Jack Swarbrick talks specifics and what-ifs pertaining to the road ahead for Notre Dame football
The notion that there will be no 2020 Notre Dame football season — delayed or otherwise — is a reality athletic director Jack Swarbrick has been forced to seriously ponder in recent days.
While he and college football’s other power brokers continue to exhaustively explore every contingency to make a season happen on the FBS level during the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately factors outside their control are driving where this all is headed.
And the current trajectory is hardly encouraging.
I connected with Swarbrick Tuesday to discuss specifics, timetables, dynamics and what-ifs pertaining to the road ahead for Notre Dame and college football in general.
Q: What needs to happen for there to be a college football season at this point? What are the baselines for making that decision?
Jack Swarbrick: “That’s exactly the right question, and it’s important to emphasize that we’re pretty downstream from how that decision gets made. People tend to focus on decisions that conferences are making and individual athletic departments are making.
“This starts with the national output. What’s going on with the disease? If the current trend lines continue — as negative as they’ve been the past few weeks — America is not going to return to normal. College football is just going to be a victim of that.
“It’s not going to be that we uniquely make a decision.
“The sort of associated version of that is that state governments may decide that they’re not going to allow gatherings, that they’re not going to allow competitive sports. So again, we’re downstream from that.
“The next one — and I think it’s really important but overlooked — is much more the experience of the university itself. If we have some Power 5 schools that reach decisions that they’re not going to return to campus or some schools come back to campus and have issues that make it difficult for them to stay on campus, that’s going to decide the outcome of college football.
“Not to belabor the point, but I think there’s a little too much emphasis on what we’re thinking and deciding and not enough of the likelihood the result will be dictated to us by these external elements.”
Q: With student-athletes returning for workouts around the country, there have been a mixed bag of big positive test numbers some places and numbers that have been incredibly encouraging in terms of the ability to make it work.
Does that kind of data play into the decision if you’re not dictated the decision? In other words, if states and communities start trending in a positive direction, how does the campus data factor in?
JS: “Less so, I think about the experience of an individual sport than the campus more broadly. These are residential environments. Yes, you’ll go over to the Gug and prepare and practice for two hours a day and lift weights and watch film, but the rest of the time you’re in a university environment.
“You’re in a residence hall, a dining hall. You’re in a classroom. And so the broader experience of a campus, as universities start to open here, is going to be the much more important focus than how did 120 football players test this week?”
Q: What do you think the timetable will be when it comes to determining if football can be played in the fall?
JS: “Certainly for the question of whether anybody’s going to start on time, you’ve got to be there at the end of July. I guess I sort of think of these in a series of questions. That’s the first one.
“If at that point a decision is made that nobody is going to start until the third week of September or the first week of October — whatever it is — then you’ve got more time to sort of absorb that data and see what happens.
“Obviously if there’s a decision to be made to move to spring or cancel, the decision-making process is over and you focus on what’s next."
Q: With a spring college football season model, how would that even work? Would you be able to absorb early enrollees and have them on the roster? Would you expand roster limits? Have you kicked the can that far down the road yet?
JS: “Somebody may have. I haven’t been involved in that. I know people are looking at spring models. And I assume at some places in conference offices, somebody on staff is starting to think about those issues, but I haven’t been involved in discussions about them.”
Q: Two Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, have made the decision to go to conference games only. Three others (SEC, ACC, Big 12) have to still make that decision. Where do you see that process heading, assuming there’s going to be a season in the fall? Do you see all five Power 5 conferences eventually going to the conference-only plan?
JS: “I don’t know. I think what you can expect to see is that the three conferences that haven’t made a decision to probably do so in a little more connected fashion and probably have some discussion about those decisions and how they impact each other.”
Q: What assurances have you received from the ACC about rebuilding your schedule?
JS: “I don’t want to go into the details about the discussions we’ve had. But as I’ve said, the ACC has been and continues to be a phenomenal partner for us, and I have every confidence that they’ll continue to be helpful to us.
“In that, and other discussions I’ve had in complete confidence, whatever our full schedule looks like this year, we’ll be able to have one if we want to and it’ll be a highly competitive one.
“I do not anticipate any scheduling obstacles for us if college football is played this year.”
Q: Are Navy, Arkansas and Western Michigan all still in play? Do you want to keep those games if you can?
JS: “We haven’t made any modifications to our schedule yet, other than those that have been announced by Wisconsin, USC and Stanford, by virtue of their conference decisions. We continue to look at it as an overall picture and we haven’t had any discussions yet about changing particular games.
“And really, it’s not terribly fruitful until you have some idea of what the season looks like. Is it eight games? Is it 10 games? Is it 12 games? Are we starting early September, mid-September, early October? Until you start to fill in some of that picture, you can have those discussions, but you’re spinning your wheels.”
Q: What do you think the right number of games is right now? And does everybody need to play the same number?
JS: “I don’t think it’s possible that everybody is going to play the same number. I think it’s inevitable you’re going to have cancellations during the season. I think a team will have testing results in a certain week that will probably take them out of the mix for a week or two. I think it’s highly unlikely that at the end of the season, you’ll all look back and say you played the same number of games.
“I don’t have a number in mind, but I think creating some space, some flexibility, some kind of breathing room in the schedule is likely to be important, to deal with all the uncertainties that are likely to be part of this.”
Q: The NCAA allowed teams starting their seasons Labor Day weekend to shift from voluntary workouts to team-required activities on Monday. Did Notre Dame make that shift or remain in voluntary mode?
JS: “No. We anticipate until we have more information about the schedule, we’ll keep it voluntary. Everything backdates from when we’re playing football. Until we have some better information about how and when we’re playing football, we won’t start (required) football activities.”
Q: Notre Dame football team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler mentioned there’s a lot of sharing of info among schools and conferences. In that information sharing are you getting a sense that the positive tests at other campuses are the results of flawed protocols or is it more the results of kids going to parties and things like that?
JS: “It’s important to keep in mind the broader context of colleges and universities that football is the first group of students who are up here. So we’re all learning from it. Nobody started with perfect protocols.
“And so I think it’s less about protocols than it is dynamics among the team. So one of the things I think you’ve seen a little bit in places where students tend to live in that town year round or they are from the same area, they spend a lot more time together.
“Our students scatter all around the country. I think if you’re at a place, where 40 to 50 percent of your football team stays in that city year round, it’s inevitable that you would have had a higher test (positivity) rate.”
Q: There have been some people in the media kicking around the idea of expanding to an eight-team playoff, just for this season, to maybe help recoup some money that might be lost due to an abbreviated schedule. Do you think that’s a reality?
JS: “No. No. It’s hard for me to see any circumstance that would generate a change to the format this year.”
Q: When the Wisconsin game went away, you and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez were pretty quick to come out and say you’d like to put this back on the schedule again down the road. Is that something you’ve actually looked at in terms of specifics?
JS: “You sort of have to, as complicated as some of these schedules are. I’m not telling you we’ve figured it out yet, but I can tell you both schools are looking at it with an eye toward what’s the soonest year we can do it.
“It may involve buying games out by one or both of us. How does that work? What year might we be able to match this up? You sort of have to start those discussions now, so we have. I’m not saying anything’s imminent, but we’re definitely talking about it.”
Q: I see that NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt is talking about moving up the start of basketball season. So if that’s maybe getting pushed up and football’s maybe getting pushed back, is there a different dynamic with basketball that would make it feasible to play earlier?
JS: “I have all the confidence in the world in Danny Gavitt, and I didn’t understand that either. I can’t help you. I think our No. 1 priority, as athletic departments, as teams, has to be to have our schools be successful in this first academic term.
“So I wouldn’t do anything that causes athletics to complicate that. My instincts with regard to the winter sports, basketball included, is to start them later. Let the first semester start and be successful.”
Q: If the season is played this fall, do you envision players, at Notre Dame and other places with NFL futures, maybe opting out?
JS: “I don’t, but if someone chose to do it, I’d understand. If someone chose not to participate under a health concern, they’d have our full support. But I don’t anticipate that right now based on what I know and the discussions I’ve had.
“If you move to spring, I think the dynamic changes, but I don’t see it in the fall.”
Q: Where do things stand with ticket sales, stadium protocols? Are you still modeling those and working on those or have you pushed that to the back burner?
JS: “We have a pretty good sense of that and have worked through it, but I do think it’s premature to start announcing everything until you have a better sense of the schedule. I think it sends a confusing message to say, ‘Here’s exactly how we’re going to enter the stadium and seat people and the mask requirements and social distancing’ and then turn around a week later and say, ‘OK, we’re not doing that until this date, or we’re not doing it at all.’
“So I think It’s really important to come to some consensus about if there’s college football and what does it look like before we start getting too far down the road on those sorts of announcements.”
Q: What would happen to Division I college athletics, as we know it, if there is no football season?
JS: “It would diminish it in a host of ways. It starts with the excitement football builds for college athletics generally and the attention it draws to it. The financial consequences are likely to have ongoing ramifications, not be a one-year challenge.
“I think it would look very different or have the potential to be very different. I don’t know all the ways in which it will be.
“Do we go, for example, generally to move to regional scheduling? Do we shorten seasons? I don’t have any of the answers, but if we don’t play college football this year, all of those things are going to have to be explored.”
Q: Are there any new numbers to report from Notre Dame’s COVID-19 testing?
JS: “There’s nothing to report. We’ll report after full rounds of testing, and the next one is imminent.”
Q: When the UCLA and Cal news came down recently about Under Armour’s desire to break contracts with those schools, it raised questions about its relationships with other schools. Are there ramifications for Notre Dame?
JS: “Our relationship continues to be very strong. I don’t have any concerns about it. I think those were individual decisions and the sort of decisions businesses have to make. But we’ve had nothing but continued great experience with them and are in regular contact with everyone there.”
Q: What has head football coach Brian Kelly been like during the pandemic?
JS: “I’ll sound too lavish in my praise, so I’m trying to figure out how to say it.
“He’s been amazing. His singular focus on student health, the staff health and the broader welfare of the university and trying to make sure Notre Dame can succeed through this first semester has just been amazing.
“I mean, every decision, every discussion we have had is always based on those dynamics. We want to win football games — don’t get me wrong, and nobody more than him. But, boy, has he taken a broad and, in my view, an appropriate perspective on this thing.”
Q: What’s your take on people debating the Fighting Irish nickname and whether that’s something that should endure?
JS: “What we’re stressing in the current environment with our students is: We want to talk about everything. We want to talk about any issue or any concern, especially relating to social justice and the treatment of other people.
“So it would be inconsistent with that core message not to say we welcome people’s thoughts on this. We view it very positively. We don’t view it as having a negative connotation and certainly our experiences in Ireland have tended to reinforce that view.
“But I understand some people might have a different view and I welcome them expressing those views.”