Q-and-A with Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick on football, faith, COVID-19 and beyond

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

He pushes through his days, making decisions, with no frame of reference, no clear context, no vision when the cloud of the COVID-19 global pandemic will end.

Yet Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick does so teeming with optimism, including the prospect of an undelayed, unabridged college football season.

On Tuesday, the Tribune conducted a wide-ranging one-on-one interview with the man who has run the Irish athletic department since 2008. Here's a deep dive into his world during this most unusual spring.

Q: As it pertains to the 2020 football season, are you working on different models yet, such as an unaffected season? Shortened season? Delayed season? Season with no/few fans? No season? Are you looking at those different scenarios?

Swarbrick: “We’re discussing a lot of those. I don’t want to create the impression that we’re engaged in sophisticated modeling. We’re not. There are just too many unknowns. We’re more in discussion about: What are the critical dates on the calendar? What might the decision-making look like?

“There are so many variables. I think there’s a limit as to how deeply you can actually model it.”

Q: ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit came out with a pretty pessimistic view about whether there would be a college football season in 2020. What are your thoughts about the possibility of having a 2020 college football season?

Swarbrick: “I remain optimistic. I don’t know that you have any other choice. Other than being prudent in planning, there’s not a lot of benefit in assuming the contrary. So our operating assumption is that there will be a full college football season. You don’t want to take your eye off that ball and get too consumed with the alternative.

“We’ll have enough time, as we get to critical dates down the road, if we need to shift course. But our focus is very much on playing a full season.”

ndfb0928019_cw_09.jpgWill Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly be leading his team onto the field as scheduled, on Aug. 29, for the start of the 2020 season?

Q: Are you in alignment with Brian Kelly that July 1 is the next critical date in terms of getting players into some sort of conditioning?

Swarbrick: “It’s around that date. As Brian pointed out, the trainers have one view. Strength and conditioning is likely to have another one. Coaches have one. But the priority is, as Brian articulated, you have to make sure you can conduct this in a way that your student-athletes can remain healthy.

“And so that is (providing) some period of time prior to when you start actual football practice that is necessary, especially given the environments they’re currently training in, which are — by definition — limited.”

Q: What is the status of Notre Dame’s season opener against Navy, Aug. 29 in Dublin, Ireland? Is there talk about moving the game to the U.S.?

Swarbrick: “We have been in touch with Navy, and the operating assumption — both theirs and ours — is that we’re moving forward. That’s largely going to be a byproduct of what’s decided about the college football season.

“We think it is as likely to be driven by that as any unique factor about Ireland or travel.”

Q: There are a lot of speculative stories out there about what would happen to other sports programs that depend on college football revenues if there were to be no or a limited 2020 college football season. How is Notre Dame equipped to absorb that kind of financial gut punch?

Swarbrick: “I don’t know of any athletic department that’s really in the position to absorb the loss of the college football season entirely. I think those will wind up being, ‘How do you bridge that period of time. What is the discussion between the university and the athletics department? What are the other mechanisms available to you to bridge it, because that’s what you’d have to do.’

“There’s no simple way to say, ‘Let’s just move through this.’ The larger programs tend to have the heaviest reliance on football, and we’re certainly among them.”

Notre Dame had just one spring football practice, on March 5, before COVID-19 concerns canceled the other 14 scheduled sessions.

Q: Is there any chance there would be some sort of modified spring practice in the summer for football if we’re back to a more normal existence by then?

Swarbrick: “It seems increasingly unlikely. There was a lot of discussion about that earlier, but I think the calendar is starting to move us away from that to where I think most people are focused on an acclimation period of just getting you fit again and then into football activities.”

Q: Various conferences are instituting limits and structure in terms of online communication, meetings and instruction between coaching staffs and players. In terms of football, what would guide Notre Dame, which isn’t in a football conference? Do you have to get special permission from the NCAA? Are you kind of mimicking what some of the other conferences are doing?

Swarbrick: “For all but two of our sports, it’s regulated by the ACC. And we’re very much involved in ACC discussions on how to approach this. And we’ve certainly paid attention to what the other conferences have done.

“There is some interest in having the NCAA come up with some sort of uniform standards, but I don’t know whether that will occur or not. I just think we all have to be mindful about how difficult it is to regulate during this period of time and the risks that we overregulate.

“There’s no commonality of experience here. There are some schools with student-athletes, who remain largely within a geographic region closer to the campus. There are other schools, like us, where the students are all over the country.

“I just think we need to stay grounded in what’s best for the health and welfare of the student. These are tough circumstances. I don’t care at all about somebody’s argument that a competitive advantage is being created. It’s just not on my radar right now. That’s not the focus. The focus is the health of our students.

“If there’s a student who’s better off from a mental health standpoint talking to us more often, I want him or her talking to us more often. I get the concerns, but I think we’ve got to understand that no one’s going to really gain any real competitive advantage during this period of time.

“I wish we’d worry a little less about it and just say look, ‘Do what you need to do to keep your athletes healthy and well.’”

Q: Along those same lines, what mental health resources exist for student-athletes during this unusual time and circumstance?

Swarbrick: “We, of course, have a robust mental health program here on campus. And for all our students those resources remain available, even as they have left campus. We happen to have three individuals who have a specialty in the area of serving student-athletes, and they continue to work as well, focusing on student-athletes.

“As importantly, we’ve tried to stress the issue with our coaches, and strength-and-conditioning people and sports administrators — all the people who will be in touch with the students — to be a resource. If you think you have someone who may need assistance, make sure you’re well-versed on how to direct them to that assistance and connect them to it.

“So it’s both the general awareness we’re trying to build, but it’s also making sure our specific resources are available and students know that.

