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Sports

Full Transcript: Jack Swarbrick

| Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Questions from The Observer appear in bold.

 

What, for you, has been the highlight of the semester?

I think there were two clear highlights of the semester for me. One was Liz Tucker getting named the NCAA female athlete of the year, and the other was Alex Coccia being named a Rhodes Scholar.

Two great achievements by two exemplary student-athletes, both on national championship teams. One, a team captain, and the other student body president. They represent everything we hope to achieve in athletics, which is making it part of the educational experience.

 

A big thing this year has been Campus Crossroads, you can even see it right outside your window. So how has construction been coming along, as far as you know? Is it ahead of schedule, on schedule?

It’s amazing. I’m not close enough to [the construction process] to answer that question effectively. But, given the relatively good weather we’ve had — if you remember last year at this time, we were buried in massive snow — and just the rate at which they’re working outside my window, it feel like it’s going very well. But I’m also not involved in the construction phase.

 

Have you heard any complaints from people saying it’s impeding foot traffic or anything like that? 

By and large, people have been remarkably good-spirited about it. We are creating more circuitous walking paths to some extent [and] they have been great.

We’ve had some complaints related to parking during our events. We’ve obviously lost some parking spaces, and it’s a little more complicated, but as people have gotten used to the routine of that, I’ve sensed, again, a willingness to make accommodations because they realize the broader gain that’s being achieved here.

 

Looking ahead to next football season, is there going to be a pause on construction?

Yes. So the construction fences get pulled back in, parking gets recaptured. There will be a metal superstructure in place, but it won’t interfere at all with game day.

You can go online and see other places that have had similar experiences. Michigan did that, where the entire superstructure was up, they played a season and then they got back into construction.

 

It was just announced that LSU is going to create an entire nutrition center for student-athletes, and then with all the new advancements that are coming with Crossroads, I know one of your big goals is to advance the sports science program. Is that something that you’d be thinking about in the future?

I feel very good about where we are in our focus on sports science. I think we are among the leaders. We can always get better; we can learn from others. [But we want to] find ways to do it that integrate the University, don’t separate us from it.

Hopefully, we can find more ways with faculty to be engaged with research relative to some of the things we are studying in sports science. We already work closely with a host of university services, like the food service and the nutrition program.

So, we’re always looking for ways to get better, but I want to do it in a Notre Dame way. I don’t want to create something that isn’t part of the University. And I don’t know LSU’s plans. I’m not commenting on them. But you see more and more places that are trying to do something that’s separate.

Now, we want to build and make facility advancements that give us a center for this activity. It may be in this building, as we repurpose some space, [or] it might be elsewhere. But I want to bring all the people who are working on this — our nutritionists, our trainers, our strength and conditioning people — and get them more co-located so they can share information.

 

This year, you scheduled series with Texas A&M and Ohio State. If you could just talk a little bit about how those series came into being and how you negotiated those. 

The focus is, we have a very limited inventory of uncommitted games. We have the three rivalries we chose to protect — USC, Stanford and Navy. We have our five-game ACC commitment. We have our Shamrock Series game. And we have one game annually that you arrange that gives you an unbalanced schedule. Every FBS team does that in the Big Five conferences. The net result of that annually, is we have one home game and one away game to offer to anybody. That’s it.

Some of those have to be used right now to make good on previous commitments. But as we work through those, our focus is to use those two games, the only two we have discretion with, if you will, beyond the Shamrock Series, to play the best opponents we can and to create examples so that the Selection Committee can look at performance relative to other strong conferences.

So we’re annually going to have ACC markers, we’ll annually have Pac-12 markers. We wanted to have some SEC ones, some Big 12 ones and some Big Ten ones in the future.

So we have games with, as you said, Georgia, Texas A&M, Ohio State. We’ve got games with Michigan State and Purdue in the future. So we want to use those two spots to build the best strength of schedule we can, but also get Notre Dame around the country.

Getting them done was relatively easy, because one of the consequences of the College Football Playoff is that everyone is focused on getting better strength of schedule, and in past years where schools might not have scheduled us out of conference, they now see a value in doing that. The phone calls and the times taken to get the deals done were easier than they used to be.

 

And obviously, you’re getting pretty far ahead here, but do you see any other potential matchups in the future?

Yes, I’ll avoid specific names, but we continue to have discussions. We’re scheduling way out. We’re into the mid [2020s], but that’s what we think you have to do, or you lose the opportunities.

 

You mentioned the Playoff. One of the big storylines there was Baylor and TCU getting left out. A lot of people are saying that’s because the Big 12 doesn’t have that championship game. So how does that affect Notre Dame in the future, since obviously they don’t have that either? 

We’ll need more time to tell, but we have understood from the outset that not having the 13th game was a disadvantage. That means we have got to make a compelling case for our inclusion. And it’s not just that they play one more game. It’s that that 13th game is always going to be a very good game, played at the end of the season. So it ought to carry value with the Selection Committee. I have no issue with that. Our job is to make sure our 12 games create a compelling enough story, relative to the Selection Committee’s analysis, that they will still be comfortable picking us, notwithstanding the absence of a 13th game.

 

We haven’t quite reached the end of the season yet, but I know you were involved in the process of creating the Playoff, and a lot of times in theory it’s different than how it happens in practice. Are there any changes you would like to see going forward? Brian Kelly said that he would like to see an eight-team playoff in the future.

I’m looking very much forward to the meetings coming up in January, which will be our first opportunity as the Management Committee to sit down with the Selection Committee and talk about what they went through and what their experiences were. We’ll learn from that.

I must say, I couldn’t be more pleased with the way the Selection Committee operated. I’m not close enough to evaluate the results. They have so much more information than I do. But it felt right to me. It felt like they got the final four right. So I think the process worked very well.

I frankly have been shocked by the amount of attention it drew. The weekly focus on the release of [the rankings] and the discussion that followed was much more than I anticipated and, in the end, good for college football because it created more attention and more excitement around the game.

So by and large, [I’m] very pleased. But I think when we’re together as a committee, we’ll have the opportunity to see what kind of tweaks we want to make.

 

Another big storyline this year was the Northwestern unionization case. I know a decision in that is upcoming. As a former labor lawyer, what did you anticipate the result being, and what impact do you think that will have on Notre Dame?

It’s always challenging to guess at outcomes in a process like that. The expectation of most, I think, is that the National Labor Relations Board will uphold the decision of the administrative law judge.

If that happens, only then are the ballots opened. Only then will we know how the Northwestern players voted. So we’ll have to see. In some ways, the worst outcome here would be the Labor Relations Board upholding the ruling, and then they open the ballots and find out the players didn’t vote to join the union. Then you have a precedent that says football players are employees with no way to challenge it. You’re sort of stuck until the next time comes along.

We disagree strongly with the conclusion [of the initial ruling]. We think it’s just wrong. When I read the opinion, I’m amazed at some of the assumptions it makes. It draws from the fact that the student-athletes were, for example, required to live in dorms or do some other things, to say that they’re employees. Those are things that define them as students for me, not employees. So we disagree with it. We think it’s wrong. But we’ll watch it evolve and see what it delivers to us for the future.

I don’t think unionization is the major issue we’ll face going forward. It’s working our way through the things we’re starting to tackle at the NCAA regarding the relationship between student-athletes and the University and some of the benefits they get.

 

Just a few days ago, there was a story where you commented on players earning money off their likenesses. Is that something that you think is a bigger issue for college football?

Yeah, I think it’s much bigger. I think, in some ways, it’s the largest of the issues, how do we address that, how do we think about it.

In my comments, I was trying to create more dialogue and create a rubric for people to start talking about it. And that for me, to adopt an operating presumption that you want the experience of student-athletes to be as close to the regular student as possible. And any time you adopt a rule which creates a difference, you’ve got to be able to articulate that. You have a high presumption you have to meet or overcome, that you should do something different.

So in this instance, [any non-student-athlete] could go maximize their image or likeness, independent of their schoolwork, if you have a talent, you were a musician or an actor or something else, or you wanted to launch a business. So the question becomes why shouldn’t student-athletes be able to do that? You have to manage it in a way that avoids abuse in the case of sports, but I think that’s doable without prohibiting it. So that’s what I think we have to be talking about.

 

In our last interview in May, you said that you wanted student-athletes to have more of a role in decision-making in athletics and that was something you were going to look into this summer. Has that been implemented in any ways?

It has. We’ve created a Steering Committee for Notre Dame Athletics. It involves some executive staff members, members of the faculty-athletic board [and] I believe, it’s seven student-athletes.

And this will be the group that looks broadly at Notre Dame athletics and some of the things we’re doing and helps both steer our future course and discuss some of the key decisions we need to make.

It will start meeting second semester. We’ve used the first semester to define its charter and set it up, but yes, we’ve implemented that, and we’re thrilled.

 

And what kind of decisions would this committee be making? 

I think we’ll bring to them all of the major decisions involving Notre Dame athletics and get their input [and] talk about what the student-athlete’s view is. It won’t be limited to student-athlete-specific issues, although those will certainly be important, but if this group were in place as we were thinking through the concept of the Campus Crossroads or maybe our decision to affiliate with the ACC, they would have been involved in those discussions.

 

I’m sure you’re probably tired of talking about the so-called “Frozen Five,” but one of the unresolved matters is the possibility of vacating wins. Is that still an option or do you know when that will be ruled out, if it hasn’t already?

