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Full Transcript: Jack Swarbrick

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013

 

JACK SWARBRICK

Notre Dame Director of Athletics

Observer questions in bold:

 

The football season, Manti, conference realignment, stadium renovations. Has this been your busiest year, busiest semester?

You know, it’s hard to distinguish them because if you take the big things – the BCS, conference realignment, the NBC deal, the Stadium – they’ve all sort of played out over a two-and-a-half to three-year period. So, it’s hard to draw distinctions between one six months of that and another. It has been an incredibly dense few years. Counting on it not being that way next year.

With the proposed Stadium expansions, how much of it do you see as being – as it’s been termed – a “feasibility study” and how much do you think is actually really feasible and will happen?

Well, the feasibility study is really important because there is a lot we don’t know. It’s conceptual at this point. But the momentum and the enthusiasm is real. People are excited about the concept. They recognize the various needs that are being addressed, so I’m very optimistic about it, but from concept to final implementation, [the process] always contains things you can’t anticipate right now.

Should it all get done, how would you envision a typical day at the Stadium when it’s not football season?

Well, it would be a hub of activity. It would be really a center-place of activity. A student activities center which complements [the LaFortune Student Center]. It doesn’t replace it but has a lot of the same dynamics, so food options, meeting spaces. One of the things it has potential to create for us is a big multi-purpose space that you all [students] can use, whether it’s the hall dance or some other large function. The Monogram Club isn’t ideal. The [inaudible] isn’t ideal. You don’t have a lot of those spaces. So, one of the potentials through this is to create that space over there. It’s for Student Affairs to figure out how to program that space, but I think it’s exciting to think about what could be there.

On the digital media side, the digital media and education side, that’s not unique to Notre Dame; that’s the future of the University. That’s where everything, I think, is headed. As we think about it, we think that’s a place it’s a resource to professors. It’s a resource to all students. It’s a resource to the administration in its communications. It’s a resource to athletics. Really a whole lot of activity.

And then the North and South elements of this, we’ll have to develop the programming concepts from here. We have the vaguest of notions and really need to see what works there.

Whose idea was it to really get this conversation going and really who’s leading the charge? Is it Student Affairs or the Athletic Department and did your ideas and your thoughts come through?

I think you had two different forces come together. One was my interest in addressing various issues with the Stadium but recognizing, principally driven by the notion that we had to make it more of a year-round facility. And as campus has grown up around the Stadium, you can’t afford this real estate and not use it. And so that was the starting point for me from which over the past few years I’ve been sort of going down this path. At the same time, John Affleck-Graves is thinking about the challenging issues of where to locate key assets that are going to be developed in the future, including a student activities center and a digital media center, without an obvious good location for either. Those two processes come together and so in a great Notre Dame way, it’s not Athletics off doing it on its own; it’s a joint effort and it produces this result. Athletics took the lead in terms of working with an outside architect, and we went around and looked at a lot of other iconic venues to get ideas to think about how Lambeau and Wrigley and Fenway and the Rose Bowl have preserved their tradition well while renovating their facilities.

With the hockey team playing a game at Fenway soon, is that something that you think will definitely happen with this new idea of stadium expansion and multi-use for it?

Well, one of the goals is to expand use, not just its daily use by virtue of this expansion, but to contemplate how if you had more assets, could you actually use the Stadium itself more. An outdoor hockey game is certainly an example of that. We’ll explore concerts – not a lot. It’s got to be consistent with the University’s values and campus dynamic we want to maintain. But, yeah, we’ll explore those things.

So, when you say maintain that campus dynamic, do you think having a concert there or even just having students there every day or having classes there, do you think that takes away from the aura of Notre Dame Stadium at all?

No, not at all. I think it provides a really exciting future. We’re not the first university to deal with this dynamic of the campus sort of growing up around a football stadium or a basketball arena. It happened here with our basketball field house, but you guys are way too young [to remember]. That real estate was more valuable for something else, and the Joyce Center came out here. A whole lot of universities tore down their football stadiums and built it back up on the outskirts of campus. We can’t do that with this. We would never contemplate that. But you’ve got to capture the space and I’m really excited about being able to do that. In many ways, it’s going back to Rockne’s vision; it doesn’t abandon it because he built a state-of-the-art facility.

So, a state-of-the-art facility and Rockne’s vision, where do you see a video board factoring into that?

I know people love to talk about video boards or suites or playing surfaces. None of that is addressed in this at this moment. We’re more focused on the use concepts. Will we build a stadium where we can communicate more effectively with fans as we do this renovation? Sure. Absolutely. What form that takes … Is our focus broadband? You all will be bringing devices into the stadium that you want us to serve, what role does broadband play? What role does video play? How do these things fit together? That’s all ahead of us here. We’ve made no decisions.

People kind of want to know, is the direction of the Stadium and a video board, do they go together? I know you mentioned it hasn’t come up yet, but what would be holding back a video board and what kind of response do you think you would get from people?

I haven’t done any market survey to know exactly what response I would get. I will tell you that the Shamrock Series games have converted a lot of people on that issue. They’re attending these games and seen how we use the boards in those stadia, and they come away saying ‘Okay, I get it; it’s not a commercial use. It’s about endorsing Notre Dame and telling its story.’ But again, what we’re unlikely to do if we move forward with this project is to invest in the Stadium and [inaudible] whatever we do will be part of this renovation.  

Related to that, when it comes to advancing the Stadium, whether it be the football game-day experience or the multi-use hub, where did you factor in, if at all, with the new football student ticket seating policy?

I must say I haven’t been engaged in that, but I’m not trying to avoid the issue; it’s just, I wasn’t.

What have you had for personal feedback and what have you seen from students?

All I’ve seen is what I’ve read in The Observer. No one has addressed it with me specifically or come talk to me about it specifically.

Do you think the idea of getting students in there earlier and getting the new game-day experience, do you think that has to parallel other changes in the Stadium, whether it be a video board, whether it be making it a hub? Do you think those things definitively have to go together?

No.

With the student ticket policy, were you at all with the Legion, consulting with them? Did you have meetings with them? How did that play in with…

Josh Berlo, who was the head of ticketing and marketing and just became the athletic director at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, managed that discussion with the Legion.

Switching gears a little bit to the ACC, where do you think this could take the men’s basketball program? Obviously, a historic conference, but do you see it as something that’s the first step in the process of making that leap to the next level?

No. Because I think Big East basketball was pretty extraordinary, too. I think without question – with the addition of Syracuse, us, Pittsburgh, Louisville next year – the ACC is going to be the best basketball conference in the country. But the Big East was. We had great success in the Big East. I think it’s easy to lose track of, but 10 wins in the Big East as many years as we did, getting to the semifinals in the tournament for as many years as we did, that’s a real level of consistency in a program that’s exactly where you want to be going into a new conference.

Does the new conference or the new football stadium expansions, does that change anything with a basketball practice facility?

No. It’s still a priority. It’s important to get that done.

Have there been discussions to get the ball rolling with that?

Not a lot. We did some site visits to understand the magnitude of what we thought we wanted to create. We’ve had some preliminary discussions about what it would look like and where it might go. But we haven’t started having conversations with people who might be interested in supporting it.

Is that what’s kind of holding it up, or maybe pushing it back?

Yeah. That’s the next step here is to try and attract the resources. The University has a great building policy, which is 100 percent of the money has to be committed and 75 percent has to be in hand. So, that will be the next phase for us.

You said you visited some sites and, conceptualizing it, what do you see it looking like maybe compared to other schools and what they have?

I think we learned a lot about the space you need. You get some consistent messages when you go around and look at some, even the very best ones. They tell you a little extra space goes a long way on the courts so you can have shooting drills going on at the same time your scrimmage is happening. So, that changes your perspective on court dynamics. You want, much like we did with Compton, you want the auxiliary facilities that support the team close at hand. In the case of this facility, proximity to the competition venue is very important because it has a game-day function for you, too. And all the ones we looked at had that dynamic. I guess Kentucky would be an exception; all the others had that dynamic.

And women’s basketball would have equal access to it?

Not just equal access, but equal facilities. These are two-court models. They have various systems for dividing the two courts, portable walls. We haven’t gotten to that level of detail. One of the things you really want to avoid is really odd practice times that impact the rest of the student athletes’ ability to study or go to class, those things. Building the practice facilities the way the other schools have really maximizes the ability to use the space at convenient times.

And from securing funding to unveiling it for use, how long would that timeframe be hypothetically?

It’s not very complicated construction. It’s big, freestanding space for the most part. But I don’t have an estimate on construction time.

Switching gears back to football, but more with the team, having this kind of success, the calls from the NFL will keep coming. What was that process like and have you been through that before in recent years?

Other coaches here have had opportunities to do other things. In that context, I have. This was the first time in football. It worked very much the way I would have wanted it to. Really good communication between Brian [Kelly] and I. Good communication between the Eagles and I, both of which you would hope happen and did in this case. So, I was very comfortable with the process and I know it caused some of our fans and supporters discomfort, but I not only had confidence in the outcome, but I think your most committed employees are the employees who know they have the freedom to explore other opportunities. It’s not limited to coaches. It’s true of everyone. So, throughout I was very comfortable with how it was handled.

How close do you feel like you were to having to look for a new football coach?

I was always pretty confident [that Kelly would be back]. I was talking to Brian. I was confident based on those conversations that he’d likely be back. But the interest was genuine. Hard to assess the odds.

Back to ACC stuff, has scheduling been the hardest part of the accelerated process?

Yes.

Undoubtedly?

They’re just all dependent variables (laughing). When you move one, it impacts the others. If you could do these in isolation … We’re in a different position than anyone has ever been in, because when everybody else has had some change in affiliation, they’re just swapping one conference schedule for another conference schedule. And then you just have to worry about the three other or four other games they have. All 12 of our games are independently-contracted games, so it has a complexity to it that’s hard to describe to people and hard for people to appreciate. You take on a five-game commitment from the ACC – which we think is absolutely the right solution – you’ve got 12 potential schools that are impacted by trying to make those five games fit in and work. It’s complicated.

So, does it look like the Arizona State game will get bumped out?

I’m going to avoid the specifics of it for exactly the reasons I said: You can’t predict any one of them without having conversations with three other schools. We’re working to try and be good partners and protect relationships, but it’s very complicated. At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine a result where everybody is happy.

Looking back at this past year’s schedule, it kind of just worked out that it was one of the toughest in recent years. But do you see, with taking on these five games with the ACC plus adding other teams that you make commitments to such as [Massachusetts] and Temple, do feel like the schedule kind of waters down a little bit, and does it affect your team?

No, not at all. When you try and use as building blocks USC and Stanford – because you want a West-coast trip every year so you alternate them – those are two very high-performing programs. We’ve got a contract with Texas coming up that will obviously be a very high level of competition. But I think most significantly, if you asked me, independent of our affiliation, which conference is going to have the biggest increase in performance in football, I would tell you the ACC. I think Louisville is a program clearly on the rise. Miami is clearly getting its situation resolved and I think it will move forward in a pretty significant way. Florida State
nd Clemson have great programs. Pick your school: Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Boston College, all of whom are building very successful foundations. North Carolina. I think it’s going to be really a challenge. And part of our challenge in that is that if you’ve got a Big Ten team and you’ve got USC and you’ve got Stanford and you’ve got Texas and you draw Florida State and Clemson, you could be back in the exact same boat. Trying to make sure the schedule has some balance is a bigger concern for me than making sure it’s not watered down.

Kind of a farther-reaching question: After seeing Alabama in the National Championship Game, which was one of the first SEC matchups, anywhere in the future do you feel like or do you see maybe a one-game SEC connection because it’s kind of just around it but never getting into the SEC?

Yeah, we’d like to because we think that would be good for the program. But at the same time, we’re – in the near years of this commitment, it’s going to be really hard and we just have more teams than we have slots right now, so we’ve got to work through sort of the contracts that are in place. But we would very much like to figure out how to play an SEC team, different teams from the conference once a year.

Now that you’re “back in the spotlight” in terms of football, how does your job change and what do you need to do in terms of the Athletics [Department] at the back end of things that can keep this going and kind of push this team to new heights?

