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January 27, 2011

The Swarbrick Interview — Part I

TIM PRISTER: I was going to ask you if your first year-and-a-half on the job as athletics director at Notre Dame has gone fast when I realized it's been two-and-a-half years since you took over for Kevin White. So what has the experience been like so far?
JACK SWARBRICK: You've probably had the same experience where time goes by incredibly quickly, but on the other hand, it seems like you've been doing it forever. So when I think back to when I wasn't doing this, it seems like a decade ago. But in some ways, it seems like we started yesterday.

TP: After decades in a successful law firm and various endeavors in Indianapolis, why was becoming athletics director at your alma mater your career path choice?
JS: It was all about Fr. John (Jenkins). I was somebody who had been in the mix on some conference commissionerships and the NCAA presidency. That's the sort of thing I saw myself doing, maybe being in a professional league office. So when Fr. John called me, I wasn't sure about this. I wasn't sure what I was thinking of doing.

But in the course of a two-hour dinner with him, I was completely sold on wanting to work with him, and I've felt that way ever since. I just think he's an extraordinary leader.

TP: We have a tendency in our business to ask coaches and administrators, 'So what aspects of the job have surprised you?' So I'll revisit that cliché and ask you that question: What aspects of the job have surprised you?
JS: There are always things that surprise you, some good, some challenging. I've been surprised at the amount of time I spend engaging in university administration matters that are unrelated to sport, and that's a good thing because it reflects the integration of athletics into the university in a fulsome (all-encompassing) manner. So that was a surprise from a time allocation perspective.

A fundamental difference between this job and the jobs that I've done in the past is reflective in the scheduling of my time. In my old job, I could schedule the next day or the next week with some confidence.

I've found here that if I schedule more than half of the next day, I'm going to have to change it. So many things come up that I couldn't have anticipated the day before that I have to build my schedule so I've got time to deal with whatever it is, and that's a change from the past.

TP: Was that frustrating for you?
JS: It was. It was very frustrating. I had to learn, 'Okay, I can't do that' as I was driving my assistants nuts saying, 'Re-schedule these three meetings!' So creating windows built-in - where you can deal with what you can't possibly predict is going to come up tomorrow - is part of it.

The other thing that I would mention is that I worked for a new media company, trying to keep myself very tech-current. But until you sit in a position like this, you can't really understand the impact of social media and the Internet. So understanding the implications of that and having to deal with it have been a real surprise.

TP: The negatives that pertain to it? Putting out fires?
JS: Well, you can't (put out fires), and that's been the big lesson for me. It took me a while because I've had to restrain every instinct in my body. When you become aware of something that is wrong, that's in error - especially directed to a student-athlete - my gut tells me to take it on, to challenge it, to right the wrong.

The problem is that if you do that at all, you have to do it every time or somebody says, 'He responded to A and B; he didn't respond to C, so C must be true.' You just can't go down that road. It's just impossible. So you can't respond to anything.

TP: I know that was a concern of yours right after the hiring of Brian Kelly. You talked about the rumors that were out there and how frustrating that was.
JS: Yeah because I was living it, and I knew what I was reading was 100 percent wrong, but there was nothing I could do about it. I'm much more comfortable with that now than I was. But that was a challenge.

TP: What have you learned about where Notre Dame is in the landscape and big picture of intercollegiate athletics?
JS: Well, we continue to play a very important role because of the way we approach intercollegiate athletics. To have the highest percentage of teams with perfect success rates in five out of six years is an unbelievable achievement. You just need one person on a team to not have success and you lose that perfect record. Nineteen of our 22 squads had perfect scores. Of the ones that didn't, football was No. 1, hockey was No. 2, and in men's tennis, one guy didn't make it, so it impacted the percentage significantly.

So we continue to play a really important role in the future of collegiate athletics and the model for collegiate athletics, proving that you can approach it the way we do and still be successful on the field.

TP: So when Notre Dame walks in the door, they still command the respect and carry as much prestige as ever before?
JS: Yeah, although it depends on the door you're walking into. But there's still that respect.

I think the story in college athletics in the 2010-11 year is Stanford. For Stanford to finish third in the country in football is phenomenal. It's a great thing. Nothing could be better for Notre Dame. Frankly, I think it's been lost a little bit that they accomplished that.

We want to do that too. I have confidence we're on the path to get there. But college athletics is at its best when Stanford and Notre Dame and Duke and Northwestern and Wake Forest and on and on can prove that we can do what we're doing academically and also compete for national championships.

TP: It was a little less than a year ago when we were in New York for the Big East basketball tournament when the talk of Notre Dame's independence and the potential for a real shakeup in the conferences reached a crescendo. That, of course, died down shortly thereafter when there wasn't the extent of the movement in the conferences that we anticipated. But that hasn't just gone away. That's still on the front burner, or has it moved to the back burner?
JS: I think it's in a period of calm. Relative calm. But you're right. It hasn't gone away. All the factors that contributed to it are still alive. Things happened over time that changed the dynamics.

No one talks about a Big Ten school going anywhere else because the Big Ten network creates such a cohesive entity that they won't (leave). The Pac 10 is going to build its network. I think it will be successful and that will have the same dynamic. So you get pieces that are pretty locked down and secure for a while. But there will be more change. It's inevitable.

We were really happy with the outcome. We had two clear goals throughout. One was to maintain our football independence and the other was to help make the Big East the best conference it could possibly be because it's such a good home for us.

TP: On a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the greatest concern, how concerned were you that Notre Dame was not going to be able to remain an independent in football?
JS: It's hard to quantify because it moved so much over time. We were really focused on making sure that we were engaged in a way that we knew what was going on out there (by) talking to our peers. Fr. John was talking to university presidents and I was talking to university ADs and conference commissioners, really trying to understand the landscape.

So I guess the bottom line is I think if we did anything well, we did a really good job of staying informed, and because we were so well informed, I felt pretty confident the whole time that it was going to work out.

TP: What about the future? Obviously, you have to be ready. You say it has calmed down. But I would imagine you have to be prepared to deal with varying circumstances at any time or on short notice.
JS: Sure, there are certain things that are constants in what I do with my day, and elements of that is one of them, and it can manifest itself in a hundred different ways. One of them - especially with Fr. John's leadership as chair of the Big East presidents - is making sure that we are providing any support we can to the Big East as it considers its options. (Big East commissioner) John Marinatto is pretty clear that there are some additional opportunities for growth in the Big East after TCU came in.

But it manifests itself in a host of ways. It seems likely that the Big Ten will form its own hockey league. We're going to have to be engaged in making sure we're a player in defining how that impacts college hockey.

TP: (smiling) You didn't want to be the guy that was AD at Notre Dame when it lost its independence, did you, whether you were painted into a corner or not.
JS: (laughing) I know you won't believe this, but it's a little like when I hired Brian (Kelly). People were saying during that process, 'This hire will define Swarbrick's legacy.' The same thing was said about independence.

I'm pretty secure in what I've done and what my relationship is here. If the best result for Notre Dame as a university - not as an athletics department but as a university - took us elsewhere, I wouldn't have had any trouble with that. You just have to look at this from the broad perspective of the university.

People would be amazed that as we were talking internally how little time we spent on an athletics approach to it. Why are we independent? What is the value of independence to us beyond the traditional value? Its principle value is to the broader university, promoting Notre Dame, playing all around the country.

For anybody who was in New York this year at that (Army) game, that's the power of Notre Dame. Those are the reasons to keep (our independence) because we still think it plays a really important role in the university.

TP: It was like a celebration of Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium.
JS: You know, I was optimistic about it. But it far exceeded my expectations because you never know if you're going to penetrate New York. I've done a lot of events in New York that haven't gotten any traction. I told some people that the challenge of taking an event there is that you can do everything right and if A Rod or Derek have a bad date the night before, you're off the sports pages.

But we did it, and Midtown on game day was like our campus. Times Square, St. Patrick's Cathedral…all Notre Dame. I just thought that was so amazing. Riding the subway up to the stadium…It was a special, special experience, and it's leveraging football to have that Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, to do the educational seminar we did there, and to do a social service project. That's what makes it work.

TP: So clearly, you guys are going back to Yankee Stadium to play football, right?
JS: Oh, we'll go back at some point. I think you want to keep it special. We've got Washington this year. We have Chicago the year after that and then Dallas. We're working on the next three. So we don't want to wait too long, but we won't be back right away. And we'll be in New York regularly. Our series with Syracuse, they're taking the home games to the Meadowlands. Navy may take us back to the Meadowlands. So we'll be there.

TP: It's been a good year for Notre Dame athletics in general.
JS: Our three principle winter sports (men's basketball, women's basketball and hockey) are all ranked in the top 15 in the country. We won the women's soccer championship. We're going to have a real shot at the fencing championship. We were one stunning play away from winning the (men's) lacrosse championship…

I'm a big believer that successful programs impact other programs because student-athletes are around each other. It changes the perception of what's possible. It changes their perception of how hard they have to work. In athletic departments in college sports, success begets success.

TP: Stanford is living proof of that.
JS: Yeah, they're the quintessential example. You talk to their kids and you hear that all the time. It's the atmosphere. It's everybody. Half the kids around here are on an Olympic (sports) team. I think we're building that and you can feel it. You can't be around that women's soccer team and not have a sense for what it takes. Boy, were they locked in and focused.

TP: So how long do you want to do this?
JS: I take it day to day. I love it. It's the best job in the world. It's the best job in the world because if you have a bad day, I just go to practice and hang around those student-athletes and those coaches. It is the salve on any wound, and as long as I've added some success and as long as I can play a role in implementing Fr. John's vision for this university, I can't imagine doing anything else.

TP: I would imagine being around intercollegiate athletics keeps you feeling younger than you would feel if you were still in the business world in Indianapolis.
JS: (laughing) I'm not sure about that. It's a daily reminder of what you're not -you're not in shape, you're not young any more…I hurt my knee. I tore my meniscus. Dr. (Fred) Ferlic said, 'Well, if you were an athlete, we'd do this.' It felt so bad to hear him say that. It was an accurate statement, but I just felt like, 'Oh, come on! You didn't have to say that!'

TP: Did you know (legendary Notre Dame athlete and athletic director) Moose Krause?
JS: I won't tell you I knew him well, but I had an opportunity to get to know him. He was such a visible guy and around so much. I remember a couple of encounters with him. So many coaches and ADs here at Notre Dame were legendary guys. A lot of very good guys have sat in this chair.

But I continue to believe that the one that was irreplaceable was Jesse Harper because he figured the thing out, and Notre Dame wouldn't be Notre Dame without him.

His vision of what this could be - his willingness to do something that nobody else in college athletics was doing - defined Notre Dame. Nobody knew who Notre Dame was in 1913, and then in that year when Jesse became the AD and head football coach…You know, he's still the only football coach in Notre Dame history to win every football game in his first year.

TP: Knute Rockne gets the credit, but Jesse Harper's role was significant.
JS: And Rockne said it. You couldn't have two more different human beings. You've got a guy (Harper) with a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago and you've got Knute. One was the ultimate self-promoter and the other was a professor in his approach to life.

But Rockne said that he hoped when he was gone that everyone remembered that it was Jesse's system. The school was losing money. It just didn't have any assets. We were boycotted by our natural opponents. They wouldn't play us.

It's my perspective that 99 out of 100 people who stepped into that role managed on the margins. We would play Wabash and we could spend a little less money and make it work. Jesse did just the opposite. He said, 'You know what? There's no margin for us to try to do this the way everyone else is doing it. So let's do it completely different.'

He was the first coach to schedule nationally. In 27 days, Notre Dame played Army at Army, Texas at Texas, Penn State at Penn State, and Christian Brothers, then a powerhouse, in Memphis. They obviously had a different missed class policy back then.

But in that 1913 game (against Army), Jesse Harper understood the power of New York. He understood that Army was Army and he went and played them, and unleashed the forward pass. That's when Notre Dame became Notre Dame.


(Editor's note: Part II of the Jack Swarbrick interview pertains to the Notre Dame men's basketball program and its head coach, Mike Brey. Part III will focus on the firing of Charlie Weis, the hiring of Brian Kelly, the reasons for his hiring, Kelly's first season at Notre Dame, the Declan Sullivan tragedy, and the future of Notre Dame football under Kelly.)







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