Swarbrick talks Georgia, FieldTurf, Under Armour and more
Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick is “optimistic” the Irish will schedule a football series with Georgia, but the schools are still working through the process, Swarbrick told The Observer on Friday.
“We’re continuing to talk in trying to find a way to identify dates that work for both schools,” Swarbrick said. “I’m optimistic we will get it done, but we are not there yet.”
Reports surfaced in early April that Notre Dame and Georgia were working on a series. CBSSports.com initially reported the discussions between the two schools and highlighted 2018 and 2019 as possible dates for a home-and-home series.
Swarbrick did not confirm the nature of the series — either a home-and-home arrangement or neutral-site games — as potential dates are still being worked through. Swarbrick did say, however, “[the series] will be more than one game.”
In late April, the SEC announced its new football scheduling format, which will begin in 2016. The league announced that every SEC team must add an opponent from ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports reported that Notre Dame also fulfills that non-conference requirement for SEC schools.
Swarbrick said he hopes the SEC’s new mandate will lead to more games for Notre Dame with the conference in the future.
“I hope we can create additional opportunities to play SEC opponents,” Swarbrick said. “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.”
FieldTurf on the way in
Following Commencement on May 18, work began on removing the natural grass surface from Notre Dame Stadium in preparation for the installation of synthetic FieldTurf. Swarbrick said he thinks everything will be on track for the season opener against Rice on Aug. 30.
“You set timetables based on the worst possible series of events,” Swarbrick said. “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.”
With an entire field-worth of natural grass, Notre Dame recently announced it would sell 5-by-2 rolls of grass for $149.95 each.
“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,” Swarbrick said. “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.”
Swarbrick said the response from alumni and fans has been “pretty amazing” and the University was selling the strips “as quickly as we could produce [them].”
While Swarbrick was confident the field would certainly be ready for football season, Notre Dame’s baseball team was forced to play “home” games throughout the Midwest after the installation of FieldTurf at Frank Eck Stadium was delayed because of the rough winter weather. After the installation was completed, the Irish played six games on the new turf, winning five of them. Despite the late winning streak, the Irish finished 22-31 overall and 9-21 in the ACC, tied for the worst record in the conference.
“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,” Swarbrick said. “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.”
Swarbrick said the feedback he did receive from baseball players regarding the FieldTurf was positive.
Tight timetable for transition to Under Armour
When Notre Dame announced its 10-year footwear, apparel and equipment agreement with Under Armour on Jan. 21, the Irish knew they’d be pressed to ready everything for the fall. Swarbrick said the changeover process has been “great,” despite the huge undertaking.
“It is a massive amount of work. It’s like planning the Normandy invasion,” Swarbrick said. “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.”
Swarbrick said he has greatly enjoyed the culture and energy of Under Armour, noting how the company’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, is still a vital part of the business.
“There’s an energy to the place and an entrepreneurial spirit that I just love working with,” Swarbrick said.
Swarbrick confirmed the Irish will have an alternate uniform for the Shamrock Series game (Sept. 13 against Purdue in Indianapolis). He said he expects Notre Dame to release the uniform to the football team sometime during fall camp in August and to make it public shortly afterward.
More generally, Swarbrick said he is not expecting any other fundamental uniform changes for any of the sports teams.
“For people who are worried about that, there will sort of be less change, I think, than people may be anticipating,” Swarbrick said. “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.”
Media production expands
Notre Dame athletics received increased coverage this year with the expansion of WatchND, an online video network operated by Fighting Irish Digital Media that broadcasts Notre Dame events, press conferences, game highlights and original programming.
Swarbrick said he is very impressed with the work done by the many students and staff members who are part of WatchND.
“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,” Swarbrick said of WatchND. “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.”
One of WatchND’s most-viewed productions of this year was Notre Dame’s “You Can Play” video, which has received more than 35,000 views since being released earlier this month. The video is part of the national “You Can Play” project, a project dedicated to “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation,” according to its website. The video was released nearly two months after Irish senior tennis player Matt Dooley wrote an article for Outsports.com that talked about his life as a gay student-athlete at Notre Dame.
“I was approached by some of our student-athletes about doing [a “You Can Play” video] 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,” Swarbrick said. “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.”
Swarbrick said he has received “great feedback from around the country” regarding the video.
Swarbrick assesses year, sets forth future goals
Swarbrick summarized the year for Notre Dame athletics as being “very successful.” Notre Dame had three teams reach national championship games, with men’s soccer winning the national title in December and women’s basketball and men’s lacrosse falling in their respective championship games. Additionally, junior swimmer Emma Reaney won a national title in the 200-yard breaststroke, and two Irish fencers took home national titles, as graduate student Gerek Meinhardt won the NCAA men’s foil title and sophomore Lee Kiefer won the NCAA women’s foil title.
“We’ve had a great competitive year … in getting to Final Fours and winning a national championship and getting teams into the tournament,” Swarbrick said. “It’s reflected in a very lofty ranking in the Director’s Cup right now (the Irish are sixth nationally in the latest standings, released April 24), but more importantly, it’s been getting into a position to compete for those championships.”
Swarbrick also cited several big projects announced throughout the year, including the agreement with Under Armour and the University’s Campus Crossroads project as contributors to a successful year.
Swarbrick said further development of the Campus Crossroads project will highlight the athletic department’s initiatives for next year.
“A big part of [the goals] will continue to surround the Crossroads project,” he said. “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.”
Swarbrick said another priority for the department involves making upgrades in the areas of “sports science and athlete performance.” Swarbrick said these upgrades require improvements in both staff and facilities.
“It has become a real focus of competition among intercollegiate athletics, because the margins between success and failure are so small,” he said. “Most contests come down to a couple of plays or a couple of minutes, so you’re really trying to find those small differences.
“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.”