Q&A Part 1: Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick on Irish athletics

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The clamor of heavy machinery across the street, seeping into Jack Swarbrick’s office in the Joyce Center, didn’t seem to faze the Notre Dame athletic director.

Perhaps it’s the price of progress, as the Campus Crossroads project continues to take form at Notre Dame Stadium. Or perhaps Swarbrick’s mind is simply somewhere else.

“This is my one day here for two and a half weeks,” he said, then rattling off cities that have kept him out of his office recently.

As Swarbrick approaches his seventh anniversary on the job later this summer, we caught up with him to get his thoughts on a variety of pressing and provocative topics.

Here’s Part 1 of 2:

Q: A topic that’s been brought up by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is the concept of going back to freshman ineligibility. What are your thoughts about moving in that direction?

A: “My general thought is the NCAA has put a lot of time and effort into a new approach for academic readiness, which is about to take effect. I think we’re probably better off letting that play out and seeing how it works before we head down yet another path.

“This is an individualized approach as to whether a year of readiness is required for student-athletes. And I just think it would be wise for us to let that play out and see where it takes us.”

Q: In Pete Thamel’s Sports Illustrated piece on KeiVarae Russell, he mentioned that you co-chaired a task force recently that supports at-risk student-athletes. I’m curious about what your biggest takeaway is from being a part of that?

A: “I co-chaired it with (ND law professor) Tricia Bellia. It was a presidential task force. Father (John I.) Jenkins appointed Tricia and I and the members of it. It was a great experience.

“We had coaches and former student-athletes and professors and administrators, and it was a great group to work with and think through the issues.

“Probably my biggest takeaway from it was the importance of having systems in place which allow us to better share information about the student-athletes’ experience, where we have situations where student-athletes struggle here or really run into a problem.

“When you look at those, in retrospect, in almost every instance, somebody had a piece of information that if others knew, we would have been better. We would have done a better job of working with the student-athlete.

“It sounds simple, but you need processes in place that really help you, in a systematic way, share information so you can provide the best assistance in the most appropriate manner. So that we my biggest takeaway.”

Q: The article also mentioned there were “transformative conversations” with Brian Kelly, Father Jenkins, yourself about this topic. Were Everett Golson’s situation (in 2013), the situation with the five students being suspended for academic dishonesty, Jerian Grant’s situation triggers for this or is this something you would have been thinking about all along anyway?

A: “I wouldn’t call them triggers. We’ve had a lot of discussion over the years about it, so no. The profile that all student-athletes have, the microscope they’re under is so much bigger now. Things play out bigger and get more attention and have greater impact. So they feel different.

“They feel like they’re more significant or there are more of them, and in fact that’s not the case. That’s not in any way to dismiss the significance of any failure. It matters a lot to us, but we’ve been talking about his for a long time.”

Q: Are there significant changes on the horizon, that came out of either the discussions or the task force, in terms of, say, student-athletes taking 12 hours during the school year rather than 15?

A: “The task force had a lot of recommendations, and we’re working to implement all of them. Some of them will play out over a more extended period of time. Some are easier to implement.

“But whether it’s tweaks to the summer bridge program or the reading and rhetoric courses or other things, there are a lot of moving parts to this, and I’m not sure if anyone read the report, they’d find of it necessarily transformative in any one piece of it. It’s just doing our job better.

“Thinking creatively. Thinking carefully about how to meet our obligation to every student, not just student-athletes, to give them the best possible chance to succeed.”

Q: As we reference KeiVarae Russell in this piece, do you expect Ishaq Williams to be back in school in June and eventually be part of the football team?

A: “I’m not going to answer that. All we do is comment when somebody’s here. I’m not commenting on the prospects of anyone being here or not being here. If they’re here, we’ll confirm they’re here.”

Q: During last winter, especially as the suspensions played out, it was reported that the relationship between you and Brian Kelly was strained. Then in the Pete Thamel article, it seemed to suggest the opposite, that this experience brought you two closer together. Could you characterize your relationship with Brian Kelly?

A: “I think I have a great relationship with Brian. I don’t view it as necessarily having evolved in some sense. I’ve always valued our relationship highly. I’ve always thought it was excellent, and I continue to do that.

“The word ‘reported’ is an interesting verb. I can’t imagine there was anybody who was actually reporting who made that observation. People like to speculate about the program as opposed to report on it.”

Q: At the very beginning of the academic dishonesty investigation process, the possibility of vacating victories was mentioned. Is there some finality in terms of whether that’s going to happen or not?

A: “No, the NCAA process is in front of us.”

Q: So that means it still could happen?

A: “There’s no merit on speculating in how that process might resolve itself.”

Q: Do we know when the NCAA process will conclude?

A: “No, it’s ongoing, but I can’t speculate on the timetable.”

Q: What are your expectations for this football team this season?

A: “We go into every season with the expectation that we’ll compete to make one of the playoff spots. It’ll never be different and I don’t want it to be different, so that’s what we go in thinking of ourselves as and hoping to be.”

Q: Under Armour, what do you feel like in your first go-round with them, has been the most significant things to come out of that relationship?

A: “Well it’s tough to pick one, because it has been a spectacular partnership. They have been so great to work with. I guess it’s not a surprise, but the enthusiasm for Under Armour among perspective student-athletes is very high. It’s a real plus.

“There’s an excitement about the company and its apparel and its shoes. It’s palpable when you’re talking to young people. Of course, they are on one heck of a roll. Seth Curry, Jordan Spieth, Tom Brady — they’re having an unbelievable year, and we’re thrilled to be part of it.”

Q: Going forward, I know one of the things that excited you about Under Armour was its research and technology pieces. Is there something we’ll see along those lines this year?

A: “It tends to be more incremental. The gear continues to support our athletes better and better each year. I think the opportunities to work together in research are ahead of us, and I’m pretty excited about that.

“The challenge of doing the first year with such short lead time, it’s hard to overstate how difficult that is. Your lead time is normally 18 months. Ours was six, and so that was really the focus in the first full year with them.

“As that becomes more routinized, our opportunities to step back and look for some research and collaboration with start to emerge.”

Q: The FieldTurf over at the LaBar Practice Complex is being replaced. Was that a surprise to you that it was so soon?

A: “It’s right on schedule. We build a maintenance fund in for that. We know what the timing is. We did Loftus last year. LaBar was scheduled to be this year.

“You’re always looking. You’ve got about a three-year window where you think, ’Do I do it this year or next year?’ No, it was right on schedule.”

Q: When will be the turnover time for the turf in Notre Dame Stadium?

A: “It’s somewhere in the 7-to-10 range. I think LaBar was eight. So it’s right in there.”

Q: One of the big topics at the SEC meetings this week is the satellite camps concept. I know at one point Brian Kelly seemed to have some enthusiasm for doing that in some other parts of the country. Now it seems he’s rolled back on that a little bit and will do everything on campus this year. What are your thoughts about satellite camps?

A: “Again, I think we get ourselves in trouble when we get overly regulatory, where we lose track of the big picture and try and legislate everything. This is a good example of that.

“It may have pluses. It may have minuses, but it just does not feel to me like an area that we ought to try and regulate nationally.

“From a Notre Dame perspective, I want to have the opportunity to do camps elsewhere. It has nothing to do with recruiting. It has everything to do with what Notre Dame does in its national scope.

“Those may be other sport camps. They might not be football or basketball. But if we can go into a diocese somewhere in the country and work with the Catholic schools in there and maybe do a sports program for their elementary schools or middle schools, I think that’s a great thing, and I don’t know why we want to get in the way of stuff like that.

“And how do you describe a geographic footprint for Notre Dame? If the notion is you can only have sport camps in our geographic area, what is ours?”

Q: You were quoted recently about the possibility of student-athletes eventually being regarded as employees and what that might bring. Do we even know where that whole union movement at Northwestern with the National Labor Relations Board stands?

A: “No. A lot of people are expecting a decision soon, but I have no insights into it.

“I was speaking before the Knight Commission. And I was very surprised, since you brought it up, of the sort of mini-firestorm my comments created. People viewed it as having some sort of financial motivation. It was unrelated to that. It was just the opposite in a sense.

“There’s a pretty strong argument to be made we can do less for our student-athletes if they’re employees. But for me it’s really about fundamental to what we do here is we want them to have a student experience.

“And we already worry about the ways in which their experience is different, in ways it has to be. It’s necessary. But we don’t want any more of those than we absolutely have to, and so there was no economic or financial underpinning in my observation.

“It was about, ‘We want our students to be students. We don’t want them to be employees — not because we don’t value them. Just the opposite. It’s because we value them so highly that we want them to have the full student experience.’

“And if someone said to us that they just can’t be students, that they have to be employees, we would find another way to go forward where they still could be students. And our motivation has nothing to do with finances.”

Coming in Part 2: Football scheduling, including whether Michigan will be back; the grad-school transfer exemption; potential blocks for transfers; are JumboTrons in Notre Dame Stadium’s future?; and more.

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Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick wears reflective gold sunglasses during the Notre Dame-Arizona State NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, inside Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)