Full Transcript: Jack Swarbrick
Observer Sports Staff | Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Observer questions in bold.
[Men’s lacrosse] is the third Final Four team for Notre Dame this season. What does it mean for the program as a whole to have so many teams competitive on the national level?
Well, it’s very central to our goal-setting here. We always plan from a perspective of what we need to do to win a national championship in each of our sports. When you get to three Final Fours in a year, winning at least one national championship, hopefully another one, Sweet 16s in tennis, NCAA Finals in rowing, softball, the list goes on. The goal is to get yourself in the tournament, in a position to make a run towards that championship. And we’re thrilled with the success we’ve had this year.
So this year really big for the program in terms of it being the first season in the ACC and Hockey East as well, and you told us [in December] logistics and scheduling were the biggest obstacles, like you knew they would be. So reflecting on this first year, how do you think that whole process went and do you think it’s gotten easier for next year because of the experience from this year?
Well, I think it’s gone very well in large part thanks to the great work of the ACC office. They’ve just done a great job of working with us and helping us resolve any issues. I can’t thank them enough. Our student-athletes and coaches who had to be flexible and make it all work during this transition year, they’ve done a great job. So I feel great about the year and, yes, it will be easier. We have a little better sense of what we’re doing and what each campus is like when we visit it, so the whole thing gets a little smoother in year two.
What type of feedback have you received from the athletes and coaches about the competition? Do they see a noticeable difference?
Without question, yeah. There are a few places where — Big East women’s basketball was really good and men’s basketball was really good and so is the ACC. By and large, for our programs it has been a step up and, in some cases, a very significant step up in competition. And I think our teams have responded really well to it.
The big news this week was the tearing up of the grass in order to prepare for FieldTurf — Commencement obviously being the last major event held on the natural grass. You mentioned last time that it would be a tight window to install the FieldTurf before the first game against Rice in August. How has the process gone so far and do you think everything will be on track?
I do. You set timetables based on the worst possible series of events. That’s what we’ve done. If we just have a normal-weather summer, we’re going to be fine, and we’ll be done comfortably. But we’ve built in enough time to deal with contingencies, so either way I’m very confident we’ll be ready to go.
Have you talked to other schools and teams that have installed FieldTurf?
No, we have so much experience with the surface ourselves. It’s what we have on our football practice fields. It’s what we have on the new rugby facility. It’s what we just installed for baseball. It’s what we have at lacrosse. So we have a lot of experience with it.
Going into the elimination of the natural grass surface, what went behind the decision to sell the 5-by-2 rolls of grass for $150?
You know we kept getting a lot of requests for it and so we figured we probably ought to have a system to respond to those requests, a formal system, a way to do it. There was a third party interested in facilitating that for us. They know how to do it and what to do, so we agreed to that, and we just agreed that the proceeds be applied to help pay for the conversion.
What has the response been so far from alumni and fans?
Pretty amazing. I assumed there’d be strong interest based on the people who had inquired in advance. But — I don’t have an update as of today — we were selling it as quickly as we could produce the 5-by-2 strips.
Going back to the topic of FieldTurf, you mentioned the baseball team having their surface installed, but obviously they had challenges of a very harsh winter. So how much of an impact do you think the delays in the process had on the team this season, forcing them to move around a bit?
Oh, a lot. I think when you combine — probably no team had a bigger step up in competition than they did moving into what’s one of the premier baseball conferences in the country — when you combine that with not having a home field, it was a really, really difficult circumstance. I recognize that. I take full responsibility for our effort to try and get that in. I feel bad for the guys. But I was pleased that when we got it in, we won five out of six games and looked like the team that I thought we were. It played a role this year. There’s no question. And I look forward to the stability it will bring knowing not only that we have it but that our team can use it a lot more.
Yeah, so what has been the response from the players since it was installed later in the season?
Well, they love it. Principally, they love it looking forward because they know it’s so going to extend the amount of time they can spend on the field. There are a lot of ways it helps, but it really helps in terms of the defensive side of the game because you can take full infield. You can do game simulations, even in challenging weather. We’re pretty enthused about what we think it means for the program.
Ok, so another hot-button issue from this semester, not necessarily specific to Notre Dame as much, the issue of unionization. You’ve said in the past you don’t think the employee model works, but still do you think student-athletes should have more of a voice and, if so, what does “more of a voice” look like if not in a unionization setting?
Well, first of all, I hope we are an example of engaging student-athletes in a way where they are involved and do play an important role. I think that’s critical to the process both nationally and at a conference level and at a school level. We’re going to spend some time this summer looking at ways that we need to get better in that regard. Just as students do relative to other important elements of the university, they ought to be directly involved in some of the decision-making regarding athletics.
And have you guys kept tabs on the whole Northwestern unionization case and the implications that might have for college athletics?
