Swarbrick discusses the status of Olympic sports at Notre Dame
Elizabeth Greason | Tuesday, August 29, 2017
Editor’s note: This is the third story in a three-part series featuring a wide range of topics covered in The Observer’s interview with director of athletics Jack Swarbrick. Today’s story focuses on the recent changes, improvements and achievements of Notre Dame’s Olympic sports.
Notre Dame announced in March 2016 that the Irish hockey program would be making the move from the Hockey East conference to the Big Ten, a change which will become effective in the coming season. Coming off a season that led the Irish to the program’s third-ever Frozen Four, Swarbrick is looking forward to joining a conference that will both prove advantageous for the student-athletes and create more excitement for the fans.
“I think it’s much better for the student experience because the travel will be less demanding. That’s the starting point,” Swarbrick said. “Secondly, it’s more natural rivalries for our fans. I think they’ll be more excited with Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State. I just think the rivalries are a little more natural for us.”
The Irish took home their ninth NCAA fencing championship, with then-senior Lee Kiefer and then-junior Francesca Russo each claiming individual titles in the foil and sabre, respectively. This national title was the first for Notre Dame under head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia, who took over for former head coach Janusz Bednarski when he retired in Dec. 2014. Kvaratskhelia was the associate head coach of the fencing program at the time of Bednarski’s retirement, something Swarbrick considers to be a blessing for the program, considering that Kvaratskhelia is considered by many to be the best coach in the sport.
“It is hard to overstate the good fortune and significance of having the guy I think is the best head coach in the country on your own staff when you go to hire. So we were extremely fortunate,” Swarbrick said. “I think that Gia is building a program that will sustain its success. It’s always hard in that sport in Olympic years because you lose a lot of your best fencers for the year, so there’s always some challenge from year to year, but the foundation he’s built here and the culture he’s built, I think is going to take a legacy which he’s already created in fencing and continue to accelerate it. That, and I think that we’ve built what I think is what I think most acknowledge as the best fencing venue in the country. It’s a great atmosphere to our fencers.”
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on April 1 and will be inducted the first week of September. McGraw has been the head coach of the Notre Dame women’s program since 1987 and has accumulated 765 victories, 24 NCAA tournament bids, 15 Sweet 16 appearances, seven trips to the Final Four and a national title during her tenure at the University.
Swarbrick reflected on McGraw’s impact on the program, saying her top-tier personality is part of the reason her teams have found so much success.
“Muffet is the program. Everything about this program is defined by her and represent her values, which is why it is so successful,” Swarbrick said. “Muffet isn’t merely one of the great basketball coaches of all time, which you have to be to get into the Naismith Hall of Fame, she’s one of the great coaches, and we have been enormously fortunate to have her here and have her guide our program. … What [the induction] means to me is, a person who is as deserving as anyone could possibly be is getting the recognition she deserves. I know that Muffet will deflect that recognition and talk about all her players, and of course that’s a big part of it, but she has built a program. She has provided the platform for all that success. So, I am so happy that she is getting recognition at the ultimate level that she can at her sport, and I think it is richly deserved.”
In his first year as head coach, Jim McLaughlin’s squad went 7-25, winning only two ACC matches. These struggles were not unexpected, according to Swarbrick. What was unexpected, however, was his ability to turn the team around in a matter of months, going 22-10 with 13 ACC wins in 2016 and spending much of the season in contention for the ACC title.
“No, [I did not expect him to be able to turn the program around so quickly]. Not because I don’t think he’s the best coach in the country, I think he is,” Swarbrick said, “But the lead time to turn a program, especially one where recruiting tends to be very early can often be significant. But I think the rate at which they’ve achieved — Jim will be the first one to say they have lofty goals and more to do, but the progress they’ve made in a short period of time is remarkable. … I will say I could not be happier with where that program is right now and where it’s headed.”
Since making the switch to the ACC, the Irish have struggled to find their groove, leading to Notre Dame’s most recent head coaching change. With former Irish head coach Jim Kubinksi out, Notre Dame undertook a nationwide search — and landed on University of Florida assistant coach John Handrigan. Swarbrick said Handrigan set himself apart from the first set of interviews as a man with a clear vision for the program.
“In searches like that, we always conduct a national search, and you talk to a lot of people,” Swarbrick said. “John separated himself very quickly among everyone who talked to him, and I guess the best way to put it was, his commitment to the student athlete was reflected in his experiences and what he’d done so far, and the other was his vision for the program. Much as when we hired Coach McLaughlin. You’re looking for someone who can articulate where the program can go and how they will get it there, and he had a really clear vision of that.”
Swarbrick has said in the past that Notre Dame has been punished for doing the right thing when it comes to self-reporting violations to the NCAA. He said that, despite this, the University will continue to follow the correct process when it comes to dealing with any broken rules that are uncovered.
“Our commitment to self-reporting, how we handle those things, will not change, regardless of the consequences,” Swarbrick said. “We will let it all play out and see where we wind up, but we will continue to be a place where, if we discover that someone’s made an error in judgement, we are going to address it. And we will address it in the appropriate way, whether that’s self-disclosure to the NCAA or the internal process that the University uses, we will follow that.”
The University is in the midst of appealing last year’s NCAA sanctions, but Swarbrick said the NCAA has not told the school when a final decision will be released, although he hopes it will be sometime this year.
“We don’t know when [the appeal process] will conclude,” Swarbrick said. “We know where we are in the process, I don’t want to suggest that we don’t understand the sequence of it. I would be surprised if it isn’t resolved, if we don’t get final decision yet this year, but I can’t tell you when.”