For Jack Swarbrick, Season Opener A Momentary Sigh Of Relief
Jack Swarbrick surprised even himself Saturday when his found gameday emotions topping the raw euphoria from eight years ago immediately after Notre Dame’s walk-off goal-line stand against Stanford.
That October 2012 afternoon wasn’t even bested by a more enthralling game. Notre Dame beat Duke 27-13 Saturday in a mundane season-opener. Rather, the presence of a game itself triggered a moment of pride and relief. In his eyes, it was resilience embodied by the athletic department he oversees.
“Pregame this was the most emotional,” Swarbrick said Tuesday on Packer And Durham. “It was six months to the day since we shut down our athletics program in March. What everyone had to do to get us in a position – student-athletes, coaches, staff, volunteers – to not only play, but invite students, faculty and staff into the stadium was such an effort.”
Six months prior, the possibility of a game was unknown. A month prior, it felt unlikely. But Saturday, there was a socially distant crowd of 10,097 students, faculty, staff and player families watching the Irish open a certain circus of a season as the only college football game within 261 miles.
A feeling of accomplishment was warranted. But just for a minute. This 2020 season can make fools out of those who assume too much or who think reaching the starting line means they’ve crossed the finish line with COVID-19 problems too. The ACC, Notre Dame’s temporary home this year, has already had two games postponed due to COVID-19 issues with one of the teams involved.
“We have to manage expectations,” Swarbrick said. “I don’t think there’s any point in time where you say, ‘We’re past this. It’s over.‘ We’re going to have games canceled, have interruptions. We understood that when we headed down this path.”
Notre Dame’s own practice and safety protocols will get their first in-season test now that two players tested positive sometime last week (likely since Friday) and two others were quarantined due to contact tracing. Swarbrick’s sense of achievement in getting to the start would also unravel if issues among the student body are traced to the game. Saturday brings round two, when Notre Dame hosts South Florida, and four more home games are scheduled after that.
A government decree issued due to worsening trends could also influence the status of games in certain states or involving certain teams, though Swarbrick’s close eye on the national picture has made him optimistic that won’t happen.
“The first thing I do each morning is read The New York Times summary of where we are as a nation in cases,” Swarbrick said. “That’s encouraging. Every college has had the same experience. It has a significant spike in the number of cases when it first returns. It has to manage that.”
Notre Dame’s cases sure did spike. In-person classes were suspended for two weeks on Aug. 17 due to three straight days of at least 80 new cases. They resumed Sept. 2, as planned, when cases lowered to around 10 per day for a week. Only once since Sept. 1 has the school reported more than 10 new cases in a day.
Notre Dame unveiled its return-to-school plan for this fall in May and stuck to it after the outbreak. It brought the football team back in mid-June, and agreed to join the ACC for this season after the schedule took a hit with the Big Ten and Pac-12’s move to conference-only games before they canceled their seasons. When those cancellations rolled in, the ACC held firm.
All told, the school had a steadfast commitment to maintaining the basic structure and activity of a fall semester. Before the season-opener, ESPN’s College GameDay ran a video thanking Notre Dame for “saving college football.”
Swarbrick won’t go that far.
But he felt the eyes on his department and the school.
“We played a role,” Swarbrick said. “I had a reporter call me one day and he said to me, ‘I’ve just talked to eight head coaches and ADs. When I asked them what would happen with the season, seven of the eight said it depends on what Notre Dame does.’ So I don’t think we saved the season, but I think a lot of people were looking to us to see how a school that’s a top-15 U.S. News and World Report institution to whom football is extremely important, how they’d do this and move forward.”
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