Looking at Notre Dame's football future through the COVID lens with Jack Swarbrick

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jack Swarbick is roughly three weeks away from being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, not that it will remove the pandemic and its wake from the Notre Dame athletic director’s agenda.

The Irish football team halted winter workouts last Monday, a hiccup that didn’t surprise Swarbrick given the high infection rate on campus since spring semester classes started on Feb. 3.

In Sunday’s first of two parts of an extensive Q-and-A with the 13th-year AD, Swarbrick shared his thoughts on closing the gap with College Football Playoff bullies Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, as well as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s vision for recruiting and his role in it.

Future scheduling priorities and the state of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex expansion project were also included in the discussion.

In today’s part II, we’ll explore the pandemic’s effect on whether the Blue-Gold Game will have spectators, what the 2021 Notre Dame Stadium experience might be like and financial repercussions.

But we’ll lead off with the weird numbers game that’s challenging schools when it comes to roster management, given that every college football player was awarded an extra year of eligibility because of COVID. Yet the NCAA is allowing expanded rosters only in 2021.

Q: How do you make the COVID exemption year work within the framework of 85-man rosters in 2022 and beyond, and very few players with expiring eligibility because of it? For example, there are more than 60 players on the 2021 Irish roster with freshman eligibility and just three with expiring eligibility. So how do you still add recruits and reconcile that math challenge?

Jack Swarbrick: “I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of it, but in a lot of ways I think we are much better positioned than a lot of schools, because our players and our coaches are as focused on the academic side of this as they are the athletic.

“Nothing’s changed about the progress toward graduation for everyone. And then for so many of our student-athletes, they came here as motivated to get that degree as to continue to play. So that won’t change.

“For a lot of them, at that point in time with degree in hand, some will choose to get on with their careers. Some will choose to transfer to someplace where they think they can play some more with that extra eligibility.

“I’m not suggesting there aren’t some interesting discussions ahead, but I think it’s more manageable for us than a lot of people where their student-athletes are focused exclusively on that eligibility issue and the amount of eligibility they have left.

“So I think we’ll manage it, but what I ask all our coaches to do is be very transparent with our student-athletes. I don’t want anybody surprised, that all of a sudden an opportunity they thought they had, they don’t have. And our coaches have been great about that.”

Notre Dame football's COVID-19 protocols have evolved from back in August, when ND president Rev. John Jenkins addressed the team in training camp.

Q: With the current pause in winter workouts, when do you think they might get to the other side of it?

JS: “Had a meeting (Friday) morning about that, and we’ve got another round of tests coming, which should be pretty probative in that regard. And much as we did in the fall, everybody associated with the football program has looked at what we’re doing and made a few tweaks — the size of the workout groups, some of the social distancing stuff we’re doing.

“I believe they will be back working out very soon. Just a little more testing to be done, and I’m encouraged by the processes we’ve put in place to try and get through the spring.”

Q: When the football team started spring semester, were the COVID protocols similar to what you ended the fall with or have there been changes?

JS: “Largely similar. There are differences, because you’re not involved in contact, for example. So it’s not exactly the same, but the core process elements were all unchanged.”

Q: Once there is an open season, so to speak, with vaccinations, is there a Notre Dame plan for vaccination with regard to both student-athletes and the general student population?

JS: “There’s no separate plan for student-athletes, and I’m not directly involved in the university discussions about how the approach will go for the student body generally. As the vaccine gets deployed, we may reach that point over the summer when students aren’t here.

“So that might be part of the issue eventually, but I’m not part of the university’s deliberations on that.”

Q: It’s understood that there will likely be a Blue-Gold Game. Is that official? And what is the plan in terms of possibly admitting spectators to it?

JS: “We haven’t resolved the issue of spectators yet, although I think it’s more likely than not that we’ll maintain the same model we had in the fall — which is students, faculty and staff. I do anticipate there will be some form of a Blue-Gold Game, a full-blown stadium scrimmage, but haven’t reached a final conclusion on what attendance might look like.

“My inclination is to stick with what we had in the fall.”

Q: Is that based on campus testing numbers? Community testing numbers?

JS: “It’s based on risk aversion generally — can we get through the spring without having any additional significant problems? Given the nature of the Blue-Gold Game and what our attendance normally looks like, it doesn’t feel like a reason to stretch, to try and do something more.”

