Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick calls Tennessee State 'perfect partner'

Tennessee State University director of athletics Dr. Mikki Allen, from left, head football coach Eddie George, Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick answer questions about the 2023 matchup between the schools Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — While Jack Swarbrick was chairman of the Indiana Sport Commission in Indianapolis before becoming athletic director at Notre Dame, he learned a little something about the proud, cultural and energetic traditions of historically black colleges and universities

One of the events the ISC fostered beginning in 1984 was the Circle City Classic, a college football game between two such schools. The popular game has been played every season since — with the exception of 2020 (COVID) — first at the former RCA Dome and now at Lucas Oil Stadium beginning in 2008.

The Tennessee State Tigers were no stranger to the game, participating six times during Swarbrick's ISC tenure, and once again after he left for South Bend in 2008.

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"The excitement around that event," Swarbrick recalled during the formal announcement Wednesday that Tennessee State has been added to Notre Dame's 2023 football schedule. "The alumni coming to our city. The bands. The game. "It's always been a goal to try and bring some of that here if we could figure out a way to do it."

Mission accomplished.

Tennessee State, coached by former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, will be the first non-Football Bowl Subdivision team to face Notre Dame. The Tigers are members of the Ohio Valley Conference in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision and have won 12 black college national championships.

The Irish will host Tennessee Tech in their home opener at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 2, 2023, a week after playing Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Kickoff time is to be determined.

Swarbrick and first year Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman hosted George and TSU athletic director Mikki Allen on campus, giving them a tour of the stadium before Wednesday's press conference.

"I think this game represents opportunities for all individuals," said Freeman, Notre Dame's second black head football coach — Tyrone Willingham being the first (2002-04). "It's a great honor. I couldn't be more grateful for Jack putting this thing together."

Swarbrick said the university did its homework before finalizing the historic matchup because it wanted to find the right fit to fill out the 2023 home football schedule.

Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick  questions Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

For Tennessee State, that fit is both meaningful and advantageous for the football program and the university, according to Allen.

"We have an opportunity to really expose our iconic brand filled with a lot of history," he said. "We have a lot of passionate fans. We have a dynamic band. So there's a huge entertainment value when you talk about Tennessee State University, not only as an HBCU, but as a collegiate sports program." 

Tennessee State University director of athletics Dr. Mikki Allen answers questions Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Allen was asked about what TSU will do with the financial guarantees from the game, with some reports saying it could help pay for new artificial turf field. Contractual specifics have not been disclosed.

Swarbrick chimed in. 

"Dr. Allen," he said, "negotiated for a bigger guarantee than we had budgeted."

Tennessee State University head football coach Eddie George shares a laugh alongside director of athletics Dr. Mikki Allen, left, and Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Both sides expressed how important this game is and what can be done leading up to it.

"We're really excited about the additional programing we think we can do around this game," Swarbrick said. "I think there are opportunities for the presidents to do some things together. Faculty. Certainly the bands, beyond halftime. We want to take advantage of that.

"(Tennessee State) just felt like the perfect partner. That they could make it work was just fortuitous for us."

George, who rushed for more that 10,000 yards in nine NFL seasons for the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys, knows what a chance this is for his program as he heads into his second season after going 5-6 in 2021.

"It's the first time it's been done to have a chance to compete against the best," said George, who played against the Irish in 1995 to the tune of 207 rushing yards in a Buckeyes' victory. "We preach that we want to play the best anytime, anywhere. It's just a wonderful opportunity presented itself."

Jerome Bettis asks a question during a press conference Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Former Notre Dame running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis, was along for Wednesday's tour, press conference and activities. Bettis, who left school after his junior season in 1993 to enter the NFL Draft, is back on campus this semester to complete his business degree.

The former Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers star is familiar with the lofty expectations of Notre Dame's students, alumni and fan base.

"Do you believe," Bettis asked George with a huge smile, "that you can win this football game?"

George fired back

"Without a shadow of a doubt," he said as the room erupted into laughter. 

They'll find out in 514 days.