Yeah, it really doesn’t. We’re very, I think, rigorous and disciplined about doing all our planning from the perspective of the student-athlete out. So, that’s the customer. You’ve got a lot of customers in our business, a lot of people you work with. But much as the University’s focus is on the students, athletics is on the student-athlete. So, we spend a lot of our time asking, ‘How do we help them reach their goals and get better?’. You have a different set of solutions when you’re 3-9 than you do when you’re 12-0. But you’re asking the same question and you’re trying to find those same differences. What are the things that create a difference?

You mentioned the ACC you think as a football conference certainly on the rise, and I think most people would agree the SEC is the gold standard for football conferences, and they just came out with their SEC Network. Not necessarily from a Notre Dame perspective, but what’s your reaction to that?

I think it will be very successful. I think they have what you have to have to do that and that is a very passionate geographic-centric fan base. And when you have – they have a great product – geography and passion, you’re in a good position. So, I think they’ll do well.

I know you’ve said in the past that the Longhorn Network, being geographically-focused, they have a good venue for that. Do you think because of whatever you see Notre Dame’s geographic focus being, do you think Fighting Irish Digital Media stays online? Do you see other avenues for it with NBC?

Well, we’re distributing a lot of programming through NBC, especially through the NBC Sports Network, and that’s really our model. I think the distinction in the next couple of years between online and cable and over-the-air is going to disappear in some ways. I’m sure you guys already do it, but from the perspective of my children, most of what they consume – whether it’s Hulu or Netflix or whatever – it’s on a per-program basis. They know what they want to watch and they go get it. Well, that’s the future. What we want to be is producing a lot of great Notre Dame content and distributing over as many platforms as we can, online, through the NBC Sports Network, through NBC, through their RSNs, through YouTube, whatever’s available to us, because our job here is to promote the University and bring attention to it. So, we’re a content company and we’re distribution-agnostic.

Is that the reason why you go forward with NBC, or is it in a sense [inaudible] being a part of NBC and when it all blends together the lines blur a little bit?

Well, no one has more assets than Comcast and NBCUniversal. So, in that sense, it’s perfectly consistent with that. They’re the largest broadband provider in the country. When you look at all of their assets, they’re really unique from cable company to motion picture, film production, and that’s a great partner to have. The other thing that was really important here – and it helped me to go through last year – but the level of promotion we got from them last year was really remarkable and is very, very valuable for Notre Dame. An element of it are those two-minute spots in the broadcast, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All the times they promote the game in the week leading up to it has real value. When they extend their broadcast a day and bring their pregame show here and do some postgame programming on the NBC Sports Network, all that has enormous value. And it’s a fundamental difference in terms of brand approach, so that program isn’t conference-labeled, it’s school-labeled in our case. That’s our goal.

A lot of people kind of think that they did that because of the undefeated season. What happens if there’s not so good of a season? Does that relationship change, and also, what was stalling the talks a little bit? I’m sure the 12-0 season had to help a little bit.

It had no impact on the timing. The only impact it has on the timing is it’s much harder for me to focus on it during football season. It reflects my availability and theirs, too, with the NFL. So, for both of us, it’s a busy time of year. But the talks progressed in a very sort of collegial and logical manner, and I was always optimistic that we would get to a result that worked for both parties.

What really gave it that kick? Or did it kind of just come together?

I think it was pretty … I think it was a pretty normal process. It was lot of working together to understand what we could and couldn’t accomplish with these greater assets of how that might work. We considered a lot of different things in this before we reached a final agreement. Again, I think it was all very positive and good. It wasn’t a simple rights-fee deal. It was a partnership discussion.

Is there ever the sense – you talk about promoting Notre Dame and that’s part of what your job is. And NBC certainly gives Notre Dame a brand and you help NBC – but do you ever feel there’s a need to be on ESPN because that’s as they call themselves “the worldwide leader”? Do you ever feel the need to be more there?

Not more. I think we have the best of both worlds because, if I’m not mistaken, we had two of ESPN’s three highest-rated games last year. And, you know, that’s great. They’ve already had some announcements about the upcoming season, but we tend to get moved into primetime when we’re on the road, and those are almost always ESPN broadcasts; there may be some FOX in the future. And so in many ways, that’s a great situation. We love that ‘GameDay’ came here. We were thrilled with that. And that says a lot about ESPN that they would do that. It says they’re following the best stories, not worrying about who you have a contract with, and so we really appreciated them coming and they did a great job.