Swarbrick comments on the football program and its future
Joe Everett | Friday, August 31, 2018
In the third and final story detailing The Observer’s interview with Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame director of athletics discussed the football team — its trajectory, its importance for the University and the future of its independent status and consequently its scheduling. Swarbrick first noted just how critical last season’s improvement from 2016 was — not only for the football program but also for Notre Dame as a whole — and how that improvement came about.
“I think it was important for the team, I think it was important for the University,” Swarbrick said. “The significance of the program [contributes to] so much of what we do at the University. In that sense, it’s hard to overstate its importance. We needed to demonstrate, as we believe strongly, the previous year was an aberration.”
“Now, part of proving that is taking a hard look at it and deciding what you had to change and what was wrong. [Head coach Brian] Kelly did an unbelievable job of examining every aspect of the program, and making some tough decisions about the changes that needed to be made, and executing on all those changes. It started with a very focused engagement with the students who played for him, to say ‘what can you share with me? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ He heard those messages, and he made a host of changes and I feel great about where the program is right now. Culturally it is as strong as it has been in my 11 years here, and I have every confidence that will manifest itself on the field.”
Shifting from the past to the present, Swarbrick explained his expectations for Kelly’s team this season.
“My expectation is that we compete with anybody in the country,” Swarbrick said. “You never know the outcome of any game, injuries play a role, a host of things — but I want to see a team that can compete with anybody and I have every confidence that we will. I’ve been around this team a lot over the past few months, and a lot of practices in the past month, and I love the leadership, love the culture, I love the toughness — practices are very focused and business-like. Very pleased with what I see and I expect to see that reflected in the competitiveness on the field.”
Speaking of aiming to compete with anybody, Notre Dame is talking the challenge seriously. The Irish have scheduled marquee matchups every year for the next 10 years, highlighted by an announcement this April of a home-and-home series with Alabama in 2028-29. Swarbrick feels that it’s inherent in Notre Dame to play the best competition it can.
“Well, Notre Dame football has to [play the best teams],” Swarbrick said. “First of all, don’t be independent if you’re not prepared to do that. But secondly, it’s the legacy of the program. Part of Jesse’s message was: Play the best teams and play all over the country. Knute Rockne picked up that mantel and did that, and it’s continued ever since. It’s part of our DNA and who we are, so we should be doing it. What’s changed is that we probably do it a little more with the College Football Playoff selection process in mind then before. Annually we will have two Pac-12 games on the schedule because of USC and Stanford, and we’ll have five ACC games. So then with the remaining limited slots you have, we’re trying to make sure over the course of years we can show how we’ve competed against the BIG 10, the SEC or the BIG 12. [Ahead], we’ve got the second half of the Georgia home-and-home, we’ve got [Texas A&M], Alabama, Wisconsin, Ohio State — so we’ll continue to [play the best teams].”
The reason why Notre Dame has the flexibility to schedule such marquee matchups every year is because of its independent status. Swarbrick doesn’t see the Irish joining a conference any time soon, even if it would make a path to the College Football Playoff easier.
“We don’t choose independence because it helps the football program,” Swarbrick said. “We would have a potentially easier path to a championship in the current model if we were in a conference. We choose independence because of its benefit for the University and what football represents. It’s our ability to play in New York and California … the ACC lets us travel from Miami to Boston, we’ll play in iconic venues like Lambeau Field — that’s what we need to do. Don’t get me wrong, our focus has to be winning football games and competing for national championships, but we have this secondary obligation with the program to use it as a vehicle to promote the school, and we look for every opportunity to do that. The [Campus] Crossroads Project is a physical manifestation of that. How do you take the most iconic college football stadium in the country and turn it into an asset for our University? We did that, and that’s got to be the mentality.”
Besides its year-round utility, Swarbrick believes the $400 million project has been successful in enhancing the game day experience for both players and fans.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Swarbrick said. “All the choices we made, all the things we did — I love the renovation to the locker room, I love that only we go through our tunnel, I think the scoreboard has enhanced the experience enormously for our fans and our players. Everything about it has improved the experience.”
Concluding his thoughts by looking outward, Swarbrick envisioned how the next five to 10 years might unfold in the world of college athletics, and how Notre Dame will fit into that picture.
“The next five to 10 years are going to be defined largely by external forces,” Swarbrick said. “The national debate about college athletics, the relationship between the student and the University and what that should look like … player compensation, important trends in attendance, the remarkable revolution going on in the communication industry and what that means for the broadcast of athletic events, health and safety issues at the very top of that list, so all those external factors are going to play a big role.
“It is critical for us to participate in that, to try to be a leader and help define what that future is, and whatever it is, to navigate it in a way that allows us to still be Notre Dame … [reflecting] the values of this place and the expectations of our fans and our students.”