Q&A with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Part I

From dealing with bye weeks to the ACC relationship to USC ticket tactics

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor's Note: A little more than 11 years into his run as Notre Dame's athletic director Jack Swarbrick has more longevity in that position than any of his predecessors with the exception of the legendary Moose Krause (1949-81). He sat down recently with ND Insider Eric Hansen to chat about the big picture, some intriguing small-picture items and his own future at the school. This is the first of two parts. Part II will be posted Sunday night.

Q: I’m going to start with the question that I got absolutely hammered with by fans over the summer, and that is: There are seven teams on the Notre Dame football schedule this season that have a bye the week before playing the Irish. I’m not sure you could have done anything, but what’s your reaction to that and what could you have done to prevent something like that?

Swarbrick: "There is nothing you could do — that’s accurate. You have to keep in mind it’s a two-bye year, and two-byes years change everything. Because effectively the schools have the flexibility to figure out where to put that second bye.

"When it’s a single-bye year, the conference has to allocate them out in a pretty structured way. And so this sort of consequence isn’t going to happen. In a two-bye year, you’re wide open for things like this, and all you can do is be flattered by it, because people are choosing you to put the bye before.

"I understand the angst about it. If I had a resource available to me, I’d employ it, but I don’t.

"I also want to be clear in just how good a partner the ACC has been in scheduling with us. No one should look at that circumstance and think, ‘The ACC is not being fair to Notre Dame.’ They have been great partners."

Q: You’re now going into the fifth year of playing games in the five-game-a-year scheduling agreement with the ACC. What’s your assessment on how this has worked out so far?

Swarbrick: "Could not be happier. I think, again, they’ve been great in working with us, so we’re able to retain the flexibility to do the other things we want to do with our schedule.

"It has been great to have Clemson leading that conference. And I think you can start to see the consequences of that with other teams heading in the right direction. So I think we’re going to find ourselves with that conference getting stronger and stronger, and those five games looking better and better each year."

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, left, speaks as Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford listens during a 2012 press conference announcing ND’s new relationship with the ACC.

Q: We know the Duke-Notre Dame game is going to be on the new ACC Network (Nov. 9). I know there’s some angst with people whose satellite/cable providers haven’t lined that up. What do you feel the short- and long-term impact is that the ACC Network is going to have on Notre Dame, particularly its football program?

Swarbrick: "It’s critically important to the future of the conference and the future of our program. And I believe it will succeed. I’m confident it will.

"In the roll-out of these networks, there’s always a challenging initial period. I remember the Big Ten’s first 18 months very well, and we’ll have a little of that here.

"No matter where you live, there’s an option available to get the network, hence getting all of our programming on the network. It may not be the provider that you’re currently using, but there is a provider available to you where you can get the network."

Q: When you say important, in what way do you feel that it will be most beneficial to Notre Dame’s programs?

Swarbrick: "It starts with the financial consequence of it. The distribution out of the Big Ten and the SEC right now is very different than the rest of college athletics. And so this is going to help close that gap.

"Secondly, I think it’s important to recruiting, to know that so many of your contests — especially Olympic sports contests — are going to be on the air.

"I think it’s great for the universities as a whole. It helps promote the schools and the brands."

Q: Speaking of promoting schools and brands, I know some people were upset about the fact that in order to purchase USC game tickets, they had to buy tickets to two other home games. How challenging is selling tickets in this day and age? And do you think the tactic you chose to employ with the USC game is going to be the start of a trend in that direction?

Swarbrick: "There’s no question that selling tickets is more challenging. There’s no enterprise in the country — whether it be a pro sports team or a college athletic program — that’s not experiencing those challenges right now.

"We’ll continue to experiment and look for different ways to respond to fan interest. I think there’s no magic elixir here.

"I love that we’ve continued to make lower-price seats available each year, and we’ll continue to look at options like that."

Q: When I look at the new Irish Indoor Athletics Center, I know there’s a Phase II coming. What are the priorities in Phase II? What are the things that need to be done first?

Swarbrick: "We have a host of needs. I want to be clear — when you refer to it as Phase II, it makes it sound like it’s further along than it is. We are exploring now how to create something that responds to the needs.

"There’s a shorthand way to describe it, and that’s what the Gug (Guglielmino Athletics Complex) was designed, it wasn’t designed for a number of things that we now do in it. So we’re trying to force things into areas that don’t work particularly well.

"Training table is held in what was supposed to be a recruiting lounge. Study hall is in the position rooms. Et cetera. Et cetera. Needs change over time, and so we’ll continue to make the Gug the best building it can be. It serves our needs very well, but we’ll have to find some space for some of these other things. That’s No. 1.

"No. 2, the whole area of sports science and technology is emerging and changing so quickly, we have to have more efficient space to do that in. And so we want to bring those things together.

"We want to make sure that our trainers and nutritionists and our sports counselors and our equipment people have ready access to each other, can talk to each other. So more of a performance focus somewhere, where they’re co-located and can work together and talk to each other.

"I think that’s very important."

Q: Do you have a ballpark timetable?

Swarbrick: "No, we’re in the process of more accurately accessing the needs. That will end up leading to a design, eventually. Somewhere down the road we’ll submit that for approval and try and raise the funds."

Q: Do you feel from a timetable standpoint that you and head football coach Brian Kelly will still be here to see that benefit from it?

Swarbrick: "I’m not sure I want to try and link those things. Let me just say it’s a very high priority for both of us."

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick looks on from an observation tower during Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game back in 2015.

Q: Moving more big-picture, this is your 11th year here. As you look back at when you walked in the door, how did the job’s expectations from the outside match up with what it’s turned out to be in terms of challenges, in terms of rewards, in terms of scope of what you do?

Swarbrick: "Well if you’d never worked at a university — and I hadn’t — there’s no way to prepare for university governance. It’s just different. So I was clueless, and I had to learn all that.

"I had a feel for the sports side of it, because of my background, especially the time I had spent working on projects for the NCAA. But certainly, first and foremost, how an athletics program works inside a major university.

"And then it was less about what I knew or didn’t know in that the pace of change in that decade was shocking. When you dial back and say, ‘Where were we?’ There was no conference sports network. The cable sports landscape didn’t look anything like it did.

"The whole sports science area was nascent at that point. It’s all changed."

Q: I think during that decade of change, it could have been easy for Notre Dame to get pushed out of the decision-making process on a national level. And you’ve been able to keep your elbow in there and keep Notre Dame’s voice at the table. How challenging was that? How conscious did you have to be to not get nudged out of that conversation?

Swarbrick: "I just focus on trying to provide value. And as long as you provide value, there isn’t some momentum to remove you.

"And so I try and both protect Notre Dame’s interests, but be a resource and help my colleagues think about issues. And I think Notre Dame is in a good position to do that, and we need to take advantage of it to see it that way — How can we help? What can we do to advance the conversation?"

Q: I know one of the areas in which you kept Notre Dame at the table was in the initial College Football Playoff structure. As we move toward the second iteration of what the playoff looks like — and I know we’re still a ways out —from Notre Dame’s standpoint, do you think a four-team playoff or rather a six- or eight-team playoff format benefits Notre Dame more?

Swarbrick: "It’s impossible to answer, because there are so many variations on those themes. You just can’t come at if from a numerical perspective.

"I believe genuinely as we somewhere down the road contemplate alternatives, if everybody focuses on what’s good for college football, we’ll be fine.

"The worst thing anyone in the room can do is come at it parochially. We all have an interest in college football thriving. And I can’t tell you how rewarding it’s been to be part of a group that thinks that way.

"I think people like to sort of position this as a battle between somebody and somebody else. It’s incredibly collegial. And we spend a lot of time talking about the future of the sport.

"We have health and safety issues. We have consumer-demand issues. The playoff is just part of that discussion. And we have to be focused on the health of college football."

Q: Do you think there is a chance for alterations in the CFP format before you get to the end of the first contract in 2025?

Swarbrick: "I don’t want to speculate on that. I don’t sense a lot of momentum. But again, this is a group of individuals who cares about college football and think about it all the time. And so that’s all you want, a process where people are always talking about how to make the game better. But I don’t sense any particular momentum for change right now."

Coming in Part II: Reflecting on lessons learned in the Kelly coaching search; Ruffling feathers with stadium changes; International Shamrock Series games or not; Standardized national injury reports; Swarbrick's own future, and more.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick celebrates with the Irish players following ND’s 24-17 win over Michigan, Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium.