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Sports

Swarbrick reflects on fall semester athletics

| Thursday, December 31, 2015

As the Campus Crossroads project progresses around Notre Dame Stadium and the completion date of fall 2017 gets closer, one recent tradition may be put on hold to highlight the revamped venue.

In an interview with The Observer on Dec. 16, Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said the annual Shamrock Series game, an off-campus home game for the football team, might go on hiatus for the 2017 season to allow for more games at the new Notre Dame Stadium.

“We’re spending a lot of time trying to think of the best approach to 2017, when we open the Crossroads project,” Swarbrick said. “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.”

In 2016, Notre Dame will play Army in San Antonio at the Alamodome. That matchup was announced in 2013, and no other future games have been scheduled.

If the series does continue, Swarbrick said his focus will be on scheduling iconic or state-of-the-art venues and then locating elite opponents. He pointed to this past season’s game in Boston at Fenway Park against Boston College as an example of this mindset.

“Fenway worked so well for us. We couldn’t have been more pleased,” Swarbrick said. “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?”

Finding top-level opponents for those games has not been easy, however. In the series’ seven games, the Irish have played just one ranked opponent, No. 22 Arizona State in 2013.

“Assuming the Shamrock Series continues, we would very much like to feature marquee opponents,” Swarbrick said. “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.”

Even if the Shamrock Series does skip 2017, it will have had an impact on Campus Crossroads nonetheless. Swarbrick cited the use of JumboTrons during those games as a key factor in garnering support for the installation of a video board in Notre Dame Stadium, which was announced earlier this fall.

“The Shamrock Series games have really helped to condition people to the concept and what it can do to enhance the game,” Swarbrick said. “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.’”

Football scheduling

The possible hiatus or end of the Shamrock Series is not the only scheduling uncertainty for the Irish. In 2010, Notre Dame and BYU signed a six-game deal, two in Provo, Utah and four in South Bend. The Cougars have visited the Irish twice since then, but Notre Dame has not added a return game to its slate, and BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said in February that the remaining four games may not happen and Notre Dame will pay the buyout instead.

Swarbrick said he still hopes to make at least one of the away games happen, but the other three are contingent upon other scheduling conflicts.

“The BYU focus was always on two three-game increments. … 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,” Swarbrick said.

The Cougars are not the only squad Swarbrick said he would like to put back on Notre Dame’s schedule if he can. After the apparent end of Notre Dame’s historic rivalry with Michigan in 2014, there has been continual talk of renewing the series, and Swarbrick did not shoot down the possibility, although he also said he has not directly negotiated with Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett.

“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,” Swarbrick said. “I can’t tell you beyond 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. [Head coach Brian Kelly] has been clear about that, and Michigan is as well.”

This summer, a number of coaches and analysts argued that Notre Dame should either have to play 13 games each season or join a conference in order to be eligible for the College Football Playoff. However, Swarbrick said there were no plans to do so, in part because under current NCAA rules, it is not allowed.

“I’m very comfortable with where we sit,” Swarbrick said. “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.”

Assessing coaches and contracts

While Kelly has said he would like a game against Michigan, his contract with Notre Dame only runs through two more seasons. Beyond that, Swarbrick said he has discussed the overall direction and future of the program with Kelly but declined to comment on the possibility of a contract extension sometime soon.

“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,” Swarbrick said.

By comparison, men’s basketball coach Mike Brey and women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw are both locked up through the 2022 season and likely to end their careers at Notre Dame, Swarbrick said. However, those long-term deals are not evidence he approaches football coaches’ contracts as different from any other sport, he said.

“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,” Swarbrick said.

Two new head coaches arrived at Notre Dame this year — Jim McLaughlin took over volleyball, while Mike Litzinger was named head of women’s swimming and diving. Swarbrick said he is pleased with both coaches’ performance thus far, despite the struggles of the volleyball team, which finished with a record of 7-25, its third straight losing season. In particular, he highlighted the recruiting job both have done.

“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,” Swarbrick said. “But I’m very pleased with the progress on both fronts.”

‘More disclosure, less regulation’

As several lawsuits filed by former student-athletes against the NCAA over compensation and use of likenesses progress through the judicial system, Swarbrick said Notre Dame remains committed to a student-educator model and would not participate in any system that changed that dynamic to one between an employer and employee, echoing comments made by University President Fr. John Jenkins in a New York Times interview this past September.

“A lot of things were written about Notre Dame withdrawing from Division I athletics. It has nothing to do with that,” Swarbrick said. “I can tell you from conversations I’ve had with ADs, from conversations [Jenkins has] 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 … 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.”

Swarbrick also said he thinks lawsuits such as Jenkins v. NCAA and O’Bannon v. NCAA are more likely to come down against an employer-employee model than they were in the past.

“Having practiced law for 28 years, I’m not likely to forecast the outcome of cases,” Swarbrick said. “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.”

In response to the public perception that some schools do not fulfill the role of educator, Swarbrick said the answer is not more regulation on the part of the NCAA, but more transparency from the schools.

“We get in a lot of trouble because we try and legislate competitive equity,” Swarbrick said. “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.

” … I think the more we can get away from that notion of competitive equity and just accept the fact that there are differences and some of them might put Notre Dame at a competitive disadvantage. I’m okay 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 over-regulation and over-management. The autonomy of schools to be who they are, to act as they are, is important.

“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.”

Spreading the media footprint

This past season, the Notre Dame football team was the focus of the Showtime series, “A Season With,” as cameras and microphones tracked players, coaches and staff on and off the field throughout the fall.

Swarbrick said the series helped to “tell the Notre Dame story” and received universally positive feedback from fans. And while Showtime will move on to cover a different team next year, Swarbrick said the experience has sparked a better connection between fans and the team, something he hopes to continue in the future, though he did not say how.

Looking ahead, however, Swarbrick said one of his main goals for the athletic department in the next three to five years was to continue to grow its digital media presence.

“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,” Swarbrick said.

“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.”

Highlights of the semester

Two main stories formed the highlights of the semester for Swarbrick, he said. First, he praised the resiliency and leadership of the football team to come back from season-ending injuries to several starters. Secondly, he singled out senior Molly Seidel, who won Notre Dame’s first ever cross country national championship, men or women, this November.

“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,” Swarbrick said. “So I was thrilled for Molly, representing our values of excellence.”

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg