Notre Dame Director of Athletics
BOLD = Questions from The Observer
There’s no period of time in the year [like this]. March comes in second if you’ve got both basketball teams and hockey going in the tournaments, that would be the second busiest time, but so much happens in the week between the last football game and the start of bowl season that just everybody crams a lot into it.
I’m sure last weekend was a good break though.
Yeah, it was great. Although it was typical, right? So I was in New York for the National Football Foundation dinner and various football meetings. I fly back here Thursday to teach my MBA class. Fly back to Philadelphia for the semifinals of soccer. Fly to Indianapolis for the basketball game. Then fly back to Philadelphia for the finals. So pretty typical (laughing).
So 10 flights in four days?
Yeah, in fact, the only day in that period of time I wasn’t on a plane, I agreed to meet somebody at the airport. So I was at the airport every day. That’s great. Those are success problems. It was a great weekend, great for soccer, great for men’s basketball, women’s basketball had a huge victory which I didn’t get to see. So, you like having those success problems.
And with soccer, was that kind of a thing you saw coming from a long way, just finally getting to that point?
Well I wasn’t unique in that regard. Everybody viewed the program that view. They were the No. 1 seed in the tournament in the tournament last year — the No. 1 overall seed. So everyone recognized that Bobby had built a program that certainly had that potential. But you’re so happy when it finally happens, especially for Bobby, who is one of the great coaches I’ve ever been around, a phenomenal educator. He uses his sport as a platform to teach, about the sport but about a whole lot of other things, and so that was so rewarding to see him get to that, that point in his career.
And how validating is it, first year in the ACC, to get a national title for that program and really for athletics as a whole?
Yes, very much. Now, obviously, on a event-to-event basis we’re more than holding our own, but you really want to say this is the level at which we’re going to compete and we expect to make major contributions to the conference. And there aren’t many better ways to do it than that.
How do you think that transition has gone so far, first half here with the ACC and Hockey East?
Very good. The issues you worry about in a transition like that are all logistical. You know you’re going to get great competition. You know you’re going to get treated well, but there’s so much you’re doing for the first time. So scheduling in each of the sports is different than they’re used to — in the Big East for all these years and scheduling worked a certain way. And the ramifications of those things, it’s hard to summarize them all easily. We have a very rigorous missed-class policy here. So if the scheduling model is different for volleyball or basketball or something, you’ve got to figure out how to make it work with the missed-class policy. It may impact the way you schedule your own venues. So if they play Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday depends on whether you can use the venue for another sport. So the logistics are mind-boggling. To your question, I could not be happier with sort of how all that has worked, and in significant part because everyone involved has been so open to change, willing to figure out ways to make it work. The ACC has been a phenomenal partner for us. Our own sport administrators and coaches have found ways to work through whatever the issues are. And so it has exceeded my hopes for the seamlessness of the transition.
And what about for Hockey East?
A little simpler because you have one team, one program, but very much the same. A very warm embrace. We’re finding the competition to be exactly what we thought it would be. So I think that has gone really well. I am most excited in that dynamic with our television presence. We have these games on NBC on Friday night uniquely, and the quality of the production has been so high. It’s the network that does the NHL, and it shows. They know what they’re doing with hockey and it’s been great for our guys.
So for scheduling, a big piece of the puzzle out of the way football-wise with Purdue and the Shamrock Series game, what does that do for the rest of 2014 schedule and probably the next few years?
’14, ’15, ’16 will be announced tomorrow. I think 11 a.m. if I’m not mistaken. John Heisler can tell you. It feels great to have that finally done.
What do you think was the hardest about not being able to fit them in until 2020, Purdue?
Well it’s representative of the challenge of the entire process. No one’s happy with us (laughing). And it’s flattering. Everyone wants to play us. Everyone values their Notre Dame experience. Whether it’s Michigan or Michigan State or Arizona State was upset with us, the list goes on. And what this process was about was working everybody through those, one at a time. Sort of figuring out, okay, we can’t do what we were contracted to do because of the ACC commitment. Now what are we going to do? How are we going to find something we can work our way through? That just takes a lot of time because every decision impacts every other one. It would be impossible for me to tell you how many versions of the schedule we’ve produced in the past year. And every time you thought you were close, one piece would move. A school would tell you, ‘I can play in that year, but I can’t play on that day.’ And you’d go to somebody else and say, ‘Well, can you move to that day?’ And then the whole thing would unravel. So I regret that I communicated that I thought we were close several times because I thought we were close several times. Intellectually, it was incredibly challenging. But it was also very frustrating to try and map a way through this.
With Purdue, is that the Shamrock Series game?
And why did you choose Indianapolis and Purdue? What went into that decision?
We try and sort of have a thematic core to the Shamrock Series. Why are we going to this city? What are we doing? What’s it about? Going to Indianapolis allows us to celebrate the relationship with the state, the increasing connections between us and the state universities in research and medical school, and so, thematically, it made a lot of sense to do that. In addition, it is unquestionably one of the best venues to host an event like this. That’s why they do the Final Four all the time. It’s why the Super Bowl works so well. And we’ll use that same dynamic. It sets up for major events as well or better than any city in America. And so I think the Shamrock Series, independent of the University reasons to go there, from a fan and player experience, this will be as good as we’ve ever had.
And when did you guys finalize the ’14, ’15, ’16 schedules?
About a week ago. Some other elements still needed to be done. But the last piece of the puzzle — and it really was a bit of a Godsend that we were able to get it done — was moving the ACC from 5-5-5, to 4-6-5. So we’re still meeting our commitment, but we’re able to get a little flexibility. And that was only able to be achieved because Wake Forest was such a great partner — the ACC was such a great partner through all this — but on this last piece of the puzzle, Wake Forest really put an awful lot of effort into helping us out.
And if I remember correctly Wake Forest was scheduled to be a home game? Does that mean you’d have them home in ’15 as well?
Right, we just moved them from ’14 to ’15. And moved BC to the Shamrock Series game. So that’s how you’re able to do six ACC games.
And where would that game be?
Does having that game at Fenway, does that have anything to do with the hockey team also playing there?
No. Unrelated. We look for unique cities, unique venues. It’s been a long time since anybody played football at Fenway.
It will be nice for Brian to get back there too.
Yeah it will be. He’s excited.
Taking five years off with Purdue, does that open things up a lot for future schedules past ’16, or is there still a huge logjam?
No, huge logjam. Huge logjam. Now, easier to manage because you’re not talking about 16 contracted games that you’re trying to get down to 12. And, in fact, in resolving these three years, what we did was move a lot of games forward. So the good news is resolving the future years’ schedules will be significantly easier. The bad news is we don’t have a lot of flexibility in them because when you reach your agreement with Purdue that locks in some future dates, well those dates are gone. And when you do the same with Michigan State, those dates are gone. So we have really limited inventory going forward. We’ve tried to protect enough inventory so we can still do an SEC team. That’s sort of the priority in the next cycle to see if we can do that.
But that still won’t be in this cycle?
No. These three years are locked in.
And then the Fenway game is in ’15. Do you guys have a Shamrock Series game in ’16?
San Antonio. Army.
In the Alamodome again?
Yeah. And I would Indianapolis and San Antonio in the same category in terms of the natural environment they give you to host this creates an enormous festival, just by nature of the design of the city. In San Antonio’s case it’s along the River Walk. You see everybody. You’re with everybody. So we were eager to go there. We’re going to use that one — it’s Veterans Day weekend, it’s against Army — and we’ll really celebrate Notre Dame’s relationship with the military.
As it relates to Fenway, just logistically — you were saying football hasn’t been played there in a while — are they going to have to really squeeze it in to make it work or should things go fine?
We spent a lot of time making sure we didn’t have the Wrigley Field situation. It’ll be fine. It’s tight. But it’s fine. It’s a little like Yankee Stadium.
And in regards to the Stadium, last time there was a plan in place, a study, how has that progressed?
Very good. It’s been a great process. One of the neatest things about this process is that it’s touched so many areas of the University and the collaborative and collegial nature of working on this with the administration and student affairs and various elements of the academy, various departments, recreation, digital media, it’s been great. There aren’t a lot of projects where you get an opportunity to have so many different segments of the university work together. So that’s been very rewarding. On a substantive basis, the progress has been great. We’re sort of in the next generation of understanding the detail of what it might look like and what it might be. The progress has been steady and very good.
At the time it looked like maybe there would be a resolution in the fall, but it was a six-to-nine month thing. Do you see it coming to a conclusion soon?
Yeah I think we’re at a phase in the process where you’ve got to call the question. And so we’ll probably do that in January, late January, and decide are we going forward, and if we are, start the detailed work of that, both the fundraising and the detail design work.
Any unforeseen challenges that have come up?
No. I think in a project like this you always start with designs on doing more than the end of the day you believe you can afford, so there’s a whittling down that goes on. But beside that — you run into some very specific architectural things, like you’ve got to have a really big support beam here so you can’t do what you wanted to do, but those are nits andnats. I think overall we have been very much able to act on the initial concept.
If someone hadn’t seen the Stadium in a while, and they walked into the newly-renovated one, what would be some of the features that they would see, that they would notice?
Well I think the first that will strike you is that it’s a hub of university activity, not merely athletic activity. So a lot of space dedicated to academic purposes will certainly be part of this. It will likely have digital media. It will likely have recreational components. So that’s the first thing that will strike you. This is a lot more than a football stadium. The second thing that I think — beyond its mass, it’s going to be big — that will strike you beyond that is that I think it will give us an opportunity to engage people, to tell the Notre Dame story, to tell the Notre Dame athletics story, in just the spaces you move through and what all of that is like. And then operationally I think you’ll notice a difference, I think it will be better. I think your experience — whether it’s your concession experience, your concourse experience or the experience of the visiting team — I think all of those will be enhanced.
And then this year with the field surface was not the best, I guess you could say.
Yeah I would agree with that.
Have there been plans to make that better?
Yeah we’re evaluating that right now. No decision has been made. We’ll probably make that decision sometime in January, February. We will do one of two things. We will either go in and really rip the whole thing out, I mean, go way down and create a whole new sub-surface, and everything about the field will be re-done, drainage, sub-surface. Or we’ll go to synthetic. And we’re evaluating those, trying to understand both options. There are important timing issues with both because we still want to do Commencement in there. So how do you make that work? And so we’re looking at cost, athlete safety, timetable. What we won’t do is throw another layer of sod on top of what we’ve got now because that doesn’t work. We’ll do one of those two things. We’ll make that decision sometime early in the new year and I would guess implementing it as soon as the weather allows us.
Two years ago it was pretty rough, you would say, and then last year it was pretty good. This year, again, rough. Do you have reason to believe if you did rip it up and start over it would be fine next year, or is there still a concern it might not play as well?
Oh no there would be a concern. Now it wouldn’t be the same challenges we face now. Part of the challenges we face now is through the re-sodding process we’ve sort of created a clay base that doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. That’s why you’d have to go in and rip it out. The challenge with going back in and doing it new and doing grass is, it takes a field more than a year to really come in. Our soccer stadium is a great example. It’s probably as good a pitch, as they say, as there is in the country. The first year, though, the coaches were going to kill me because every time a player cut, the sod came up. So it just takes time to get a roots system that’s robust enough to deal with 300-pound guys running around with spikes on. So there are limitations to grass in at least the first year. But that’s okay. That doesn’t necessarily dictate a decision. It would be better than what we played on this year.
We’ve seen the field turf trucks at Frank Eck going into the baseball field. Have you learned anything from that experience that might translate over to the decision to be made, football-wise?
No.We’re going to replace– You’ll see them more because they’ll be in Loftus. That field is long overdue to be replaced in there. Over break, they’ll be doing that also.
What went into the decision to do Loftus and Frank Eck?
Loftus was pure player safety. That facility gets used so much. It gets used well into the early morning by so many of our student-athletes and then recreationally users, too, and it was just completely worn. That was a pretty simple one. We have to get this to be better.
In baseball, we had been wanting to do it for quite some time because sometimes the weather in South Bend isn’t optimal. You guys may not have noticed it. And with the move to the ACC and a significant step up for our baseball program, we doubled our efforts. We had been trying to do it for a while but we said this is the time to try and see to find the financial support to get this done. We had some alums step up, people directly connected to the baseball program, which is always nice to see, to help us get that done. It’ll make a very big difference for our team.
In your research for that, safety-wise and performance, what did you find and are there hang-ups when it comes to player safety?
No. I think we’re very comfortable. You’re sliding on the stuff. My perspective really changed when I realized Texas had it. That’s not a bad weather environment at Austin. And that was the first time I said to myself, ‘This is really about just giving the athletes a better opportunity.’ Our outfield has been an issue out there in terms of its playability. The issues you worry about in football, you don’t really have in baseball. It’s all positive.
How long will the whole process with the baseball field take?
I think it’s six weeks but I’m the wrong person to ask.
Earlier, you said synthetic when talking about the football stadium, does that mean a hybrid or conventional field turf?
I don’t think a hybrid works here. The Packers have the hybrid and we’ve looked at it and studied it and nothing’s off the table right now but the cost of maintaining a hybrid is so high. I’m just not sure it’s the right use of our resources. Because the fundamental difference with hybrid is you can never sod it because it’s got synthetic blades surrounded by real grass. So you couldn’t really lay down a sod. You have to reseed it and so you have to maintain the growing year and to do that, you essentially have to build a greenhouse in your stadium. It’s very expensive and it doesn’t feel like the right use of resources for us.
Are the costs of ripping up everything and putting in a new sod about the same as putting in field turf?
Yes. And if you use our recent experience as a comparison, field turf is a lot cheaper because we kept replacing the sod so often. It’s one of the things we’re looking at carefully to understand the economic impacts of the maintenance, everything about it, but my strong sense is that you’re not talking about– you won’t have financial reasons at the end of the day to go one way or the other. It’s pretty close.
We’ve talked about the basketball facility with you before, where is that in terms of progress?
It’s sort of tied to the CCPD. One concept for the CCPD would involve moving student recreation into this building, into the new stadium. If that happens, the intent would be to use Rolfs as a basketball practice facility. If we don’t do that, we’ll have to build a new practice facility and keep student rec where it is. It’s all emanating out of the final version of the plan.
Is that a new development, using Rolfs as a practice facility instead of building a new one?
Relatively speaking. As the idea of ‘Does it make sense to move recreation into the CCPD’ came along, then the question was raised ‘Well, if you do that, what do you do with Rolfs?’ That’s how we got there.
I remember when we talked about the basketball practice facility before, you said the money had to be committed before, that’s the building policy here. Are you confident that, if you do the stuff to the stadium, the money will be there to then in turn do whatever you want for basketball?
We’d have to raise it. It’s the same dynamic. I don’t want to go into the finances of it but we have to raise the same amount of money either way. That’s the challenge we face but I’m optimistic that we can get it done.
The adidas contract is done, through 2014 it runs?
The end of this year.
Have there been talks about what the next contract will be and with whom?
We are actively engaged with that process. We have talked with all the major companies. We’re in the last leg of it. No decision has been made but because of the timetable, we’ve got to get going. It is a really condensed window to get ready for the 2014-15 season.
How much time do they need to have to produce everything that goes into the full season for all the different sports?
They’d like 14 to 16 months but someone’s going to get six months. It’s not optimal but it’s the way the contract was drafted. No one would do that today. Back when this contract was drafted, you didn’t need as much lead time, now you do because all the equipment has gotten so specialized. We would like a year and a half to know we were making a transition. If we make a transition, we won’t have that. It doesn’t matter because until adidas knows whether we’re going to continue with them, they’re not manufacturing the stuff for next year. No one is until we make this decision.
What are the key components that you guys look for when deciding which major company you go for as the apparel provider?
…student-athlete and their experience and who can support them the best. So that’s No. 1. For me, there’s a heavy emphasis on the positioning of Notre Dame, the support of Notre Dame, the recognition of it as a national brand. We really need our apparel partner to embrace that concept and to treat us differently. It sounds selfish but it’s just about being a national brand. There’s one approach when you’re primarily a regional brand and a great regional brand but we’re not. We’re a national brand and need a partner who can help fuel that. So that becomes very important to us as that whole dynamic. Certainly the economics of it, trying to generate the most support we can for our programs. Finally, I’d add sort of your take on the future of the companies. You’re trying to read a market, you’re trying to guess where everybody will wind up in a pretty dynamic market. That’s what goes into it.
When it comes to branding, does that rule out maybe some of the companies that aren’t yet at the highest tier?
Companies get ruled out more because of their ability to support 26 sports. So that’s the first step. You can look across the industry and you’ve got three players right now. Auburn’s going to play in the national championship wearing Under Armour against a team that’s wearing Nike. An adidas school just won the national championship playing an Under Armour school in men’s soccer. There are enough comparable, and you can talk to people to get a sense of what’s going on.
Do you go to the student-athletes at all and try to gauge what their preferences would be?
No, we’ve met with the coaches. It’s a little hard to do because the amount of information you’d have to provide to them. They may have perceptions but when you get into this process, you know what the companies are working on or doing. To get a fair read from the student-athletes, you’d have to share all that information and there’s really no way to do that.
You mentioned Under Armour. Are they the leader in the clubhouse?
No. There’s been a lot of speculation about that. Until we get final offers and are really able to compare apples to apples, there can’t be a leader in the clubhouse. I think it’ll happen quickly for the reasons I said before. We got to get manufacturing something. I don’t think this decision is far away but we’re also not done with the process of collecting all the information we need to make it.
Does a company like Nike fit in with Notre Dame’s values, corporation-wise?
I think all three of the companies, obviously, have been very conscious about that issue, have had to address it, who their suppliers are, what factories they’re using. We have a lot of focus on that but so too, do they. That was a bigger issue years ago when it was just emerging and people hadn’t paid enough attention to it. Now, all the schools are putting requirements into their contracts. That’s largely in place. From a value perspective, I’m very comfortable with all three of the potential partners.
If you do choose to move away from adidas, what could they have done better? Were you happy with them?
Absolutely happy with adidas. We may be extending with adidas but I don’t know at this point. If we don’t, if we head in another direction, I really want people to know what a great job adidas did for us. It has nothing to do with a dissatisfaction at all. They’ve been a great partner.
With the football program, you had coach Diaco, coach Martin leave. Do you view that as a good thing that teams are coming in looking for those guys?
I hate to lose them on a personal and professional level because they’re both great coaches. I had a great relationship with both of them. That’s one of the [inaudible] of having built a great program. People want your people. We’ll have more of that, not this year, I hope. As our program continues to perform at a very high level, and Brian continues to attract such great coaches, we’re going to continue to lose them. It won’t be for any lack of willingness to compensate our coaches appropriately. Coordinators want to be head coaches and position coaches want to be coordinators. You have to support that.
What’s your role in determining who fills those coordinator positions?
It’s Brian’s decision but I consult with him, he consults with me, rather. We have a process at the university that anyone who gets hired for one of those positions has to go through. That’s sort of how it works. Brian will come to me with ideas for candidates and we’ll talk about the person. If it’s someone he really wants to explore, we’ll start them in the university process.
With the playoffs starting next year, how do you think that whole process has gone?
Great. We announced the sites for the next couple championships. I was on that committee and I thought that went very well. There was a lot of interest and I think we picked two great cities. I couldn’t be happier with the makeup of the selection committee. It’s exactly what it should be so I have great confidence in that. Good television partners. I think all that has gone absolutely as well as it can. Won’t be any less controversy. People will be just as exercised and that’s all good for college football. Talking promotes the game.
What’s left to square away with it before next January?
A lot of work by the selection committee about what its procedures and processes will be. They’ve had their first meetings. They were very productive. When you build something like that from the ground up, you’ve got a millions questions to answer. What data are you going to use? They have to build their databases. What are your recusal rules? They’ve got to figure all that out and that takes time.
Do they know how many times they’ll have rankings?
Will it be a few times a season? Every week after a certain point?
Yeah, you can find it. The first one comes out midseason and I can’t remember how many more there will be. We thought it was important to give teams a guidepost to where they are. I expect there to be significant different between the work of the selection committee and the polls. When you start with the baked in prejudice of the polls from the preseason poll, it skews everything. It’s just crazy. It’s tough for a very good team to move all the way up and the team ranked No. 1 at the start of the year, they move down a little more slowly.
With the Alma Mater, you said you would address it at the end of the season. Have you talked to coach Kelly about that or will you address it after the bowl game?
No. We’ll really do that with next year’s team leadership. You’ll do that in the spring. That’ll be something we’ll take on with the emerging leadership of the team sometime in the spring or summer.
Is there anything you are looking forward to in the spring? Anything we should be looking out for?
Just a lot of success. I think we got a number of teams well-positioned here to have very successful years. It’s exciting to go into seasons with so many teams that have a shot to go very deep and we have that right now.