Jack Swarbrick Q&A: From vacated victories to Brian Kelly's future to Alabama to Garth
SOUTH BEND — A jumbo-sized iced beverage slips off a table in Jack Swarbrick’s office, coaxing the Notre Dame athletic director into showing off his multi-tasking skills.
Not that that’s anything new for the 64-year-old in his 11th year on the job.
He deftly showed he can clean up his own messes as well as answer questions without assistance — simultaneously — as Swarbrick sat down with the Tribune this week for a wide-ranging, one-on-one interview.
Q: On the field, Notre Dame reclaimed the all-time lead in winning percentage in the FBS on Sept. 1, when the Irish beat Michigan. In the world of vacated games, however, that’s not the case. Is there any recourse at this point to getting those 22 vacated games back on the record (21 wins and a loss)?
Swarbrick: “No. I suppose somewhere down the line the NCAA could revisit the whole issue of using that as a sanction for anybody, but absent that there’s no recourse, nothing we can initiate.”
Q: Not even using the legal system, as Penn State did?
Swarbrick: “Penn State was in a different situation, because the NCAA went into an area where it didn’t have rules. It created a different dynamic. While we expressed very aggressively our disagreement with the NCAA’s conclusions — especially (ND president) Father John’s letter. It’s over.”
Q: Given everything that happened, would you take the same course of action, giving kids their due process, which is what eventually led to the vacated games penalty?
Swarbrick: “It’s hard to answer that hypothetical. We were really disappointed, given our level of forthrightness and engagement with the way the process played out.
“I never will forget that when we called — literally, the day after we discovered we had at that point one incidence of academic misconduct — the first thing the NCAA said on the conference call when we told them was, ‘Is that all?’
“There’s a little bit of irony looking from the first call to the end, but it’s over, it’s done. We disagreed, but we’re moving on.”
Q: I remember there were a lot of proactive actions the university and the football program took before there was any outcome with the NCAA in terms of restructuring things, maybe looking at things a little bit differently. Is there a silver lining that came out of that whole situation?
Swarbrick: “I think the primary silver lining for me is how everything worked when we had the first indication that we had the potential of academic misconduct. Everybody did exactly what they should have done in terms of to whom they reported and how they followed up. I’m incredibly proud of that.
“From the person who had the initial concern all the way up to the general counsel and president’s office, the reporting and the response was exactly what we hoped it would be.”
Q: Brian Kelly’s contract runs through 2021 and he’d become the first Notre Dame coach to coach into his 60s at this school at the end of that season. Does that surprise you?
Swarbrick: “I hadn’t thought of it. It’s semi-obvious, but I never asked myself the question. Obviously, you start with Jesse Harper, who was called back to the family farm. Knute (Rockne) had an untimely death. (Frank) Leahy had his health issues. You just go down the line and it just becomes obvious to you.”
Q: As an athletic director, when you have a coach with an increasingly finite contract — and he’s going to be 60 that year — do you extend a coach just to make sure that recruiting isn’t derailed?
Swarbrick: “I think it’s less about recruiting. I know fans like to connect those two dots. I don’t see much evidence that young people focus on that.
“I think you make those decisions, because they’re right for the program. And we have one of the most successful coaches in college football.
“I tell people all the time, ‘Count how many active coaches have made it to a national championship game since Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame.’ It’s an incredibly small number. We have one of them here. And last year and this year is reaffirmation — it’s not something new — what a great coach Brian is.
“We’ve known that all along. We’ve had confidence in it. He and I sit down at the end of every year and sort of talk about what we see down the road. I think both of us ask each other the question: ‘How much longer do you think you’re doing this?’ We’ll do that at the end of this season.”
Q: Notre Dame moved up to No. 3 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings. Yet when you talk to people, there’s the perception that there’s such a gap between what No. 1 Alabama is doing and what everyone else is doing. Do you think Notre Dame can ever operate at the level that Alabama is right now in terms of dominance or at least compete with them on a regular basis?
Swarbrick: “I’m not certain anyone can. I think what Nick has accomplished there is really notable and should be applauded. Brian made some very nice comments about Nick Saban the other day, and I couldn’t agree more. And so I have an enormous amount of admiration over what they’ve accomplished.
“I think over a longer period of time it will prove to be an exception. I think you’ll go back to the model we had before, where teams have periods of success, tail off a little bit, and then have periods of success again. That’s much more the norm.
“We have to be one of those teams that have periods of sustained success, where we’re competing for national championships.
“One of the things that I look at, and I’m proud of where this program is, is the number of years we’ve gotten deep in the year and been in the (playoff) discussion. That’s the starting point. You’ve got to put yourself in that position, and then can you make the rest of it work.
“But to have played in the championship in ’12 and to be in the initial rankings when they came out, to be in them again this year, I feel really good about our ability to be in that discussion and be at that level. Alabama is achieving at an even higher level, and I have great admiration for them.”
Q: After the last game Brian VanGorder was here as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, the Irish were 103rd in total defense. After the Northwestern game, they were 25th under Clark Lea. There’s been really good continuity from interim Mike Elston to Mike Elko to Clark Lea. Did you feel like there’d be a little bit more growing pains this year with a guy who hadn’t done a whole lot of playing-calling?
Swarbrick: “I did think we could be this good this year, but I don’t want to sound like I could see the future. It is hard to overstate how confident we were in Clark as a defensive strategist, but especially as a teacher. He is a special teacher.
“Nobody knows what somebody’s going to do in game-calling, right? Until you do it. You can practice all you want. So that was the unknown, but, gosh, given all the other components that he clearly had, you just felt really good about your chances.
“Continuity was a factor, but is it overstated? It was more about the coach. If we didn’t think this was a great coach, continuity would not have ruled the day.”
Q: Every time I drive past the new indoor facility, I can see progress. But is it in line with your timetable?
Swarbrick: “We’ll be ready in June, which is always the target. The good news is we’ve got the building in position where you can work effectively through the winter. That’s the really good news, to get to that point. I’ll defer to Doug Marsh (vice president for facilities design and operations and university architect) on the details, whether we’re a week ahead or a week behind, but I do know we’re on schedule for June.”
Q: I know a lot of people look at the facility and they think, “arms race,” but wasn’t this particular facility more about pragmatism in that you absolutely needed that facility to function as a football program? And do you believe in the arms race concept?
Swarbrick: “I really don’t. I think universities — especially elite universities — have grown dramatically in the past decade. The percentage of the budget spent on capital athletic projects versus other projects is the same as when I came here 11 years ago.
“So yeah, we’ve built a lot. But we’ve built dorms and we’ve built labs and we built music buildings and great things. We made a big investment in our utility plan. That’s what universities are doing.
“I think the question is always: ‘Are you in line with the university? Are you doing it under the same rules? Are you proportionally where you should be?’
“And I feel very good about that. But I’m especially pleased with sort of the efficiencies that we’ve achieved. It’s going to be a great facility, but it’s going to be very utilitarian.
“It’s designed to help people practice football and soccer and do a few other things. Our new basketball facility, I’d put up against any basketball facility in the country, but again, very utilitarian. Very much about how do we help our student-athletes get ready?
“When you combine those two things — are we investing in the things that matter and are we doing it in a way that’s consistent with the university? — then I feel great about it.”
Q: There’s been talk about a Phase II to the Guglielmino Complex/Indoor Facility upgrade. What has yet to be done in terms of getting that rolling? Is it the funding part of it?
Swarbrick: “The details of the plan and then the approval of it, and then the funding. None of that’s in place yet. But I very much share Brian’s view that there are important needs that we still have to address.
“We need a real training table area. We need real academic study space in it. We’ve got to bring our weight room up to speed, and we need more sports science space.
“What we’ve done is sort of accommodate those functions the best we can by repurposing space in the current building. We’ve just got to look at how to find adequate space for those functions.”
Q: Some of the advancements in sports science that the Notre Dame football program is using today are impressive, but I remember when the agreement with Under Armour was announced, there was a thought that they would be contributing to that in some form or fashion. Has that ended up being the case?
Swarbrick: “A little bit, but not perhaps the way either of us might have hoped. I think there’s still that potential, and we need to work on it. What I’ve been pleased with is how much they’ve used us in product development.
“So they had a new soccer shoe they brought out to our team. Had them test it, give them feedback. We wound up having a significant impact on the design. So I love the partnership. I can’t point to a lot of sport-science innovation that’s come out of it, but we haven’t given up on it.”
Q: Was the Garth Brooks concert as smooth coming out of it as you’d hoped, with no damage to the field?
Swarbrick: “Let me be clear, I had nothing to do with it. Others in the university, led by Mike Seamon (vice president of safety and event management), did a great job with that concert. My role was only related to scheduling, but the field is fine.
“We’ve had the practice of commencement, which helped. I would have been much more nervous about the potential consequences for the field had we not gone through commencement, because we had a high degree of confidence.
“There have been some natural grass fields that have really gotten beaten up by concerts across the country. We, of course, don’t have that problem, but I was glad there was no impact on the turf.”
Q: Did you go the concert?
Swarbrick: “No. The bye week is a real bye week for me.”
Q: Do you know who the next concert will be?
Swarbrick: “No, but we do have the Winter Classic (NHL hockey game). It is an interesting routing dynamic. Because our market is so relatively small, you’ve got to draw from Chicago and probably Indy, and so the act can’t route through those cities.
“I hope that will happen. Garth — I read his comments — is indicating he’ll be back here, so that’s cool. But other than that, there are so few stadium acts anymore, it’s really a small number.”
Q: When the Ireland trip was announced recently — a game with Navy on Aug. 29, 2020 — the bye week after the game seems significant. Did you have to get special permission from the NCAA to move the date of the game, from Sept. 5, to create that bye week?
Swarbrick: “Yes, and that was the whole issue in whether to have this game in Ireland — whether we could secure the waiver to move it to Aug. 29.
“It’s a Navy home game, so Navy had to take the lead on it. Not an easy process. But had we not gotten the waiver, we could not have done the game.”
Q: “Is there a thought of doing more of these international games and doing them more regularly? I know at one time there was some talk about Italy at some point. I know you and I had talked about the Pacific Rim as a possibility a few years ago.
Swarbrick: “I don’t see the Pacific Rim. I think you can do one of these sort of every four to six years. We don’t have any plans for one. It’s been especially helpful to have Navy take its own home game over. That’s been a big part of the formula for getting to Ireland twice (recently) — and three times overall now.
“The stars really have to align to make it work is really the way I’d say it.”
Q: In terms of scheduling, when the ACC commitment first started, there seemed to be a traffic jam in terms of new commitments and old contracts and kind of having to work through that. Are you through all those now? Are you at a place where it’s a little bit easier to put puzzle pieces together?
Swarbrick: “I wouldn’t say we’re through it in the sense that in extracting ourselves from some of the old agreements, we carried forward some commitments. What we did was free up dates and years.
“We’ve got a couple of games coming up with Michigan State. We’ve got a couple of games coming up with Purdue. We’ve a game still to play with BYU. Those all have come out of those prior relationships. We want to get a couple of more games set with Michigan.”
Q: The Michigan game really is turning out to be a huge win in determining Notre Dame’s postseason destination so far. But doesn’t it seem like there’s weird luck in schedules being tougher than you think they’ll be or easier than you think they’ll be?
Swarbrick: “All the discussions we’re having now for the most part — we have a few holes — are for the 2030s. You have so little chance of being accurate in your assessment. You sort of look at it globally and say, ‘Well, the ACC does a great job of letting us know what the future’s going to be.’
“We make assumptions about the USCs and the Stanfords being good and certain ACC schools likely to be good. I wish we were in a world where the scheduling window were shorter, but you need everybody to agree to that. And that’s the problem. So we are always at least a decade ahead.”
Q: Do you feel like the football program is better off than it was in 2012?
Swarbrick: “Yes I do. I think culturally it’s much stronger. Some really extraordinary young people produced a great result in ’12, but the foundation wasn’t quite there yet. And now I believe strongly that it is.
“That reflects itself as the best culture in the program in my time here. And there are all kinds of elements with that. But it certainly begins with the remarkable job Brian’s doing articulating who we were and what we’re doing.
“He’s really sharpened the message so effectively that it’s helped a lot. He has assembled, I think, the best staff he’s had in his time here, a staff that really enjoys working together. That helps a lot.
“And we’ve been more intentional about the little things. Leadership development, scheduling, some of the things we do to help our student-athletes prepare.
“I have no idea what the next month holds, but none of that will change my view that our culture is as strong as it’s been in 11 years.”