We’re not there yet. Effectively, the way this works is you work through the University process. At its core, issues of academic integrity are University issues; they’re not NCAA issues. So you approach them as such, and you focus exclusively on what the University process is and administering that process and dealing with the implications.

Only after that do you turn to the considerations of, ‘OK, what, if any, NCAA consequences are there in this?’ And we’re just sort of starting; we’re entering that phase of it. No decisions have been made whether sanctions are appropriate or, if they are, what sort of sanctions they might be. That’s down the road.

 

And how much involvement did you have in the entire investigation?

None. Although this one had some unique aspects to it, it is handled like any other Honor Code situation. It is done through the academy and its Honor Code committees. I was just kept informed of outcomes.

Which is as it should be. That shouldn’t be misconstrued as any contrary view. That’s exactly how it should operate.

 

Looking at the five players specifically, do you know what their future might be within the University, both academically and athletically?

I do. I have a pretty good feel for that. Once you get the decision, then you engage in the process of trying to figure all that out, and consistent with the position we’ve taken throughout, we’ll let the student-athletes speak for themselves. But I do know what position each of them is in.

 

Let’s move away from just football a little bit and talk about Debbie Brown out as volleyball coach. With her departure after two losing seasons preceded by a long stretch of success, what kind of message does that send to other coaches?

Well, every program is different, and you evaluate them individually. There’s not a simple metric or one approach. You’re taking all kinds of data points. Won-loss record is just one of them.

Input from the coach is part of it. Input from student-athletes is part of it. Perceptions of third parties in the sport are part of it. So, you look at all of those things when you make those hard decisions.

So I think our coaches know that their programs are evaluated individually and independently of each other. I count on them being comfortable that they understand our view of their program from our discussions and they know what our expectations of each program are.

Our expectations of each program are not the same. Some programs are better positioned to pursue national championships than others. There’re a host of issues that come into play at a place like this, as to what a sport’s ultimate upside is and what it can achieve. That’s part of what you have to both understand and communicate clearly.

 

In the press release, you did say that you have high standards for winning here at Notre Dame. So this season, a lot of fans are frustrated with Brian Kelly’s performance. Do you see him on the hot seat at all?

No. Not at all. He’s on a very cold seat.

No one is more disappointed than the players, the coaches and the administrative staff involved in football. We all want to win, but we win and lose together.

I think the foundation of the program is as strong as it’s been in my seven years here. In terms of the quality of the players, the depth, the services that support football, in terms of strength and conditioning, nutrition, medical services, our facilities, the foundation is in great shape.

We spent a lot of time talking about what happened in the second half of the season. You’re 6-0 and you’re one play away at Florida State from being 7-0 and very highly ranked, to then having struggles down the stretch. All of us involved in the program spent time looking at it and thinking about it and trying to make decisions about how to avoid that in the future.

But that analysis does not give me any discomfort about where we are, about this program or where the future of the program is.

 

So after five years then, have your expectations been met when bringing [Brian Kelly] in?

Yes. I think our performance on and off the field has been very consistent with my hopes for the program, in the aggregate.

[We’ve had] a national coach of the year, a national championship game and some very key victories. We’d all like to win a national championship, but if you told me five years ago when we made the decision, ‘Here’s what you’re going to accomplish and here’s what your record is going to be,’ I would be OK with that, notwithstanding the struggles of the second half of this season. And in this sport there are a lot of things that can contribute to that. We encountered several of them. Take one turnover away per game, and it’s a completely different season.

Obviously we can’t do that. There are turnovers. We own them. But that’s how small the margin is.

 

This has been your first year with Under Armour . What kind of feedback have you gotten from the coaches and the players?

It’s been great. We’re very pleased. Under Armour has been a great partner. They’re engaged with us on a lot of levels. They’ve been supportive of some of the things we want to do.

But most importantly, the student-athletes really like it. They like the gear [and] they’ve been very pleased with the shoes, so it’s been a home run.

 

Another big change this year was the new FieldTurf. What kind of feedback have you gotten from the football players and the coaches on that?

It’s been very positive. Interestingly, it’s been very positive from our fans too. It looks better, it represents Notre Dame better, but it just is more playable. And when you look at the weather we had this year, we would have had a disaster chasing that field all year. We were so lucky to get it in for this season, because this one really would have tested it. We had some very tough weather games and it would have impacted outcomes. We took that off the table. It wasn’t a factor. We tracked all of the external data about safety and we didn’t see any increase in any particular kind of injury as a result. So I felt very good about it.

 

You mentioned that the fan response has been pretty positive. How much do you take that into consideration when making these kinds of decisions? 

You always take it into consideration. But I try and stay very focused and clear with others that the fundamental question we’re asking is, ‘What’s best for the student athlete?’ in decisions like that.

The perspective of others is valuable, but it never quite rises to the level of what’s best for the student-athletes. And for our student-athletes, who were practicing every day on this surface, and then not being able to practice in the Stadium to get used to it, playing on fields that I thought put them at a disadvantage in some games — all the student-athlete reasons made it an easy decision.

 

Tracking back to the coaching topic, there’s been a lot of turnover with coaches this year, so for volleyball, you said you wanted to open that up to a national search for a new coach. Have you started that process yet? 

We have. The search is very active right now, talking to prospective candidates. The sport administrator leads that. In this case that’s Missy Conboy, our senior deputy director. And she’s engaged in it as we’re sitting here. So I’m very hopeful — the holidays may complicate things — but I’m very hopeful that we’ll get this resolved very quickly.

We’ve had the great luxury in some of our other sports to have very talented coaches on board who are clearly the right choice, even in the face of the national search. I could look high and wide and I could never find a better fencing coach than the one we have right here. The same is true in men’s tennis; the same is true in men’s swimming.

In each of those cases, you had a coach who had been here a long time, for whom retiring was somewhere on the horizon, and so you hope they developed a very strong successor, and those sports had. Track and Field is another example. It’s a nice luxury when you have it.

 

In women’s swimming, are you still looking to find a new coach? I’m sure you wouldn’t mind keeping Tim [Welsh] on for another couple years.

Yeah, I wouldn’t do that to Tim. Tim is such a great Notre Dame man, and his willingness to come in and help us through this year was very important to us and the program.

But we will start [looking for a new coach] after the first of the year. We’re a bit governed by the sport’s season. So we’ll start the process, but you really have to get past the NCAA to talk to some of the people you want to talk to and get the right candidate. But we will begin the process right after the first of the year.

 

Bringing in Matt Sparks and Theresa Romagnolo, how has their performance lived up to your expectations?

Very good. Theresa has done a great job. Sometimes those are the hardest situations, when you come into a program that’s already very strong, that’s had a lot of success. But she hasn’t missed a beat. I think she’s raised our level of competitiveness and intensity. She’s got a great feel for the game, and the student-athletes love playing for her, so that’s gone really well.

Matt has such a long history of working with distance runners and has had success in that, and I know from talking to our student-athletes that they’re very pleased.

 

One of the latest stories to come out this semester is the women’s basketball team wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warmups. If you could just talk about your involvement in that entire decision process. 

They approached me the day before the game and let me know of their intention to do this. I was fully supportive. There were several things that were important to me.

One was that it’d be a team decision. That all of the team participate.

Two, that they were able to articulate the motivation, notwithstanding the interpretation of it. It wasn’t anti-anything. It was an expression of an interest in promoting social justice broadly, and I thought Muffet’s postgame statement captured that brilliantly.

So understanding the rationale, knowing that all members of the team were on board, I’m generally going to be supportive, because my individual views are less important than our embracing the interest of our student-athletes in doing what all students ought to be doing: thinking about these issues, talking about them, taking positions on them.

So that’s why it was easy for me to offer my support.

 

The men’s basketball team, however, did not wear the shirts. Was this something that was solely planned within the women’s team?

Yeah, it’s an individual student-athlete. So in that case, a student-athlete [sophomore forward Taya Reimer] took the lead, developed the notion [and] talked to her teammates. This wasn’t top-down driven, so it doesn’t say anything about any other team’s willingness to do it or not. I hope as they think about other things, there will be other things that are important to them.

For some of our teams, that gets manifested in community service, where they get really focused on a Habitat for Humanity project or something else. That’s what we want them doing. It can be an expression like the girls’ basketball team did, it can be a community service commitment, it can be a trip abroad, and using the trip abroad as part of the educational mission of the University.

Those are all ways in which, what we’re looking for, which is student-athlete engagement in the broader educational process, is realized.

 

Speaking of community service, that was one of your big goals coming in, that you really wanted to strengthen that community outreach from athletes. Looking at the past year, with Habitat for Humanity and Fighting Irish Fight for Life, have we seen that come to fruition?

I couldn’t be happier with that. And it’s working on all the levels you hope it works on. So part of it is the student-athlete engagement with the community in ways that matter. Part of it is the engagement of the community on campus. So Compton [Family Ice Arena] is our most compelling example of that. The learn-to-skate programs, the curling club, the youth hockey tournaments, everything that happens there creates a connection between the University and the broader community.

And athletics ought to be doing that whenever it can. We do that when we bring people into [Purcell Pavilion] and host events. And not only to attend as fans. It’s even better when they’re engaged as participants. So I’m really pleased with the role athletics is playing — it’s just a role; it’s a larger University mission — but the role we’re playing in connecting Notre Dame to its community.

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