I can’t say that I’m monitoring the case. I have a decent feel for how all that works, having begun my career as a labor lawyer. So far it has moved exactly as I — and others — anticipated it would. I haven’t been surprised by anything thus far and expect that it will be a long process to final resolution. So I don’t spend a lot of time monitoring it on a regular basis.
One of the other big changes from this semester is the whole changing-over of the apparel. And what date exactly does the contract with Under Armour begin?
So how has the whole process of changeover gone over these last few months?
It’s great, but it is a massive amount of work. It’s like planning the Normandy invasion. There are so many moving parts and so many people involved. I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s going. Normally, you’d like 18 months of lead time for your apparel development. We’ve got seven. And so a lot of people are having to work very hard to get this done — both at Under Armour and Notre Dame. And so far it could not have gone more smoothly, so we’re very happy.
What have you enjoyed the most about working with Under Armour so far, and have there been any surprises?
It’s the culture and energy of Under Armour. You’re dealing with a company whose founder is still such a vital part of the business, and he himself is so young. There’s an energy to the place and an entrepreneurial spirit that I just love working with. So it’s been great for us.
The last few years you’ve always had an alternate uniform for the Shamrock Series game. Do you plan to continue that with Under Armour?
When will that be released?
We typically release it to the team sometime during fall camp. And after we’ve released it to the team, we make it public. I’m expecting we’re still on that timetable.
And are you expecting any other fundamental uniform changes for any of the sports, particularly?
No. And in fact for people who are worried about that, there will sort of be less change, I think, than people may be anticipating. We’re on such a tight timetable we just didn’t have the time to engage in a lot of sidework. So for this first set of uniforms, there will not be a lot of significant change. There may be opportunity on a more traditional schedule going forward to take a hard look at our uniforms and any changes we want to make, our coaches want to make. But it being this compressed timetable, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for that.
Ok, moving on to scheduling a bit, last month [reports] mentioned Notre Dame and Georgia were looking into a potential series in 2018 and 2019. Have there been any updates on that?
We’re continuing to talk in trying to find a way to identify dates that work for both schools. I’m optimistic we will get it done, but we are not there yet.
Would it be a home-and-home series or involve neutral games?
Again, until we sort of work through the dates — but it will be more than one game.
And with the SEC’s recent requirement for its teams to play at least one out-of-conference game against a power-conference school, do you think that could lead to more games with the SEC in the future?
I hope so. I hope we can create additional opportunities to play SEC opponents. I think it’s important for our strength of schedule. I think our fans are interested in doing that. I think opportunities existed anyway and hopefully that will only add to our ability to get some of those done, with the caveat that the inventory we have to work with is so limited that we’re just challenged to take on too many additional games, we’ll be spreading them out over time.
Switching gears, we had some big news this week with Joe Piane retiring after 39 seasons. When you look back at his career, what comes to mind the most? What will you remember about him the most and his time at Notre Dame?
You know, with somebody who has coached as successfully as he has at this institution for that long of a period of time, it’s when you sit down and total up the impact. It’s the number of people he touched, so many student-athletes have been through his program in 39 years and have been impacted by Joe, so while the on the track and on the cross-country course successes are a big part of that legacy, the much bigger part is just the student-athletes that have benefitted from his tutelage. We had a reunion earlier this year, and you really got to see the impact of that, with all the people from decades who came back for that night or that weekend to spend time with Joe and the team.
When did you know that this would be his final season?
I think about two weeks ago. I can’t remember exactly when we chatted, but two or three weeks ago.
Do you know what the timeframe is for finding a replacement?
We’ve begun that process. Each of these process have its own rhythm and its own timetable, but we certainly want a new coach selected and in place well before we head into the new school year.
I know this is dependent on the coach hired and their skillset, but are you targeting someone who will fill the multiple roles that Piane had — being both the men’s and women’s track coach and men’s cross country coach as well?
Well, typically the coach that you hire will have their own views about how to structure that, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own staff, so it’s a cooperative process. It is a part dependent on who you wind up selecting.
Sticking with track and field, is there anything new for the program that will come with this change? Are there any plans for new outdoor facilities or any similar infrastructure improvements?
As we have been for quite some time now, we continue to be focused on trying to add some facilities and some capability to the outdoor track. That’s not new, but we will continue to work on that.
Do you have an idea of what the particular updates for the track will be?
Well, at a minimum, you need some administration space, some team space, locker rooms, rest rooms, all the things that make it possible to do events there.
Do you have a timeframe of when that could possibly be put into place?
No. It’s been on our agenda for a long time. All of those projects depend on being able to find the financing to do it. We haven’t been able to yet, but we continue to work on it.
Talking about coach Piane’s retirement as well as Tim Welsh’s retirement and Randy Waldrum’s departure — I think it was said that over 100 years of experience, including Bobby Bayliss as well, has been lost in the last year. Is it a little bit concerning or destabilizing to lose such long-tenured and revered coaches at the school?
