Notre Dame football: Swarbrick’s view of big picture

South Bend Tribune

Editor’s note: As 24th-ranked Notre Dame (7-2) gets set to take on Pittsburgh (4-4) Saturday night on the road at Heinz Field, here’s a wide-angle view of some of the issues involving the Irish football program through the eyes of Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

Q: Where does the stadium expansion/renovation project stand? The hope was that the study would be completed in October and then there would be an announcement and move to the next stage. Are we close to a formal announcement?

JS: No. There will be ongoing work in sort of the evaluation of it through January.

Q: How do you feel like it’s going?

JS: It continues to move along. The good news is there haven’t been any unforeseen developments. There are certainly challenges, but we knew that at the outset. It’s certainly a big project, and trying to figure out how to make it all work is not easy.

Q: Is the final step before the announcement a vote by the school’s leadership?

JS: I’ll leave to Father John (president Rev. John I. Jenkins) what the approval process looks like. It’s not for me to comment on.

Q: When head football coach Brian Kelly was asked about the less-than-stellar field conditions for the Notre Dame-Navy game last Saturday, part of his response was to the effect that whatever answers that needed to be found, Jack Swarbrick would find them. So how would you assess the situation with the grass field and where that might be headed?

JS: It’s been another challenging year for us from a turf perspective. Two years ago it was a bad year. Last year it was really quite good. This year it was bad again, so we’ll step back at the end of the season and sort of evaluate all those things that are producing this result and ask ourselves what we can do differently.

We’re just going to have to gain some confidence that if we stay with grass, we can not have these hills and valleys in terms of performance. So no decisions have been made as to whether we’ll change the surface or take a different approach to the surface we have. It’s all to be determined.

But I’m not prepared to have any more years with the situation we dealt with this year.

Q: As far as the BYU game (at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 23), is there anything that can be done between now and then to possibly improve the situation other than just staying off of the field?

JS: There are some things you can do, and they’re doing it. You do some additional aerating and some (other things), but it’s going to be a challenge, there’s no question. We need the weather to cooperate. Yet, on the other hand, it might be frozen. It might play better frozen.

Q: You have resodded it three times since March right, including in August and after the Oklahoma game in late September?

JS: Yes, it died post-commencement. So we had to replace it. And the sod we got on that replacement just wasn’t very good, combined with a chemical treatment that was done on that field. So we had to go back in and do it again.

I’ve never been able to grow grass here or at home.

Q: Is the resistance to synthetic FieldTurf anything more than tradition? Is there anyone who’s saying, “This could be unsafe?”, that there’s some other reason than giving up on tradition?

JS: I think different people have different reasons. Certainly, tradition is part of it. Some people just prefer the aesthetics of (natural grass). It’s sort of an offshoot of tradition, but it’s more than that. They like that as part of it, and I understand that.

And you get as many arguments on safety as there are people. There are elements of different surfaces which one injury may be more probable on one form of surface, while another is more probable on the other.

Over three years, we’ve looked at every study that’s come out and every piece of information, and it’s hard to draw anything conclusive from those.

One of the challenges of sort of analyzing that data is synthetic fields keep improving and changing. So a longitudinal study over 10 years is going to pick up different forms of artificial surfaces.

Q: Notre Dame is still in the running for a BCS bowl, but if you don’t end up there and you’re picking from among a handful of options, what’s most important? Is it opponent? Is it date? Is it location?

JS: Yes.

All those factor in. Date is really important to us, especially its relevance to final exams and how all that works. You look at all those factors, there’s sort of an interesting process that goes on at that level of bowls, where a lot of people are talking and trying to figure out what the best pairings are and how to make them work.

You participate in those discussions and hope you can produce a result that can provide the best opportunity for your student-athletes. But the first goal is to not be in that position.

Q: Is Dec. 26 the earliest you could do, given the last exam is the 20th?

JS: It might be. It depends on where it is. My first couple of years I got very vested in how all of this worked and sort of trying to figure it out, and then I realized so much changes in the last four weeks.

You sort of waste a lot of energy trying to scope it all out. Just play the games and see what happens.

Q: How nice will it be to not ever have to deal with this again?

JS: It’ll be very nice. It is one of the most important byproducts of our affiliation with the ACC, because our opportunities to actively control our fate were getting smaller, not larger. As conferences grow in size and are making commitments down to their ninth, 10th teams, it makes for a much more difficult situation for an independent.

Q: With the college football playoff, the snapshot of it we’re looking at right now, is this how you hoped it would turn out?

JS: Pretty much. I could not be happier with where the commissioners came out on the selection committee. I think it’s an incredibly well-conceived approach to the first committee — all people above reproach, all people with substantive expertise to bring. I think it’s going to perform spectacularly well.

I think the process for getting the semifinals set and the championship game in place and the process of thinking about the next championship city sites, I think all of that is working very well.

Q: When you see the first model roll out of the first evaluation process by the selection committee and how Notre Dame is evaluated, whether they’re in the top four or beyond it, will it affect what you do with scheduling? Or do you feel like what you’ve got lined up in the coming years is going to be strong enough that that’s never going to be an issue for Notre Dame?

JS: I’m very confident that the future schedules will do that. There are elements in that, though, that you can never control, as far out as we schedule now. I’ll give a positive example of that. When we entered into the contract with Stanford for the games we’re now playing, we couldn’t have known that Stanford would become the powerhouse that it is. It’s an example of where your schedule becomes stronger.

