Noie: Part Two, 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 second of a two-part series. Part One appeared in Sunday's Tribune
SOUTH BEND – One more quick campus getaway beckons for Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick before the summer life he’s come to know effectively ends.
Welcome to the world of a college athletic director, where you hit the ground running once your football program begins preseason practice every August and you don’t stop moving and breathing and thinking about your campus sports programs until sometime in spring.
Or late spring/early summer.
Entering his 14th year as athletic director of his alma mater, Swarbrick took some time last week to chat before a few days off. When he returns, preseason camp for Notre Dame football likely will be close to full swing, which means Swarbrick again will be on the go.
The Notre Dame athletic director often is asked about the Notre Dame football program, and understandably so. But what about some of the other sports on campus? What about the ever-changing world of Name, Image and Likeness? Heck, what about Swarbrick and how he remains committed to doing the job after steering Notre Dame through unchartered college athletics territory?
Following is part two of the Tribune’s Friday sit down with Swarbrick. On Sunday, he touched mainly on the Irish men’s and women’s basketball programs. On Monday, it’s everything else.
Q: Can you say you saw THAT season coming from the Notre Dame baseball team?
A: Just the opposite, frankly. I think the world of Link Jarrett, but you didn’t know the impact the transfers would have and we had two significant injuries pitching-wise with guys you were going to count on.
The expectations for competitive success weren’t that high for me. The improvement in the program was obvious with every student-athlete that we talked to. Like, Oh, my gosh, we love the program, we love where the program is now, we love playing for this guy. All that was obvious to me.
Did I think that it would translate into the competitive success? Frankly, only when Mississippi State is celebrating in Omaha (as national champions), do you realize just how great our competitive success was.
Q: Where can this program go? To Omaha?
A: Absolutely. That was Link’s clear vision in the interview process when we were hiring him, that this can be that kind of program.
Q: Any restless moments when Jarrett’s name was (sorry) linked, to the coaching vacancy at LSU?
A: Yes and no. The yes is I love what he’s done. When you’re able to attract a coach that’s that talented, you want to do everything you can to keep him here. The no is sometimes there are opportunities for coaches and their families that are what they are. If that was the right one for him and his family, I’m OK with that.
I have to make strategic decisions all the time and on what level we can resource sports. There are schools in baseball that generate so much revenue that they’re just in a different category.
► More Noie:Swarbrick speaks, part one
Q: What does it mean to have 20 current or former Notre Dame athletes in the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics?
A: It’s an enormous source of pride because in those sports, that’s what they aspire to, more than an NCAA championship, right? They want to go to the Olympics and we are able to support that. It’s been an evolution, frankly, because one of the things you have to do with athletes at that level is have some flexibility with their academic schedule in terms of taking an academic year off, taking an Olympic year off, whatever it may be, reporting to school late in the fall.
The university has really been helpful partners in that area. A few years ago, it was much harder to get some of that done. I take great pride in it. Watching Mariel (Zagunis) take the flag into the (2012 Olympics) opening ceremonies, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Q: Fencing won its 11th national championship in March and has 11 former or current competitors going to Tokyo. What do people not know about this program?
A: Probably an appreciation about how good the head coach (Gia Kvaratskhelia) is. I mean, the record tells you he’s very good, but the way he’s developed the program, the way he’s identified the culture, the way he deals with the individual student-athletes, he’s just a really, really good coach.
If he knew – name another sport – he could go over and coach it. He’s got all the ingredients of a successful head coach.
Q: We’re now (18) days removed from the debut of Name, Image and Likeness for college athletes, who can benefit financially as amateurs. How comfortable are you moving forward that Notre Dame can navigate everything NIL?
A: I’m very comfortable with where we are. The preparation was great. We’ve had a group of people working on it for months. Couldn’t be more proud of them and the groundwork they laid. Our work with the university has been good. At a fundamental level, you’re talking about university intellectual property and how you manage that. That has worked really well.
I couldn’t feel better about the position that we’re in to support our student athletes in the evolution of Name, Image and Likeness.
Having said that, I think it’s going to be an absolute mess nationally and we’re just going to have to go through a messy year to get ourselves where we can develop a common understanding of rules about what we’re doing here.
We are going to have situations where our student-athletes, our coaches, our fans are going to point to what’s going on at another school and say, why aren’t you doing this? Well, we’re not doing it because it’s not consistent with our values or what we think this should be.
Q: Any concern at Notre Dame that the student part of the student-athlete equation disappears now that the possibility of making money (and in some cases, a lot of it) is part of the college expereience?
A: It’s really easy – this is one more thing that adds to our distinctiveness. We are talking to prospective students about all this in a very different way because we view it as one more obligation to help them develop. Career services is part of that. Summer internships are part of that. Study abroad is part of that. Maximizing your brand value is part of that.
This is just what we do for your personal development and we’re not engaged in a separate enterprise now. We’ve just added one more thing to our commitment to maximize the experience of our students.
Q: What kind of financial impact did the pandemic have on the athletic department?
A: We won’t share the numbers, but we faced probably as significant a financial challenge as any school in the country because of our unique dependence on football. We really don’t have the second revenue sports that a lot of our peers do and some even have a third revenue sport.
Our performance relates so much through the revenue we can generate through our football program and we lost a lot.
Of all the people we decided could be in Notre Dame Stadium (for the 2020 football season), it was the people who paid the least to be in the stadium – the students, faculty and staff. We were thrilled to have them there, but at the same time, the cost of operating the football program went up dramatically with the investment in (COVID) testing, the way we had to travel, everything became so much more expensive.
We were as challenged financially as any school in the country. It will probably have a two-year tail for us. It’s going to take a little time to get back. You just don’t turn the corner and say, OK, now we’re fine.
Q: What will campus look, sound, feel like for the first home football game this season, post-pandemic?
A: It won’t be exactly normal. We’ll get closer to normal. I think we’ll have a full stadium, which will be the first bridge to cross. We’re still working through a lot of what the game day experience will be like. It’s probably unlikely we’ll do the player walk in an effort to keep our players safe. We’ve got to work through things like that. There will still be differences, but it will be so exciting to have a full stadium.
Q: How anxious are you just to get back to a relatively normal athletic experience here after 2020?
A: Really eager for our students to have that. The experience for our freshmen across the board (in 2020-21) was not what we wanted. In that sense, I can’t wait to have that happen.
But my focus, at the end of July is always try to store up some energy and get ready because from the time football camp opens until maybe you’re in Omaha (in June for the College World Series), people wouldn’t believe the challenge of it and the grind of it.
One of the things that is a little different when you sit in the AD’s chair, and not just this one, I’m not just living and dying with football Saturdays. I’m living and dying with whether a fencer makes our Olympic team. I’m living and dying with whether Yared (Nuguse) wins a national championship (in the 1,500 in track field).
The emotional roller coaster of 26 sports of it is an interesting dynamic. You’re constantly making decisions about where to allocate your time and energy. I want to be at as many practices I can, but then all of a sudden, you’re flying to a College Football Playoff meeting or an NCAA meeting. You just try and figure it out.
Q: This is Year 14 at Notre Dame for you. With everything that you’ve had to navigate as athletic director, likely more than any AD in school history, what keeps you doing this job?
A: Otherwise unemployable (laughs). It has been an amazing time. This year has been a special example of it, but I think it extends back even further, to sort of the change that’s been happening in sports.
I would mark it from conference realignment (beginning in 2013) to now as sort of this intense period. Those media right deals, including ours, conference realignment, the ACC deal, the apparel deal, having to figure all that out, up until today.
It has been a remarkable time. For better or worse, it’s how I’m wired. I love that stuff. I love the big problems. I love trying to figure it out. I’ve had my share of them.
I’ll be the first one to admit, I’m not a great manager day-to-day. My strengths are in those things, trying to see around the corners, think about what’s next and position Notre Dame.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI