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Observer Exclusive: Swarbrick discusses eventful fall semester

Allan Joseph | Thursday, December 27, 2012

Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick is generally an energetic man, but it’s hard not to notice an extra spring in his step these days. Irish sports have seen unprecedented success so far this year, far beyond football’s berth in the BCS National Championship Game. With hockey and women’s basketball ranked in the top five, men’s soccer earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and other programs building traditions of success, 2012-13 is shaping up to be a banner year for Notre Dame athletics. The Observer sat down with Swarbrick during finals week to look back at an eventful fall and look forward to the future of Irish athletics.

The conference challenge

Just months after Swarbrick announced Notre Dame’s historic move to the ACC from the Big East, the latter is on the verge of collapse. Most recently, the league’s seven Catholic schools without Football Bowl Subdivision football programs voted to leave the conference and start their own, leaving the Big East and its members in chaos. While Notre Dame has one foot out the door, Swarbrick said he was still engaged in the complicated process.

“As a bit of an end point, you have a good sense the conference will split into two parts but you don’t know the timing of it or the dynamic of it. We’re really engaged right now trying to figure it out for obvious reasons,” he said. “A transaction like this, with a lot of moving parts, it’s hard to understand. For example, you keep on reading in the papers about the voting dynamic in the Big East, the basketball schools and the three football schools. We still have a vote. No one’s mentioned that. There’s a lot of details like that. It’s hard for somebody who’s not in the process to really get their arms around it.”

The uncertainty of the Big East’s immediate future has left the timing of Notre Dame’s exit to the ACC in limbo, though Swarbrick said he continues to press forward for a departure before the 2013-14 year.

“We’ve said throughout that sooner is better … I think it’s in the interest of the Big East and Notre Dame to accelerate it,” he said. “What we’re focused on is our agreement with the Big East to cause that to happen. With what’s going on now, it’s a little different, a little different posture. You’re not sure. All of that playing out impacts who you’re talking to, what their plans are. If the Big East were going to split by next year, then that sort of answers the question. If it’s going to go on for one more year after that, you have to know who to talk to and what they’re going to look like.”

The scheduling puzzle

As part of Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC, the University agreed to schedule five ACC teams in football each season, beginning in 2014 to coincide with the newest incarnation of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). While the Irish schedule had often looked similar to that before the agreement – 2012′s slate featured four schools that would qualify – Swarbrick said the agreement means traditional Big Ten rivals Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan will not be every-year opponents moving forward.

“The challenge is that you just don’t have as much flexibility … It’s the flexibility of it, both in terms of home games and where you have openings on your calendar,” he explained. “In the 6-5-1 model, you can have five away games. You can assume every year that one of those is either USC or Stanford. Three of them are either the ACC or Navy. In some years, it’s two ACC home, three away and others it’s three at home and two away. So the combination of Navy and the ACC will give you three so that means, for those traditional rivals with the ACC agreement, four road games are always accounted for. For scheduling purposes, you only have one to play with.

“Now we can get some teams into the Shamrock Series and continue to play that feature our relationships that way. In terms of home-and-homes, you only have one slot on the calendar to play with.”

The playoff era

In June, Swarbrick stood before a podium and, with the 11 BCS conference commissioners behind him, announced the BCS had reached an agreement to begin a four-team playoff in the 2014 football season. Under the new system, a selection committee will choose four teams to play semifinal contests in bowl games, with the winners meeting in a championship game bid out in a process to that of the NFL’s Super Bowl. Though the makeup of the selection committee and the location of the first contest have not yet been announced, Swarbrick said he was pleased with the new arrangement.

“It’s always a compromise. It’s great,” he said. “This is a process with a lot of parties who have points of view. So you wind up negotiating solutions. From that perspective, it’s great.
“It was never going to be more than a four-team playoff because of what that did to the academic calendar. There were concerns about demands on the student athletes. Since we started the process, our presidents said to us ‘Don’t interfere with first-semester finals and be done by the start of second semester. That gives you a window that really only allows you … a four-team playoff. It just does.”

Swarbrick said he was especially pleased with the format of the playoff.

“I liked that the semifinals are embedded in the bowls. I think that’s nice, it keeps the bowl tradition. I especially like that the championship is not,” he said. ” I like that there’s a selection committee rather than polls who are making that critical determination who those four teams are. Across the board, I was pretty pleased.”

The digital frontier

This fall, the athletic department unveiled its version of a “Notre Dame Network”: Fighting Irish Digital Media (FIDM), an office dedicated to video content mostly hosted online, though sometimes on NBC’s family of networks. Swarbrick said he was extremely happy with the work FIDM had done in the fall semester.

“I think it’s been our single-most significant business success this year. It’s been phenomenal. I’m an optimist by nature but they have far exceeded my highest hopes for what we’d achieve,” he said. “I think the quality of the content is great. I think the volume of the content is great. The variety is great.

“We’ve really given people an insight into the student-athlete and the athletics program that they’ve never had before. When you augment that with things like the NBC special on the road to Chicago, the ‘Strong of Heart’ series that aired, having [ESPN's "College GameDay"] here, hockey at Soldier Field [in February 2013], that game will be featured. I’m not sure any – I’m pretty sure that no school has ever had this level of exposure in a single athletic year that we’ll achieve this year.”

As Swarbrick looks forward to the renewal of Notre Dame’s contract with NBC, he said he was pleased with the discussions so far, especially in the wake of NBC’s merger with Comcast.

“We’re in discussions now and I’m really optimistic about it,” he said. “It helps because [Comcast has] many more resources … They distribute more broadband than anybody. They have a regional sports network, they have a 24-hour sports network, they have an over-the-air station. They have other cable network assets so it’s great.”

‘The same sort of feeling’

Given the success his athletic programs had experienced across the board, it might seem Swarbrick would suggest this year had been his best since taking the helm in 2008. Yet he would do no such thing.

“Obviously, things are really good when football does well. From this seat, from this job, you feel sort of the same for when women’s soccer wins. It’s hard to say one year is better than the other,” he said. “Each of those really good seasons by any team, [it's] usually the same sort of feeling. The business of it is better when football does well. I’m as excited when our basketball teams make a run or when our soccer teams do. It’s hard to distinguish a moment.”

Associate Sports Editors Matthew DeFranks and Andrew Gastelum contributed to this report.

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu.