James: Jack Swarbrick shouldn't feel rushed in hiring Notre Dame's next football coach
SOUTH BEND — Jack Swarbrick can’t name an interim head coach for Notre Dame’s football program until he knows which members of head coach Brian Kelly’s former staff will be staying in South Bend in the interim.
Tuesday morning after Kelly signed a 10-year deal worth $95 million — before incentives — to be LSU’s head coach, the Notre Dame athletic director said he had yet to be notified of which Irish assistant coaches will definitely be joining Kelly at LSU.
Even then, Swarbrick didn’t seem too concerned about immediately filling the leadership void in Kelly’s absence.
“This staff is so well-structured and the responsibilities are so well-understood, I feel less of a need to have a designated interim,” Swarbrick said during a Tuesday morning press conference. “But as the search progresses, if we feel a need to put somebody in that position, they would not be a candidate for the job.”
That could bring an odd dynamic to the process. The most obvious candidates to be Notre Dame’s interim head coach — associate head coach Brian Polian, defensive line coach Mike Elston and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman — would almost certainly like to receive consideration for the full-time position.
Maybe the process plays out in a way that Swarbrick identifies Notre Dame’s next head coach before the Irish truly need an interim head coach to prepare for whatever postseason bowl/playoff appearance awaits them. Notre Dame will learn when and where its next game will be played on Sunday afternoon after the College Football Playoff committee reveals its final top 25 ranking.
If the right teams lose in their conference championship games this weekend to allow Notre Dame a spot in the College Football Playoff, then naming an interim coach becomes a more pressing concern. Every part of replacing Kelly after 12 seasons as Notre Dame’s head coach might be influenced by timelines forced upon Swarbrick.
But that’s where Swarbrick has to push back and assert control over the process. As awkward as the next few days and weeks could be for everyone impacted by Notre Dame’s coaching search, Swarbrick needs to take whatever time is necessary to identify the best option. He said the right things Tuesday to indicate that he won’t put a timetable on his decision.
“Every search process has its own rhythm,” Swarbrick said. “You want to do the best job you can, not the fastest job you can. We're going to do the best job we can to find the right person to lead Notre Dame.”
The two most obvious candidates to become Notre Dame’s next head coach will likely be working on much different preferred timelines. Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell first has a trip to the College Football Playoff potentially on the line in Saturday’s AAC Championship. The AP No. 3 Bearcats (12-0) are likely a win over Houston (11-1) away from becoming the first Group of Five school to make the playoff.
“There is no speculation,” Fickell told reporters Tuesday about his current focus. “Is the job open? I guess it is. But I wouldn't know if somebody didn't tell me.
“It’s the same way I am with rankings. It's the same way I am with unfortunately a lot of other things, with the exception of recruiting, I don't pay a whole lot of attention.”
Swarbrick will have to find a way to get Fickell’s attention to learn if pulling him to Notre Dame will be possible. But that doesn’t mean Swarbrick needs a public commitment from Fickell anytime soon. If Swarbrick believes Fickell is the right person for the job, he should be worth the wait even if that means after the playoff.
Fickell has shown the ability to push Cincinnati beyond reasonable expectations for its program. With a 47-14 record as Cincinnati’s head coach since 2017 and back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, Fickell can both build and sustain success in college football. At Notre Dame, he’d be asked to do more of the latter but building through whatever was lost while the Irish waited for him to become head coach would be important too.
If Fickell’s résumé to become Notre Dame’s head coach make as much sense to Swarbrick as it does to impartial observers, the short-term losses in recruiting can be overcome in short order.
Now if Freeman were promoted to head coach, the immediate blows in recruiting or the transfer portal could almost certainly be mitigated. Both current players and committed recruits alike have already expressed public support for Freeman being offered the job. In less than a year as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, he’s made a significant impact on the Irish defense, which entered the week tied at No. 11 in the FBS in scoring defense, and Notre Dame’s effort to attract talented defensive recruits.
Freeman will likely want to know what’s next for him sooner than later. There are reports that Kelly is trying to lure both Freeman and ND offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to LSU. Ohio State could also try to get Freeman back to his alma mater as defensive coordinator. Freeman may have other head coaching opportunities at lower-profile programs in his sights too.
What Swarbrick has to determine is if everything that makes Freeman successful in his current role can continue to be amplified as a head coach. Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and Ryan Day at Ohio State, who were both promoted to head coach from offensive coordinator, have provided successful blueprints for that kind of transition.
Even with Freeman being promoted to head coach remaining a possibility, the Irish lost their first 2022 commitment when Naples (Fla.) High defensive back Devin Moore reopened his recruitment Tuesday. More defections will certainly come even though a commitment to Notre Dame is often pitched as bigger than a decision to follow a coach.
The right head coach for Notre Dame will be able to win over recruits whether that’s in the 2022 class over the next few weeks or in the coming months with future classes. Any gaps created by the 2022 class can be patched over with graduate transfers too. Both players and recruits alike can have their loyalty swayed once they know who they’re being asked to follow.
For now, they have each other. Several current players shared on social media a highlight video with Kanye West’s song “Power” serving as the soundtrack. The message being that the strength of Notre Dame’s program belongs to the players.
“The mission doesn’t change... the brotherhood stays the same,” Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser wrote on Twitter with the accompanying video.
The lyrics of West’s song seem almost too fitting: “No one man should have all that power. The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours.”
Swarbrick gave credit to Notre Dame’s players — not Kelly nor himself — for breathing new life into the culture of Notre Dame’s football program. That can easily dissipate if Swarbrick makes the wrong hire. Football is too fickle of a game for that culture to successfully cultivate on its own.
Who can be trusted to take Notre Dame’s football program to new heights? Swarbrick needs time to figure that out. He shouldn’t let the clock tick too loud in his head.
“In my 14 years, this program has never been in better shape,” Swarbrick said. “We have never been in a better position to take the next step in building this program into a consistent contender for national championships, and I am excited with the opportunity to attract the next leader to do that.”