Will social distancing and limited crowds wane in 2021 at football games staged at Notre Dame Stadium?

Q: Last fall we talked a little bit about what 2021 might look like in terms of spectators. With the way the vaccine rollout is going, have your thoughts changed at all in terms of what you’ll allow and also whether people will have a hesitancy to go to a crowded stadium?

JS: “I believe the more significant factor is the second one you mentioned. I think it’s less about what we decide to make available for sale and more about how people are feeling about attending large events.

“All of the national survey data I’m seeing being done on this question suggests there’s a significant part of the population, at least as of recent surveys, who say they’re not ready. And so I think that’ll be the bigger driving factor — how many people are prepared to re-engage this fall?”

Q: How does this play into how you’ll sell and market tickets for football?

JS: “The reason there hasn’t been any announcement on that is that every day brings you new and better information. As with last year, we’ll make this decision in consultation with (St. Joseph County deputy health officer) Dr. (Mark) Fox and the university, based on how things are looking.

“And in that sense, the longer we can put it off, the better our information is to make a good decision about what we’ll do. But we’ll be driven by the experience going on around us and what it looks like.”

Q: There have been a few schools that have claimed the financial crunch from the pandemic in the fall wasn’t as severe as they had projected. What has the Notre Dame experience been in regard to that?

JS: “It has been pretty stable for us. Our initial projections look largely accurate. There remain some unknowns to work our way through here, but we knew with the policy we were adopting for attendance at football, you could identify with some certainty what that was going to produce in terms of lost revenue.

“The biggest unknown going into the season was how many games would we get in and how would that impact media revenue? And fortunately, we were able to play a pretty full schedule.”

Q: You came out with a statement early last week about Notre Dame’s stance with regard to the EA Sports’ developing college football video game and name, image, likeness issues. What was the urgency in taking that stand when you did?

Michigan's Denard Robinson graces the cover of EA Sports' most recent college football video game — NCAA Football 14, which came out in the summer of 2013. The company is looking to reboot the concept in the coming years.

JS: “I don’t know if I’d describe it as urgency, but it was the right time to do it for two reasons. One is EA Sports had come to us asking for the license. I’ve read a lot of places where people said, ‘Gosh, the game’s not coming out until 2022 sometime.’

“But to develop the game, they need our license to be able to build in various teams. So we had to give them an answer. So that was sort of driving force No. 1.

“No. 2 was there’s a lot of discussion obviously going on nationally — bills being introduced in Congress, etc. And I wanted to call more attention to this issue of group licensing. And for the student-athletes to participate in a video game has to involve some resolution of that issue — how are they all able to participate? What’s the process look like?

“I don’t think it’s satisfactory to say, ‘They’re not going to allow group licensing, so they can’t do this.’ I think we have to find solutions. So that was the second thing that was a driving force for me.”

Q: The general public doesn’t seem to completely grasp the NIL concept, and it's easy to see why. Are you getting a better sense of what it will look like ultimately and does that match your vision of what you think it should look like?

JS: “I have no better sense — I actually have a lesser sense of what it will be, because you’ve got all these states, all these federal pieces of legislation being proposed. You’ve got the Supreme Court taking the (Shawne) Alston case. You’ve got the NCAA proposal being tabled.

“There is more uncertainty about what the final rules will be than there’s ever been. So no, I don’t have any better feel for it. That it will be in place, that it’s coming this year, I view as a certainty.

“So I know it’s coming, know less about the rules. I think the complexity of this is broadly underappreciated. It feels simple to say, ‘We’re going to grant name, image and likeness rights’ — which we fully support.

“But then trying to really work through what that looks like. It’s very different than the other places it exists right now. There are complexities here that don’t exist elsewhere that are way underappreciated, including people who are spending a lot of time writing about it.”

Q: Will ND be better off in the college football recruiting world when name, image and likeness becomes a reality?

JS: “I don’t know that I can evaluate ‘better off,’ but I don’t think it’s a negative for us. It will be one more thing that I think will help distinguish Notre Dame and its approach. The more we can define how we are different — because we are very different — the better off we are in recruiting.

“And this is going to be one more example at the end of the day, when it’s all done, that highlights how we’re a little different.”

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick (right) is confident the Irish can navigate the roster management challenges brought on by the NCAA’s blanket COVID exemption.