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ND Athletics: Swarbrick ready to face challenges, lead change

Bill Brink | Friday, August 29, 2008

On the morning of Aug. 21 in the JACC, a receptionist spoke on the phone, updating magazine subscriptions. She changed the addresses, then made another switch.

“I’d like to change the name on these as well,” she said. “Can you change it to Jack Swarbrick?”

In the grand scheme of the Notre Dame athletic department, that means almost nothing. But it’s representative of the shift into a new era.

Swarbrick, a ’76 graduate of the University, former Irish lacrosse player and a lawyer in Indianapolis, replaced Kevin White, who took the same job at Duke University, in July. So far, he said, the reception has been positive.

“Part of that is my Notre Dame background, having gone to school here,” he said. “It’s just been exceptionally welcoming.”

He comes into a job laden with challenges, from football scheduling to Notre Dame’s interaction with the BCS to a half-finished renovation of athletic facilities. He’s started to learn the complex puzzle that is football scheduling, he said, because the schedules go far into the future. The challenges, he said, come from trying to preserve the traditional rivalries while at the same time following the 7-4-1 schedule White established (seven home games, four away and one at a neutral site).

“It’s a real Rubik’s Cube, because if you’re pursuing a 7-4-1 model you’ve got to find three teams, arguably four, that aren’t interested in a home-and-home and are willing to just be a visitor,” he said.

Schools will agree to play Notre Dame at home without requiring the Irish to travel there, he said, but not many.

“I talked to a coach at a very good program last week,” Swarbrick said. “He essentially said this is the one place where he would do that because he wants his kids to experience it once. Not gonna do it twice.”

Swarbrick said on-field performance is not the only factor he uses to determine a program’s success. He looks at the experience of the students, how the program represents the university, the competitive results and the number of championships won.

Critics of the Notre Dame athletic department say the University president and the Board of Trustees have the real power over the department. Swarbrick said he discussed the issue with University president Fr. John Jenkins and Dick Notebaert, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and feels he has all the power he needs to do his job.

“I wouldn’t be here if I was concerned,” he said.

No athletic director in the nation, he said, makes a major decision without consulting the university president. What he said he wanted – and felt he got – was the authority to lead the investigation and make a recommendation on the decision.

“I would not have hired him if I did not have confidence in him to do the work of the athletic department,” Jenkins said during Swarbrick’s introductory press conference on July 16.

While a partner at Baker & Daniels law firm in Indianapolis after graduating from Stanford law school, Swarbrick, who also served as the chairman of the Indiana Sports Corporation from 1992 to 2001, helped bring the NCAA offices and the 2012 Super Bowl to the city. The skills he used in those projects, he said, will help him handle his job as Notre Dame’s representative to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) with whom Notre Dame has an individual contract.

“That’s very consistent with my background, that’s a lot of the work that I’ve done,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of those people, spent time with them over the years, and I consider many of them friends. I’m eager to listen, to learn, and to take part in the discussion.”

The University has a new softball stadium, a new soccer field, and renovations to the JACC, but Swarbrick said there are still facilities that need to be updated.

“Clearly we want to address hockey quickly,” he said. The Irish hockey team lost to Boston College in the national championship game last season.

The department would address other needs, he said, on a sport-by-sport basis. A non-facility aspect of the department he would like to work on, he said, was to get his senior staffers in position to lead the changes in the world of college sports. He cited women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw as a coach who thought about the future of the game.

One change he said he doesn’t think will happen soon, however, is the addition of a college football playoff. There are too few university presidents interested in changing the system, he said, so the dialogue should focus on something else.

Another status quo he would like Notre Dame to uphold is the avoidance of one-and-done basketball players, students who play their freshman year before leaving for the NBA.

“Generally speaking, I don’t think programs benefit from having people who come here with an interest in leaving,” he said. “Your basketball program has a real culture, and you have that culture because seniors teach freshmen, and the next class teaches the next class, and you start to have a really important culture.”

Swarbrick said, however, that there are athletes for whom it makes sense, and also that no one makes a fuss when a great young tennis player – or Michael Phelps – turns pro.

Although the football team commands most of his attention, the 25 other varsity sports will not fall by the wayside, he said. Athlete-coach relationships are strong, he said, and a football player’s experience is as important to him as an athlete’s in any other sport.

“I believe that the course of study that is varsity athletics is one of the most effective educational models in American academia,” he said. “It’s an intensive four-year program.”

That being said, the football team plays a special role at the University, and Swarbrick said he will naturally have to devote more time to it.

“It’s essential to who we are, both from the external perception and to the way we celebrate it,” he said. “I understand that, the other coaches understand that, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure the football program meets the expectations of everyone engaged in it.”