Q: The university moved to online learning very quickly and then adopted a pass/fail option shortly thereafter. In terms of student-athletes who require additional academic supports, does it work similarly to the mental health networking?

Swarbrick: “Yeah, it’s interesting, because what we’ve done beyond the continued availability of our great academic services department here on campus is that we’ve asked our coaches to get much more engaged in it. One of my coaches described it as sort of, ‘the way it used to be.’

“Retro-coaching — less analytics and film, and more spending time engaged in things like, ‘How are you doing in a class? What are your issues? Are there any you’re struggling in?’

“So we’re looking for our coaches to be first-line resources for our kids academically — not tutoring them, but just being attuned to: ‘What are your issues? Did you get online yesterday for that English course? I know you’ve got a paper due. How are you doing?’ Just to be that resource and stay engaged with them on academic issues.

Q: I read that Duke has already made the decision not to have on-campus classes for their first summer term and are moving toward an online model for the summer. How close is Notre Dame to a decision on whether to move to that format for the summer term?

Swarbrick: “I do not know that. I guess a lot of universities are actively trying to answer that question now, but I don’t know what our timetable is.”

Q: Do think that at some point there will be discussions about accommodations to compensate for the reduced number of ACT/SAT test-taking opportunities as it pertains to the admissions process? I would think there isn’t a lot of admissions activity this time of year, but do you think eventually this is something Notre Dame needs to look at?

Swarbrick: “I wouldn’t anticipate being unique to the prospective student-athlete. I think universities generally are looking at this issue in these unusual times. I know I’ve read where some schools have made decisions about waiving it for a period of time.

“I don’t know that Notre Dame would do that, but my expectation is that we’d look at it comprehensively across all students, not just for student-athletes.”

Q: You had to pivot to the spring sports issues Monday, the eligibility issues granting seniors another year. How difficult was that decision, given all the logistics involved?

Swarbrick: “It’s all a matter of how you approach it, what your sort of foundation is for the analysis. We certainly understand the hardships that the spring sports athletes encountered here. We had so many spring sports that were doing really well.

“But we’re also very mindful of the fact similar hardships were imposed on every senior. So a lot of our focus is: How do you balance that? How do you keep it so you view all your students the same way and create the same opportunities for them?

“I just think there was too little consideration of that at the NCAA level.”

Q: It’s my understanding that each school can now decide if and how they’re going to offer scholarship support for those senior student athletes with another year of eligibility?

Swarbrick: “That’s right. Effectively, the NCAA has created the additional eligibility and schools or conferences will have to decide about things like roster management and additional financial aid. So there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Q: How far down the road is Notre Dame in making those kinds of decisions?

Swarbrick: “Not very far. There’s so much going on, we didn’t want to sort of prematurely get into that discussion until we knew what the decision was going to be. So in the first instance, there’s the NCAA decision that’s been made. Then there’s a conference discussion to be had, and then, finally. there’s the on-campus discussion.”

Q: In a situation where there’s not a clear frame of reference to guide decisions, in your role what guides you in that context and how much of a role does spirituality figure in?

Swarbrick: “It’s really a great question, because you encounter a lot of things in your life and career where you can say, ‘Boy, there’s no precedent for this,’ but not on this magnitude, where there’s literally nothing that you can look to that provides anything to sort of guide you.

“So the first thing for me is clarity as to what’s important. Every time we talk amongst ourselves or with the coaches, there’s a reminder that our first and only priority is the health and welfare of our students. So don’t worry about the other stuff. It will take care of itself.

“First and foremost, worry and pay attention to your students’ health, and that’s not just the physical health, but the emotional health. And that helps guide you.

“So when you’ve got resource-allocation questions or priority questions, you can sort of lean back on that standard. As I indicated earlier, a lot of people want to talk about, ‘Oh I think somebody’s getting a competitive advantage, because they’re doing X and Y.’

“My answer is always, ‘I don’t care.’ In another year, in another time, I’d care about that, but right now let’s just stay focused on doing the right things for the students we have responsibility for.

“Faith is a big part of it. It’s central to this institution, central to our identity. So when you’re talking about the welfare of students — whether we’re talking about their academic welfare, physical welfare, emotional welfare — we’re also talking about their spiritual welfare.

According to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, head coach Brian Kelly (pictured) took the lead in cancelling the final 14 spring practices due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Team chaplains remain involved. Spiritual advisers that students would have developed during their time on campus, those engagements remain. So those are our two sort of North Stars here: 1) Make all decisions about student health first and foremost, and 2) be true to who we are — a faith-based community that’s concerned about the whole student.”

Q: Is there a feel-good story to come out of all the chaos?

Swarbrick: “I’m just so proud of our people. All the things that those of us who live in this place find so special about it are really crystalized in these moments.

“The first conversation I had with Brian Kelly about this, he’s urging greater restraint that I was advocating in terms of practice and getting the kids together. He was saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to shut this down.’

“We were talking at that point about having limited weight room opportunities, where only 10 kids would be in at a time. It was just a model we were discussing, and Brian got out in front and said, ‘No. We shouldn’t even be doing that.’

“And that’s not how people see football coaches, right? Well, every one of my coaches was a version of that. It was just like, ‘Forget everything else. I want the men and women safe that I’m responsible for.’

“So you saw that over and over again with coaches. And on a staff level, in moments like this, the traditional hierarchy doesn’t work too well. It’s just too much coming at you too quickly.

“And so the people on our team who rise to the top, all of a sudden, whose job is something else, they say, ‘Hey, I’m digging in. I’m going to pack boxes that we’re going to ship from the dorms to kids. I’m going to be involved by helping to make travel arrangements, whatever it is.’

“It was so cool to see.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) talks with athletic director Jack Swarbrick following ND’s rout of Iowa State, Dec. 28 at the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla.