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Sports

Full Transcript: Jack Swarbrick

| Thursday, December 31, 2015

Questions from The Observer appear in bold.

 

So just to start off, what do you think have been some of the highlights and lowlights of the semester, athletically speaking?

Well, at the top of the list is the performance of the football team, especially the resolve it demonstrated. This was a team with pretty remarkable leadership, and that’s what you need to get through what they faced. The best parts of this job are when you see those sorts of characteristics manifest themselves. It’s what you hope sport is teaching: leadership, resiliency, determination, knowing how to build a plan and stick to it. And that was all very manifest in this team.

I know last year, some people were disappointed with head coach Brian Kelly’s performance, and there was some talk about him possibly being on the hot seat. Obviously, this year is the exact opposite. He’s locked up through the 2017 season, but have there been any talks of a contract extension?

We’re always talking about the future of the program. I don’t want to get into the specifics of what we’ve talked about, but we talk about a host of things. We talk about facilities and coaching and approaches to scheduling, and certainly as a part of that we talk about his future and the role he’ll play, but I don’t want to get into more detail than that.

Along the same lines, [men’s basketball head coach Mike] Brey and [women’s basketball head coach Muffet] McGraw are locked up through the 2022 seasons, but do you have to approach football differently from a contract standpoint compared to other sports?

No. No, I don’t look at football as being different, I look at each situation as being unique. And you have a host of different factors that you want to consider when deciding how you want to approach the staffing for each sport. In the case of Mike and Muffet, you have two people who have been here a long time, who have achieved great levels of success and consistency and who desire to end their careers here. So it was easy to head in that direction with their contracts.

What’s been the reaction to the Showtime series around the program from players and coaches, and what have you heard from fans?

The feedback to me has been universally positive, especially among our fans, alums, others in the University administration. My sense is that the players have enjoyed it, have enjoyed the notoriety and the recognition it’s brought. And the coaching staff has certainly understood its value to the program. I don’t know any coach who would rather coach with a camera in his face than not in his face, so I don’t want to overstate their enthusiasm, but they all recognize the value to the program.

Have you been thinking about next year, how something like this might continue?

Well, I’m sure this show will focus on some other team, it’s the nature of that programming. But yes, I’m interested in making sure the insights we provided this year, we can figure out ways to continue to do in the future. Because I think it really strengthens the bond between the team and our fans, because they feel like they know the team better and have better insights into them. And frankly, as I’ve said many times in the current debate over college athletics, it’s important for Notre Dame to be explicit about how we approach it and what our model is, and this is helping us do it.

You said all the feedback has been positive. What about the response to the JumboTron? Has that been as uniform in its positivity?

Well I hesitate to say this because it will generate correspondence, but I didn’t get a single negative reaction to the announcement. Part of that, I believe, is there was an assumption it was coming. So it may have been less newsworthy than it might have been a few years earlier. But I did not receive any negative reactions.

I believe that the Shamrock Series games have really helped to condition people to the concept and what it can do to enhance the game. It allows us to tell the Notre Dame story more effectively. Time and again, I would have someone come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Now I’m in favor of video at Notre Dame Stadium. Now that I’ve seen how we use it here, I’d like to have it at the Stadium.’

Speaking of the Shamrock Series, you have Army in San Antonio [next year], beyond that … do you have any updates ]?

I don’t have any updates. One of the reasons I don’t is we’re spending a lot of time trying to think of the best approach to 2017, when we open the Crossroads project. Do you take a break from the Shamrock Series in 2017, because so many people will want to experience the Stadium in ’17? So do you, in that year, keep all the games at home? We haven’t made that decision yet, but that’s one of the reasons we haven’t announced 2017 yet.

 If you do have it, or looking beyond 2017, what are the regions you want to get into [with the game]?

We really want to focus on the iconic venues or the new high-quality venues. So, Fenway worked so well for us. We couldn’t have been more pleased. We loved the experience at Yankee Stadium, AT&T Stadium was great for us. So it starts from a venue perspective, and then with that venue in mind, who are the logical opponents?

I think I’ve come to appreciate more in recent years that … I’m not troubled by the notion of the game being closer to our opponent than us, than our home. The dynamic that creates — the large contingent of Arizona State fans in Dallas, the presence of BC fans in Boston — that makes for a better game atmosphere, so I’m all for that.

Sometimes the Shamrock Series has taken a little criticism; there’s only been one ranked matchup against Arizona State in 2013. Would there be an emphasis in the future on scheduling opponents who would be ranked for that matchup or competitive?

Assuming the Shamrock Series continues, we would very much like to feature marquee opponents. The challenges to that relate to television contracts, not anything else. We’re working hard to see if we can find ways that we can work with our great partner at NBC and the broadcasters for the other conferences to get that done, so we can feature some marquee games.

Two other questions on scheduling: What’s the latest update on possibly trying to get Michigan back on the schedule? And then, what’s the update on BYU? You have a six-game contract, played two here, supposed to play two more here and two there, what’s the general barometer on that?

The BYU focus was always on two three-game increments. And so we want to get that return game to BYU in as scheduled and that’s our goal. Whether we get to the next set of two home and one away, I hope to, but we got to make the scheduling work for that.

As we build a schedule with more and more marquee opponents, Michigan is certainly on the list of teams that you would love to include on that. I can’t tell you beyond that, that there’s been some specific discussion of dates and years. There’s no question that we would welcome the opportunity to play Michigan again. Brian has been clear about that, and Michigan is as well.

Have you ever just had talks, not specific dates, but just made contact to throw the possibility out there?

Yeah, we see each other at a host of things. I’m not trying to avoid the question, but when I’m at a D-I A athletics directors meeting, I probably talk to 30 athletic directors about, ‘Hey, it’d be great to do a game together.’ So there’s a lot of that that goes on.

But nothing specific?

No.

Moving away from football, you’ve got two new coaches in volleyball and women’s swimming. How would you assess their impact thus far?

Very pleased. Very pleased. Both faced very significant challenges in building a new program, it’s the nature of doing that. And I’ve been so pleased with the way they’ve been able to implement the culture they want in the program, begin to attract the students they want for the program through recruiting. Both announced very strong recruiting classes coming in. So there’s a clear understanding, especially in those sports where the recruiting timeframe is so long — in volleyball, some young women commit after their freshman year of high school — that it’s going to take time. But I’m very pleased with the progress on both fronts.

Going off that, volleyball and [new head coach] Jim McLaughlin didn’t have an amazing year in his first season. Was that part of the plan or maybe not unexpected?

Not unexpected, certainly not part of the plan. Jim’s a great coach, he’d kill me if I said losing was part of the plan. They wanted to win every match. There were moments, especially in the last third of it, where you could see it was coming, where you could see the systems and the approach he was trying to build in were taking hold, but yeah, we knew it would take time.

One of the hot issues of the last couple years has been racial divides and inclusion. It [touched Notre Dame] last year with the women’s basketball team wearing the ‘I Can’t Breathe Shirts’ and the controversy that caused with NDSP, and it’s continued this year with Missouri and student protests on [Notre Dame’s] campus. How, as an athletic department, do you promote inclusion among students and student-athletes on a campus that is just not one of the most diverse ones in the country?

Well I think that Notre Dame is uniquely positioned to promote inclusion because of all the ways in which we want the experience of students who are athletes to mirror the experience of other students. They’re living in the same dorms, they’re likely to have roommates who aren’t participating in athletics [and] they’re in the same classes. So the most important route to inclusion is to make sure they’re included as students and having the same experience as other students, and I think this place does that as well as any other place in the country.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do more. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk to our students about issues and concerns and how we can do a better job of helping them to ensure they succeed here, and we do that. I’m really proud of the Student Welfare and Development function we have here and the role it plays in that regard.

Speaking of the Student Welfare and Development, and specifically the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, if they feel that there’s something that’s going on with student-athletes that they want to share with the larger community or the administration, how do they do that? Does the President sit on another council?

There are a number of ways we try to ensure there are avenues for that communication. One of them is last year, we created a steering committee for the athletics department, and that includes students, coaches, members of the faculty-athletic board and administrators.

And I’ve been very pleased with the nature of those discussions, because they tend to focus on the topical issues of the day, the things that are most present here at Notre Dame, and you have each of the stakeholders present in the room to talk about them, and that’s been very helpful to us.

Secondly, we want to make sure we have systems available that wherever the concern might lie — it may not lie with a student leader or a member of SAC — you’ve got methods to ensure the voice is heard. Key to us in that regard is we are unique in our approach to sports administration in that each sport has its own administrator. At most schools, a senior staff member will be responsible for four, five or six sports. Here, we want one person responsible for one sport, so that they have the relationship with the students, so that’s there’s a comfort level, we hope, that if you have a concern, you can bring it forward, and I’ve been very encouraged by the number of times that’s happened, where a sports administrator will come to me with an issue, or a sports administrator or coach will have said to a student, “You need to go see Jack directly,” and they’ll come in and talk to me.

So if the opportunity to have those discussions is a measure of success then I feel good about how we’re doing.

The Steering Committee, you said they’ve had some very good discussions. In terms of actual policy change, do they have any power there to affect any policy?

They’ve certainly led to a review of some policies and some changes. I don’t want to create the impression that they’re voting on policy. We had a great discussion about medical services at the last meeting. They helped us uncover some problems related effectively to the billing of our services that we were able to dig right into. We brought issues to them about nutrition and training table and what the approach should be, what works best. We’ve had a discussion with them in the context of the national discussion about recognizing the value of student-athlete image, name, value and likeness, and what that might look like in the future, what might a policy look like. Those are just a few examples of the discussions that I think have helped very much to inform our thinking and produce a great dialogue. When you have a faculty member, a coach and a student all involved in the dialogue, you get very different perspectives on the same issue.

When you say they inform us or we on different issues and policy, who is us and we?

It’s everyone there in a sense. The chair of the faculty athletic board is there, so [Patricia] Bellia, she’s hearing it. As a senior administrator for athletics, I’m hearing it. So, yeah, it’s in that regard. Sometimes it relates to a specific department and many of those staff members are present that can act on the implementation afterwards.

You mentioned student-athlete image and likeness and the controversy around that. Obviously it’s a perennial issue, but earlier this year when Fr. Jenkins did an interview with the New York Times and said that Notre Dame would go off its own way if college athletics moved one way. Your thoughts on that?

Well he never said we’d go off on our own way. He said we wouldn’t participate in a model in which the relationship was between employer and employee. And we absolutely won’t. We have every confidence that we would be joined in our focus on maintaining a student-educator model by a lot of institutions. So this isn’t a matter of … a lot of things were written about Notre Dame withdrawing from Division I athletics. It has nothing to do with that. I can tell you from conversations I’ve had with Ads, from conversations he’s had with presidents that there are a lot of people who share our view, and while I don’t think it’ll come to that, I certainly hope it doesn’t, but if you ever wound up with two ways to do this, two different models along the lines he described, I’m very confident we would be playing an elite level of college athletics with great opponents.

Going off of that, there have been a number of developments in court cases related to that issue — you have Jenkins v. NCAA, the O’Bannon appeal was denied, so there might be Supreme Court talk — if one of those lawsuits is successful and drastically changes the face of college athletics … do you think it’s possible one of those might succeed and how would you see that playing out?

Having practiced law for 28 years, I’m not likely to forecast the outcome of cases. I know how uncertain that can be. I think the chances of it are less likely today than they were one year ago, but I recognize it’s still a possibility. It’s just so hard to speculate on what the consequences of that might be, because the details of any adverse decision have to be understood and digested. Lawsuits will continue, there will be more of them, and it’s just hard to predict. I think the reasoning by the ninth circuit in the O’Bannon decision was very sound. I think it has great significance in setting the legal discussion and setting some parameters around, and so I feel pretty good about the environment in which future decisions will be made, but you never know.

Student-athletes that come to Notre Dame receive a degree and an alumni network that many agree is one of the best in the nation. But for other schools that do not have the same prestige or reputation, do you see more of an argument there for student-athletes to have extra incentive at all, or is that not something you agree with?

Well, if there are places that don’t meet their end of the bargain to provide an education, we should address that. I don’t think the possibility of that is a reason to create a different model. I believe passionately that maintaining that student-educator relationship is critical, and it’s especially important to recognize that in the context of doing that at a university, the athletic experience itself has educational value. [The coach is] a teacher the student spends more time with in four years than any other faculty member, and they are learning a lot, and we need to continually make sure that we recognize the educational value of that experience itself. Any model that would move towards an employer model, with compensation for the service of being an athlete gets away from all that in a way I wouldn’t be comfortable with.

How would you fix a perceived imbalance that exists in popular opinion between the experiences of student-athletes at different institutions throughout Division I?

I think we get in a lot of trouble because we try and legislate competitive equity. We worry about someone getting an advantage so we set admissions standards or we regulate what someone can eat. We regulate whether you can give someone their jersey at the end of the season as a thank-you. All of that is based on the view that being able to do it, being able to expend the resources to provide any of those benefits, creates a competitive imbalance, gives somebody an advantage in recruiting players or retaining players or whatever it may be. I think the more we can get away from that notion of competitive equity and just accept the fact that there are difference and some of them might put Notre Dame at a competitive disadvantage. I’m OK with that. We compete with each other in a sense academically, and we don’t regulate that. I’m fully prepared to take the consequences of less regulation, understanding that relative to winning a game, someone else may be advantaged. But I’ll take that problem over the consequences of this overregulation and over-management. The autonomy of schools to be who they are, to act as they are, is important.

I’m all for more transparency. So I think it’s been great that we can see what the graduation rates are for schools. I’m not sure we shouldn’t share gross admissions data as opposed to … I don’t want to profile any individual, but maybe you share gross admissions data as opposed to worrying about the NCAA enforcing an admissions standard.

More disclosure, less regulation and a greater comfort with the fact that there are going to be differences, and that’s OK. One of the great things about the era of college athletics we’re in now is that a university the caliber of Duke is regularly winning or competing for the national basketball championship. Stanford and Notre Dame just played a football game that had enormous consequence on the national landscape. I could go program by program, but many of the very finest academic institutions in the country are achieving athletic success, and it shows you can do both. And I think we’re all comfortable that yeah, we choose to do it in a way that may make winning in some ways harder, but that’s OK. We’ll take that.

The one-and-done rule, it hasn’t affected Notre Dame’s basketball program too much, but with talk about changing it, what are your thoughts on students leaving school early?

Relative to the one-and-done rule, it’s important to keep in mind we have nothing to do with it. It’s collectively bargained between the NBA and its union, so we’re not even involved in that discussion. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality. I very much support the notion that young people who have a talent, as a golfer, as a tennis player, as a basketball player, should be able to exploit that when they’re ready to coming out of high school. So no one thinks twice about a tennis player going pro. Baseball players do it all the time. And so I think that opportunity should be available, but I think if you commit to go to college, you’re making a decision that the education is part of what you’re pursuing, you’re not going to college because you don’t have a route to the pros, which is unfortunately the case in basketball now, but you go to college because you value the education you will receive, when you make that commitment, then I think you should have to stay for some period of time.

So that’s a very long-winded way of saying baseball has the best model. You get drafted out of high school, go, pursue your dreams. There aren’t a whole lot of reasons why Bryce Harper should have gone to college. Conversely, for those students who don’t have that opportunity or who decide they don’t want to go into minor league baseball at age 18, they want to pursue college, they stay for three years. That’s a really good model, and I’d love to see more of that kind of balance across the different sports.

Is there anything specific about three years in baseball?

It gets you close enough to your degree. If you’ve been here for summer school, you might have your degree in all likelihood, or right at the cusp of it. But even if you’re not, you’re close enough that you can reasonably attain the degree, even after you’ve gone pro.

Has there been any discussion at all of expanding to a 13-game schedule?

No.

Right now, it’s not legal. It would require NCAA legislation. I’m not sure how many votes we’d get to help us with that. But there are also impractical solutions. I suppose we could petition the NCAA for an annual game against BYU, but outside of that, I get a lot of proposals to play a 13th game against the Big 12 champion and things like that, but those aren’t practical, those won’t work. So, I’m very comfortable with where we sit. We recognize that there are years where not having that 13th game might have an adverse impact for us, but I frankly don’t think that will happen that frequently. I certainly don’t think we have enough information at this point to conclude it does, and so I’m fine with that.

Where do you see the athletic department has the most room to grow over the next three to five years? What areas?

Two come to mind.

One is continuing our growth in digital media. It’s very important for us to play a leadership role in the development of the University’s media capabilities, but also to use that platform to tell the Notre Dame story, to introduce our fans to our athletes and to remain competitive. I think it’s critical.

And so, I could not be prouder of where we’ve gotten in that area, I think we’re one of the best in the country, but we have to continue to be.

The second relates to the sports sciences. The margins for victory get smaller and smaller with each passing year as the information flow gets more perfect. Everyone has the same data, so you’ve got to stay ahead of that, and we’re investing in that, in the mental side of sports, in a lot of the analytical elements of the game, scouting our opponents’ tendencies, scouting ourselves, capturing data on athlete performance and recovery, all that. And then the other is the core science in player development, whether it’s the investments we’ve made in GPS tracking systems or force play technology, some of the research we’ve done. That’s all about recognizing that some football seasons come down to four points, and you want to give yourself the best possible chance to come out on the right side of those small margins.

We started with a question about reflecting on this year, and we talked about one a little bit, but if you don’t mind I’d like to add on. So the first highlight was football and their resilience. And the second for me is Molly Seidel’s unbelievable performance, to come off the heels of an NCAA championship in outdoor track, have that target on your back and go into the cross country national championships and win it, just a great performance by an exemplary student-athlete. So I was thrilled for Molly, representing our values of excellence. …

Very pleased with both soccer seasons. Both teams wanted to go further, to do more, but those programs are so solid and have such a great foundation built, and in some ways that’s the toughest sport to get over the top. They’re all one-goal games and they go either way on you, and as I said, this year, both teams would have liked to go further, but very solid performances, very good seasons by them. So those were the highlights of the first semester for me.

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