Of course, there will be occasions where it goes the other way on you, but given the lead time, all you can do is set a schedule that involves schools it makes sense for Notre Dame to play and hope it delivers the strength of schedule it does.

Every conference faces that same challenge. You see in basketball, if a conference is down, it impacts the opportunities for the teams in that conference to make the tournament.

Q: Were you surprised at the sometimes negative reaction to Condoleezza Rice being on the selection committee with her sports background and background on being such a good decision-maker on just about every level?

JS: We certainly anticipated there would be some of that, and it’s the nature of sport that people wear their passions on their sleeves all the time. There are a lot of faultless passions being expressed.

People who are making those comments, who are objecting to that, don’t know anything about Dr. Rice. I would like to have her knowledge of football, on a sort of national basis. I, and many people in my position, wind up focused on football from your perspective — your opponents, your team. It’s hard to keep the broader football industry in perspective, if you will, because you’re so busy dealing with what you deal with.

And so people like her, and some of the other people on the committee, bring a much broader perspective. They follow the game closely. But that’s just one of about 800 assets Condoleezza Rice brings to an enterprise like this.

Q: Moving to football recruiting, there’s been some talk that maybe football will go to an early signing period, so that some recruits can just end the process early. What are your thoughts on that?

JS: The reason to do an early signing period is to try and allow the coaches to regain a little more control over their lives and their schedules. And I’m all for that. The challenge in the mechanics is finding something that works.

The calendar isn’t very helpful in that regard. It’s just harder to do in football.

There have been a number of proposals over the years. One version had the early signing period at the end of the high school season. That tended to have a consequence with teams that were involved in bowl games versus teams that weren’t in bowl games.

It’s really tough to do before the senior season starts in football, so I don’t know. I’m sympathetic to the need. I haven’t yet seen a proposal that I think solves the problem.

Q: We’re coming up on a year after the whole Manti Te’o saga, and you were really the first person who kind of jumped against the wave and said, “Hold on a second, I believe in this guy.” Can you speak to how you look at those events months later and who you think Manti Te’o has become?

JS: I’m glad that Notre Dame (jumped in). It’s not personal. As an institution, we knew what we knew. We had the facts. We knew the young man very, very well. And we believe, in circumstances like that, in defending our students.

There was nothing reckless about it. We knew what we knew. We believed in him, and we wanted the world to know that. And so I was incredibly proud to be the university representative who got the opportunity to do that, because I thought it was important.

It goes to who we are and what we stand for. On another level, I’m very pleased for Manti, that he’s been able to move on so successfully and get past being the victim of something that was one of the cruelest things I’ve witnessed in my life. And in typical fashion, given the quality of the man he is, he’s come out of it, I think, just fine.

Q: Moving to scheduling, is the Shamrock Series something you’re committed to on annual basis, no matter what, for the foreseeable future? Is there any chance you would take a break and say, “This doesn’t line up this year?”

JS: I would never say “never.” There are circumstances where we might find ourselves in that position, but I think it’s highly unlikely.

The Shamrock Series has worked so well for the university, has been such a hit with our fans. I get that question more than any other — where’s the next Shamrock Series? And so I and the university are very committed to it.

Q: If everybody asks you where’s the next venue, let me do it. Is it Indianapolis?

JS: We continue to work toward Indianapolis for 2014, but there’s more work to do.

Q: Is that the final piece to the 2014 schedule?

JS: No, there’s more.

Q: Do you have any idea when the 2014 schedule will be ready?

JS: I don’t. It is dependent on other people. So you work. You’ve got a lot of friends helping and trying to move some things and line up some games, and that assistance is greatly appreciated and moves at its own pace.

Q: Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke recently came out with a statement about Purdue and Notre Dame no longer playing each other on an annual basis, moving forward. I guess that was old news in my mind, but is it going to be less frequent than originally thought?

JS: I’m not going to go into details of future schedules until they’re available to be released.

Q: Is it getting easier to get all the scheduling pieces to fit once you get past 2014?

JS: The period of 2014 to 2020 is all one challenge. It all relates, because the things you’re trying to move out of a year into another year are impacting somewhere in that time span. There’s a critical time span we’re trying to resolve all at once, because it’s the only way you can do it.

I use the Rubik’s Cube analogy — every piece you move has an impact on another piece. If we could look at this in a one-year window, we would have released the schedule a long time ago, but it’s because it has to be viewed in a six-year window, that it takes more time.

Q: What kind of feedback did you get from fans who were not able to see the Air Force game (on CBS Sports Network), because that probably had the smallest viewership window of any game you’ve had in some time?

JS: Certainly, a lot of unhappy people. I’m always disappointed when our fans can’t see us play. And that’s a factor in (future) scheduling. You’d like some greater assurance that the game will be able to be seen by our fans.

With television deals largely locked in now for a decade or more, it’s a little easier to predict that than when that deal was made.

Q: I asked Brian Kelly recently about whether he felt playing two cut-block teams in a row, Air Force and Navy, had a direct impact on the rash of leg injuries sustained on defense recently, and he confirmed that he thought it had. Does that concern you in terms of scheduling more than one service academy in a year, moving forward?

JS: The safety of our players is our top priority, and everything about the schedule — when we play, where we play, what travel’s like — you take all of that into consideration. So if you could pinpoint a greater risk of one opponent over another, you might factor that in.

The challenge with that is these schedules play out over so much time, and styles of play change. You don’t know.

If we think there’s a something about a style of play that presents a greater challenge to student-athletes, we ought to be addressing it in the rules.

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick looks on following the 35-21 loss in the Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma football game on Saturday, September 28, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN