACC Tournament? That they were the ACC champions? That’s the same guy that won the ACC Championship in North Carolina (in 2015) going through Duke and North Carolina. And then back to back Elite Eights. As (university president) Father John (Jenkins), once said to me about a different coaching circumstance, the person didn’t forget how to coach.
My job is to help. My job is to ask the hard questions and make sure we’re looking at everything we can do differently, but my confidence level remains very high.
Q: When you meet with Mike Brey at the end of every season and ask him what you can do to make this program as good as it can be, what’s his most common ask?
A: He is a low-demand coach. He’ll always have some specifics, and sometimes they relate to personnel, sometimes they relate to university policy, but by and large, it’s less about him telling me what help he needs than him saying, here’s what I think we need to do to improve the program.
Q: So this offseason, it was, it’s time to shuffle the staff/responsibilities and go at it from a different direction?
A: Absolutely. And we’ve seen that in other programs here, where staff changes can have a very big impact. You want to be intentional about it but that was definitely the first element of the offseason, starting there.
Q: Mike Brey said following the North Carolina State home game in March when a couple students chanted “Fire Brey!” that he would know when it was time for a new voice. What is it that tells you he still can be that voice after 21 years?
A: Very much the transition between last season and this season, the reforming of the staff, the messaging to the players, starting with Selection Sunday (when the Irish watched the selection show from Brey’s home), the embracing of the challenge.
He’s always been open to doing things differently, but this was an opportunity to really reboot. It’s evident in a host of ways. I was at practice (Thursday). Very different atmosphere. More intense. Higher energy. More demanding in terms of performance.
Q: When you walked out of that practice, what was your first thought?
A: There was an accountability and a demand on each other. It was great instruction by the coaches, but I was more jazzed by the player instruction to one another. All good teams have that ownership. And frankly, some guys, the perception of them is that they’re really quiet, would pull another player aside and say, No, this is the way they want you to do it.
I love that ownership and accountability.
Q: What impact did it have when several former players reached out to you to voice their support for Mike Brey after that North Carolina State game?
A: It goes back to, what’s the culture of the program? One of the manifestations of a good culture is the connectiveness of former members of that culture.
Part of what I said to the former players who reached out was, let’s see what the broader spectrum reaction will be. Of course, it was exactly what I thought it would be (for the next home game against Florida State). It was an outpouring of support for me.
Q: Even before a college basketball season starts, the top of the ACC usually is Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State. Virginia Tech’s better. Louisville’s always a threat to be top tier. Can Notre Dame consistently compete with all of that?
A: I think so, because we came from the Big East. We may take it for granted. We’ve been in the two best basketball conferences in the country. Recent years, the Big Ten has an argument, but overall, it’s been those two conferences and we’ve had a lot of success.
That has to give us the confidence and belief that we can have it again. You’ve got to respond to the ratcheting up of the league. The teams, the drive keep getting bigger. You’ve got to match that.
Q: What evidence underscores that Notre Dame is closer to the successes of 2015 and 2016 than the struggles of the last four years?
A: That there aren’t big structural problems. That we play with a defined style, which is important. Coaches that don’t have a way they play, regardless of the sport, that’s always problematic. There’s a way Notre Dame plays basketball. We embrace it. We play that way.
We’ve got to be a lot better defensively and we know that and we’re focused on that. We have that. Culturally, we’re in a really good spot. The talent has improved. We need to continue to focus on that and attracting the best talent that we possibly can.
The coaching staff will have a big impact this year.
Q: How does an athletic director find the balance between believing that a change is needed and necessary to take a program in a new direction, like baseball, or staying the course?
A: It starts with the student-athlete experience and the culture of the program. Performance is very important and we’ve made decisions based on competitive outcome, but the starting point for me is always the student-athlete experience.
What I find most interesting about our men’s basketball team is in an environment where 40 percent of Division I basketball players put themselves in the transfer portal, nobody from this team that’s coming off a really bad year put themselves in the portal.
They believe in the program. They’re having a good experience. They want to be at Notre Dame. That’s the starting point.
Our fans need to understand how much those guys burn to win. It kills them. It absolutely kills them when they don’t win. It’s not any sense of complacency; it’s more ownership. It’s more, I believe in this place and I’m not going to leave this program like this. It’s more of, I’m going to be a part of getting this program back to where it should be.
Q: What did you see from women’s head coach Niele Ivey during her first year that allows you to believe that she can win here?
A: Her understanding the game. Her undergraduate was being the point guard for Muffet McGraw. Her master’s was being the No. 1 assistant under Muffet and then her doctorate was being in the NBA (as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies). She knows the game. Her network of people inside the game is so impressive, so you don’t worry about that.
Her passion is extraordinary. She’s a competitor in everything she does.
Going from not being a head coach to being a first-year head coach in the ACC at Notre Dame, it’s a huge jump. I think she handled it well under challenging circumstances.
Q: How did you help Coach Ivey through a challenging season?
A: One of the things I’ve gotten better at with new coaches is spending more time with them during that first year. Niele and I met frequently and we’d take one piece from the last two weeks and talk about — here’s something I observed. Those were great conversations.
Q: The ever-evolving transfer portal in college basketball. Less of a panic/problem today because there’s so much movement as opposed to five years ago?
A: It is, but you want to understand every one of those. The decisions are different. The motivations are different. But it is really important for us to say when we get that (transfer) notice, we don’t say, good luck and see you. We want to sit down with you and understand. It’s not trying to talk someone out of it. In some cases, it’s an opportunity to placate the decision. Sometimes, that’s pretty straight forward.
Sometimes there’s a personal decision involved. I always have some hesitancy when first-year student-athletes transfer because I’ve seen so many first-year student-athletes in so many sports, if you can get past that first year, you’re really going to love the experience. That always draws my attention.
They’re all different. You just want to understand the reasons. Sometimes they cite reasons that you have to address. Like, OK, thank you. I didn’t know that. That information’s going to help me do a better job in my job.
(Editor’s note: Late in the 2014-15 school year, Swarbrick was at a men’s lacrosse contest at Loftus Center when he saw then-Irish men’s basketball player Pat Connaughton wearing a pair of shoes other than UnderArmour, the official/exclusive apparel provider for Notre Dame. Swarbrick asked Connaughton to take off the shoes, which he confiscated. Legend has it that Connaughton walked around for the rest of that lacrosse match in his socks).
Q: Where are those shoes that you confiscated from Connaughton?
(Swarbrick leaves the sitting area of his office, walks down the hall and returns with the pair of red low-cut Nike shoes).
A: I keep them on a shelf that I have in the (outer) office with a bunch of souvenirs. And Pat sends me a pair every year, which of course, I can’t wear but when I’m done with this job, I’ve got a hell of a collection of shoes that I can break out.
Q: Wasn’t the deal that Connaughton would get those shoes back when he graduated?
A: No. I can’t tell you the number of times with perspective student-athletes I’ve used the shoe story. I use the story to say, that’s the relationship that I want to have with you when you’re here. I want to know you. I want to be able to give you a hard time like this.
Pat can be anything he wants to be. It’s Planet Pat — it’s his world and we’re all living in it. Every time I go by a property that he’s developed here in South Bend, I’m reminded of this. Like, yeah, I can move into Pat’s building.
He’s a positive energy, intelligent guy. Pat’s going to do much bigger things than being athletic director.
Coming Monday: Notre Dame baseball’s rocket rise, Name, Image and Likeness issues and why Swarbrick remains as athletic director after 13 years.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI