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

From lessons learned in the Kelly coaching search to Swarbrick's own future

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 second of two parts. Part I can be found here.

Q: With regard to the national championship game Notre Dame played in at the end of the 2012 season and this past playoff game, do you feel there was a significant difference in the feel of those two games, big picture, and the games themselves and their aftermaths?

Swarbrick: "The last time I attempted to answer this my friends in South Carolina didn’t like my answer. So I’m going to be very careful here.

"I couldn’t agree more with Brian (Kelly). Independent of he and I sharing our views, I had exactly the same reaction that he did. I left the field in ‘12 thinking, 'Boy, we have a long way to go. There’s a major difference here.’

"Notwithstanding the score this time, against a really phenomenal team, I felt differently. I felt, ‘We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to play better. There are certainly things we can improve on, but we’re not that far away.’ "

Q: Speaking of Brian Kelly, he wasn’t your first coaching hire, but he was one of your first. As you look back at that coaching search process, does anything jump out at you from that? Did Brian turn out to be better than you could have hoped? If you had to go through the process again in your career, would you do things differently?

Swarbrick: "I wouldn’t change a thing about the process or the result. I think it worked exactly as it should have. And because we focused on the right thing.

"Someday in the book I’ll talk about all the people who were interested in the job, but we didn’t let all that noise get in the way. We focused on making sure we were finding someone who was a program-builder, because the program was broken.

"If we had to hire a football coach for Notre Dame today, the criteria would be very different than they were back then, because the program is in such great shape.

"Because we’d be looking for other characteristics, the field would look different. But that’s what it was back then, and we ran the process the way I hoped we could and got to the right results.

"We all learn. In subsequent years to get to where we wanted to get to, I think I could have provided better direction to accelerate the process, as I reflect back on it. But sometimes you just have to go through all the ups and downs to get to the right place."

Q: Brian Kelly, especially early in his time here, was not shy about expressing what his vision was in terms of making Notre Dame Stadium a more formidable place for visiting teams to play. And it seems like you’ve been in lockstep with Brian in terms of a lot of these projects. But there has been push-back from traditionalists, and you guys have somehow been able to marry tradition with modern football. What was the most challenging part of that process, of getting people on board with that?

Swarbrick: "Understanding that you weren’t going to get them on board.

"Not letting that get in the way too much. Explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. But the thing that drove the decisions, and frankly made them very easy, is that we stayed grounded in what’s best for our student-athletes. What’s going to create the environment they deserve for how hard they work?

"And all the decisions emanated out of that and continue to today.

"We were thoughtful about the sequence. It started with alternative uniforms, went to piped-in music, then to synthetic turf. Eventually we got to Crossroads (stadium expansion and renovation project).

"It started with a few things that were going to be controversial but were easy to execute, and we built on those."

Q: I know Brian’s contract runs through 2021, and I think Brian told Pete Thamel in an interview that he wanted to coach a couple of years beyond that. As an athletic director, do you feel like at some point you have to formalize that?

Swarbrick: "My expectation is that we’ll formalize it. We want Brian to retire here. Both of us should understand that schedule, and we’ll want to address that in the contract."

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick looks on as new Irish football coach Brian Kelly meets the media for the first time, back on Dec. 11, 2009.

Q: I get asked this a lot, even though an end date for Brian Kelly here isn’t imminent: "Does Jack Swarbrick have a list in his desk in case Brian was abducted by aliens or whatever tomorrow?" Do you actually have a list in your desk if something happened to Brian unforeseen?

Swarbrick: "No. I’m very conscious about not having a list. And it goes back to what we talked about a minute ago — I think if you have that list and you start from that list, you get a little blinded by it.

"Listen, we track coaches all the time. We know who’s doing what. But if the aliens abducted Brian Kelly tomorrow, the first question we ask is: What does the program need right now?

"And depending upon what happened in the last six months or the next six months, that assessment really changes. And so (I need) to have the discipline to always have that perspective. At this point, to bring someone in to run this program, what does the program need?

"And it’ll take you to a short list that is almost self-defining."

Q: The offseason catchphrase with Notre Dame football among fans and media was: "Closing the gap with Clemson and Alabama." When you think about ways to make this program better, do you study those two programs, or are they so different in terms of their mission and the way they do it that it’s not as relevant in the way you go about your business of improving?

Swarbrick: "Well, first of all, they’re very different from each other. But you can always learn from other programs, and we don’t limit it to those two programs.

"There was some attention given to an exchange we had with the Clemson office people. Whether it’s with medical staff or videographers or anything else, we’re looking at each other’s programs all the time and exchanging information. So we do that.

"It’s a little interesting to me, and I understand the context in which it occurs, but Notre Dame and Alabama had comparable results against Clemson last year. And one (school) has to close the gap, and the other doesn’t.

"It’s interesting. I know we probably earned that by having (blowout losses in) ’12 and this past year, but there aren’t big things here (to fix). We’re going to operate as Notre Dame. We understand the limitations of that, and within those limitations we think we can win a national championship.

"And that’s what we’re going to keep trying to do."

Q: You mentioned sports science advances earlier. A part of that is mental performance. How much of an emphasis do you still have with that in respect to football? Do you do that with your other programs as well?

Swarbrick: "Yeah, for all our programs. We have two full-time counselors and a postdoc (postdoctoral researcher). So we have three professionals available to our student-athletes, and they do a phenomenal job. We have other people who help with various aspects of it, but it is one of the biggest changes in our business — the need for that, the understanding of the importance of it.

"It’s a generational shift that has changed our business."

Q: If you could change one thing about college football, what would you use your one wish to change?

Swarbrick: "I’d love to normalize the scheduling in some way. The whole FCS question, or playing 10 Power 5 games each season, as coach (Nick) Saban suggested recently. We need to create some better way to evaluate teams.

"The selection committee of the College Football Playoff has done a phenomenal job, but they only have 12 data points. It’s not like basketball or baseball.

"And when you have that few data points, and then you add to it the wildly different approaches to scheduling, it is a really thankless task. So if I could wave the magic wand, that’d be it. "We’d have some common understanding about how we were going to schedule.

"And as a byproduct of that, not having to schedule a decade and a half out. We’re all there. You can’t unilaterally disarm. There would be no games available for you to play.

"So everybody’s doing this, and I think we’re making some bad choices, because we don’t know what the landscape’s going to look like. We’re locked into deals. We’re scheduling out into the mid-2030s."

Q: Speaking of scheduling, there are a lot of people who say Notre Dame should be forced to join a conference in football. Isn’t the irony in that, that there may be no data point that connects all the conferences better than an independent Notre Dame?

Swarbrick: "Yes, given our intentionality about getting markers against the various conferences, I do think we play a role in that regard.

"It’s just so hard to compare performances where you don’t have any common rubric for doing that. And I wish we could get there. We’re not going to, so Notre Dame plays a role. And part of what we have to do — and I’ve said this many times — is to make sure our 12 games compare favorably with anybody’s 13.

"We understand the importance of the conference championship and that it’ll be a major factor, but at the time I think we can build schedules that respond to that."

Q: And more schedule talk, with regard to the Shamrock Series do you see it viable ever — at least while you’re doing the scheduling — to hold one of those outside of the United States? That would be beyond some international exposure you get from the games Navy hosts abroad.

Swarbrick: "I’m less optimistic that we can figure out how to do that than I was many years ago. The complexities of it are significant. It’s just very complicated. I’m excluding Canada here. You could play in Toronto, for example, and you wouldn’t have that dynamic.

"But anything else becomes a real challenge in terms of the venues, the playing surface, Customs."

Q: Jet lag? Does that factor in?

Swarbrick: "I’m not indifferent to that, but you’d only play a game where you crossed an ocean if it’s on either end of your schedule.

"I think it would be good for the sport, but I just don’t see us getting it done."

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says he’ll know when it’s time to move onto the next chapter of his life.

Q: Back in the spring, there was a lot of talk about a standardized injury report for college football, like the NFL has. What are your thoughts on that?

Swarbrick: "I think we should. I’m disappointed that college athletics couldn’t get itself there.

"It’s not an easy question. There are unique privacy issues with students that you’ve got to manage. And there’s the autonomy of various conferences to run programs the way they want. But, I think it would create a better competitive environment and I think it would provide a very important safeguard as legalized gambling on college athletics becomes a reality."

Q: Do you ever think about what your next chapter might look like? Do you think about when retirement will come or do you think you won’t know it until that moment arrives?

Swarbrick: "I think it’s very much the latter, that I’ll know.

"If I don’t think I’m staying current on the pace of change in the industry. … If I don’t think I’m playing a role nationally and can represent Notre Dame. … If I’m not responding to the needs of our students in the way I think I should, I’ll know.

"This is an incredible privilege to do this job. And with that privilege comes an obligation that you can still do it at 100 percent.

"The day I think I’m firing at 99 percent, I’m going to call Father John (president Jenkins) and say, ‘I’m done.' It’s too important of a job not to do it 100 percent. I love it, and at least from my perspective it feels like it’s firing on all cylinders."

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Irish coach Brian Kelly celebrate after ND’s 24-17 win over USC, Nov. 24 in Los Angeles.