InsideNDSports - Notre Dame ponders big questions regarding its baseball life after Jarrett
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Notre Dame ponders big questions regarding its baseball life after Jarrett

Former Notre Dame head coaches Paul Mainieri and Link Jarrett chat before an Irish baseball game this past season.
Former Notre Dame head coaches Paul Mainieri and Link Jarrett chat before an Irish baseball game this past season. (Notre Dame Athletics)

If you rebuild it, will they come?

The fatalist view, so easy to reach for when the magic stagnates, might say, “Why even bother?”

And Link Jarrett’s confirmation Friday that he was walking away from the Notre Dame baseball head coaching job after three captivating seasons made that even more tempting.

But ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick and the athletic administration owe it to the Irish baseball players, who just shattered a glass ceiling with the program’s third-ever College World Series appearance and an epic Super Regional takedown of No. 1 Tennessee, to get to the bottom of both questions in the coming days.

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In his last public comments before slipping back into a garnet-and-gold mindset and spelling out his vision to nudge Florida State back into an ACC baseball bully, Jarrett in a postgame press conference Tuesday in Omaha, Neb., pondered what an expanded Frank Eck Stadium might do for Notre Dame’s long-term baseball fortunes.

A 2,500-seat facility built in 1994 that drew an average of 589 spectators for 20 home games this past season and topped the 900 mark once.

With a team that lived in the top 25 in the polls all season and spent some time at No. 1.

And with free tickets for every game.

It’s just as important to note, though, that the 2006 Irish — the last in former coach Paul Mainieri’s 12-year run at ND — averaged 2,514 fans per home game when charging for tickets. In a three-game Big East series in April that season against Rutgers — Rutgers — 10,003 fans came through the turnstiles.

Take out an April 23 home date this season against Wake Forest — staged the same day as the Blue-Gold intrasquad football game — and that Rutgers series eclipsed the other 19 home games of this season combined — by 88 fans.

Among the top 25 teams in the Baseball America poll in late May of 2006, the Irish ranked 11th in attendance. Miami, North Carolina, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Oklahoma — the team that knocked Notre Dame into the College World Series losers’ bracket Sunday night — were among the ranked teams the Irish outdrew 16 seasons ago.

Notre Dame baseball had a bonafide star in future Major League pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who also happened to be an All-America wide receiver for the Notre Dame football team and was a natural marketing lightning rod.

The 2006 Irish also weren’t easing out of a truncated (2020) season and pandemic restrictions and concerns that limited attendance in 2021 regular-season home games to a high of 358.

In the bigger picture, in pre-pandemic 2019 only 15 of the nearly 300 Division I baseball teams actually netted more revenue than expenses. One of them was Arkansas, a school with a rich baseball culture and tradition of winning big, but with as many national championships as Notre Dame in baseball — zero.

The Razorbacks’ long-time head coach Dave Van Horn reportedly makes $1.3 million a year.

The point of where Notre Dame goes in its life after Link Jarrett isn’t to recreate Arkansas or Florida State or CWS regular Texas in a northern climate.

It’s to look at the unique way Jarrett brought national-scale success to Notre Dame baseball in a part of the country that lacks other enviable templates and decide if it’s worth committing to that and building upon it for the long term.

It’s not just about finding the right successor to Jarrett. And it’s not just about doing the things that will attract an elite coach to South Bend, Ind., and keeping him here. It’s both. So, is it worth it?

Notre Dame in 2006 promoted future Major League pitcher Jeff Samardzija's two-sport prowess.
Notre Dame in 2006 promoted future Major League pitcher Jeff Samardzija's two-sport prowess. (Notre Dame Athletics)

Lessons Learned

Erik Haag is the 54-year-old president of Quinella Sports and has been around minor league baseball on the business side for most of his adult life. That includes stints with the South Bend franchise (White Sox, Silver Hawks and now Cubs) and most recently the Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders.

He also spent five years with Notre Dame Sports Properties and another year as a consultant dealing with changes in the school’s sports business dealings.

Haag followed the 14 mostly irrelevant seasons that bridged Maineri leaving for LSU after the 2006 season and the arrival of Jarrett ahead of the 13-game 2020 campaign. He’s also noted the ebbs and boons from the pro franchise that plays its home games at Four Winds Field in downtown South Bend, including intermittently as part of its management.

Twice the size and seven years older than Frank Eck Stadium, the facility that opened as Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium was showing its age and attracting small crowds roughly 10 years ago to the point the franchise’s viability was being questioned.

Enter new owner Andrew Berlin, who eight years ago invested $2.5 million in stadium upgrades and made marketing a top priority. In its final year of affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014, the revitalized baseball commodity set a franchise attendance record.

Then it realigned with the Chicago Cubs the next year and rebranded as the South Bend Cubs and set another attendance record in 2015. And another in 2016. And another in 2017 — 5,282 fans per game.

The connection to Notre Dame isn’t a tug of war over a finite number of local baseball fans, but what’s possible when an all-out commitment to excellence is made, not simply dipping a toe in it.

“We never thought of Notre Dame baseball as competition, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Haag said. “Most of their games , unfortunately for them, were in March and April. And our season was just getting started in April. And to be honest, we were just trying to get through April and hope that there wasn’t snow or 30-degree weather or anything like that.

“And so the main focus for our season, once you get past opening day, is really about getting to Memorial Day and then June. July and August for us. The other thing is it’s really two different audiences.

“Notre Dame did very little in promoting the baseball team when I worked there, but what little they did, it was about promoting their players and hopefully getting to the NCAA Tournament, get to Omaha and things like that, where the minor league team is about promoting fun.

“Come on out and hang out at the Tiki Bar. Get a giveaway. See fireworks and do those kinds of things. You’ll have a couple of diehard fans that love baseball and will be attracted because it’s the Cubs' affiliate. But the majority of the fans are there because of the food, the fireworks, the beers and those kinds of things.”

Swarbrick admitted in an interview last month with Inside ND Sports that there were lessons to be learned from the South Bend Cubs.

“I’d like some of their warm-weather dates,” he said with a chuckle. “The college baseball season just doesn’t run that way. And we look at all the things they’ve done to create a family-friendly environment, and that’s a goal of ours: Can we do some things in that area to make it even more family friendly?”

Closer to home, a significant turning point for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and the ND women’s basketball program occurred in 2000, when McGraw decided against filling a new basketball operations position afforded the program with someone with coaching chops and coaching ambition.

Instead she hired an unproven marketing whiz, who had just walked away from coaching herself, and was barely older than then-star point guard Niele Ivey (eventually McGraw’s coaching successor)..

Heather Maxwell helped Notre Dame women’s basketball triple its attendance, eventually producing the program’s first sellout and many others since.

The continued growth under Maxwell’s successor, Stephanie Menio, was multi-tiered. But the secret sauce was building a sense of community, making the program more visible outside of the Joyce Center, and honoring McGraw’s unrelenting belief that they didn’t need to compromise big dreams for the program, on or off the court.

The success on the court began to mirror the gains in interest and then surpass them.

All of this — and the 2006 baseball popularity surge — predates Swarbrick’s arrival as Notre Dame’s athletic director in the summer of 2007. But the lessons haven’t lost their potency with age.

Notre Dame baseball players dogpile after knocking off No. 1 Tennessee earlier this month.
Notre Dame baseball players dogpile after knocking off No. 1 Tennessee earlier this month. (Randy Dartin, Associated Press)

The Bottom Line

Notre Dame has had 25 All-America players in its history. Four came during Link Jarrett’s two full seasons and the truncated 13-game season of 2020 — pitcher Joe Boyle, infielder Niko Kavadas, pitcher Tanner Kohlhepp and pitcher John Michael Bertrand.

That’s one more All-American than Notre Dame produced in the 14 years between the Mainieri and Jarrett regimes — outfielder A.J. Pollock in 2009, third baseman Eric Jagielo in 2013 and first baseman Trey Mancini in 2013.

This spring Jack Findlay became Notre Dame’s first freshman All-American since Mancini in 2011. Bertrand became Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since shortstop Brett Lilley in 2008.

The tradition is waiting to be rebuilt if that’s what Notre Dame decides to do.

The end came for Jarrett in a 5-1 loss Tuesday in Omaha to Texas A&M in a CWS elimination game that looked very little like the 117 Jarrett-coached games that preceded it. Along the way the 2021 Irish (41-17) set single-season records for home runs and pitching strikeouts.

He moves on to alma mater Florida State in his and his wife’s hometown of Tallahassee with the best record by far among ACC teams (86-32, .729) during his short run at Notre Dame and the fifth-best winning percentage nationally.

And he crafted those numbers by coaching 64 percent of his games away from Frank Eck Stadium, and with a .693 winning percentage to boot in those games. Above all he and his players showed what’s possible.

The same players he said goodbye to at an morning meeting on Friday before flying to Tallahassee for his introductory press conference.

“When Florida State came open, I think everybody knew what was going to happen with Link,” Haag said. “It’s a great job and there were all the connections he already had with the place.

“But Notre Dame can be a pretty good job too if Notre Dame is willing to make the commitment to it. They’re never going to draw 10,000 people for games, but Paul Mainieri and Link showed what can happen when you have a guy who knows what he’s doing.

“Now you have to match that with facilities. You can’t sell the weather, but you can sell a great education and the fact that you’re being developed for a chance at the next level. And that’s where all these kids want to end up, right?

“The 2006 season doesn’t have to be an outlier in terms of interest and what Link did doesn’t have to be the end. If they commit to it, they can have success with it. And I think the investment is worth it.”

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