You hate to lose great coaches under any circumstances — you named a lot of great coaches in your question. But, for the most part, those were people whose retirement was not unanticipated. The good news is they built great programs, and they’ve created a situation where there’s a lot of interest in replacing them, so they’ve left us in such good standing. That’s a good position to be in, there aren’t a lot of places that have coaches who’ve achieved the tenure of somebody like Bobby and Joe, so that speaks volumes for the institution and the program over all these years.
In terms of the head coaching search, a fairly big one this semester was women’s soccer and replacing Randy Waldrum after his tenure. What made you decide on Theresa [Romagnolo]?
You start this process with a list of characteristics you hope to find in your candidates, and she hit so many of them for us. Importantly, she’s got the background at very strong academic institutions — Stanford, Dartmouth — so she understands working in an academic environment like ours, and that’s important. Secondly, she had experience working with very elite athletes, national team athletes, and in fact, the input of one of those was an important part of our decision-making process. We are attracting extraordinary young female soccer players to our program, and we want to make sure we have a coach who understands how to develop them to help them meet their aspirations to play in World Cups and Olympic games. Finally, I loved her competitiveness. I think all great coaches have a sort of fundamental competitiveness in them, and she has it; she is very competitive herself, she structures her approach to player development in a very competitive way, so it was just a good fit.
Another big project that took place this semester was the You Can Play video, which was recently released. Take me a little bit behind that process and how that came together.
I was approached by some of our student-athletes about doing it and when I am approached by our student-athletes, whether it is the stoles they wore at graduation or this concept or others, I am genuinely trying to find a way to help them achieve what they want to get done. That was my orientation when this request came — let’s try to figure out how to get this done, let’s figure out how to help — proud to do it.
What sort of feedback have you heard back regarding that video?
Very positive. It was important to us that our approach to it be consistent with the University’s overall approach, so we worked closely with others in the University on it, and I think the student-athletes who participated have loved the result, and we’ve gotten great feedback from around the country, so all in all, pretty pleased.
We’ve seen a real expansion of WatchND to cover a lot more sports and do a lot more original productions this year. Have you been pleased with the progress over the last year, and what do you think it can expand on heading into next year?
I could not be more pleased. I think we’ve had a lot going on in my time here, and there’s probably nothing I’m more proud of than our ability to build that capability. It reflects very hard work by a lot of people. You can’t produce the volume of content we’re now producing with the size staff we have without people just working their butts off and that’s what’s happening. We’re continuing to grow and continuing to improve, but I’m very pleased with where we are. I think we’ll continue to work to build our production capability and production quality, and I think we’ll continue to refine our skills as storytellers — that’s the essence of what we want to do — we want to sort of bring the program to life. Other people can report scores and do that, but we’re in a unique position to tell the stories, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.
Looking at the biggest goals heading into this past semester and even this past year overall, because you have to consider both semesters in looking at the overall state of athletics, but how would you say that these top goals have been met over the course of the year?
It’s been a very successful year in that regard. It always starts with our commitment to education and is measured by both the Graduation Success Rate and the Academic Performance Rate, the GSR and APR, if you will. We’ve once again performed better than anyone in the country, so very pleased with that. We’ve had a great competitive year, we’ve have had the success you alluded to earlier in this interview, in getting to Final Fours and winning a national championship and getting teams into the tournament. It’s reflected in a very lofty ranking in the Director’s Cup right now, but more importantly, it’s been getting into a position to compete for those championships. And the very big things we had on our plate this year, I think we’ve navigated well, the ACC transition, the apparel partner transition and the next phases in the Campus Crossroads Project, including the turf decision.
I guess a lot of these main objectives are being tackled this summer, with the switch to Under Armour and the conversion to FieldTurf, but overall, what would you say the biggest goals are for the Athletic Department heading into next year?
A big part of that will continue to surround the Crossroads project. It requires a lot of effort by people throughout the University, and it’s obviously a very important project for the University, so moving forward with that and hopefully getting ourselves in a position where we can begin construction at the end of this season, beginning the process for selling the seats in the stadium as we move forward, so all of that will be important for us. I think taking the next step for us in sports science and athlete performance is a big priority for us going into this new year. I’d like to see our capabilities in that area grow in the same way our digital media capabilities grew over the past two years, so that will be a focus for us. But the core focuses remain the same, education and athlete performance, so hopefully we’ll build on the success of this year.
Just a quick follow-up on that, mentioning the improvements in sports science. Is that more of improvements in infrastructure or just upgrading the capabilities it has now?
It’s both, it’s people and facilities and equipment. It has become a real focus of competition among intercollegiate athletics, because the margins between success and failure are so small. Most contests come down to a couple of plays or a couple of minutes, so you’re really trying to find those small differences, and we think most of them will be found in the way we help our student-athletes and coaches prepare and get themselves ready, rehabbed from injury, recovered from events, all of the science that goes into getting athletes ready.