SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jack Swarbrick almost didn’t get the chance to interview at Notre Dame.
The Rev. John Jenkins, the university president, thought the school needed an experienced athletic director because the position is complicated by its independence in football, its contract with NBC and its status in college athletics. He also was worried the school’s iconic football program was struggling. He didn’t think a sports law attorney who helped Indianapolis win a chance to host the Super Bowl was worth a serious look.
But during the search for a new AD following the surprise departure of Kevin White to Duke, the name of Swarbrick, a 1976 Notre Dame grad like Jenkins, kept coming up. So Jenkins had dinner with him.
“I remember going into that meeting with skepticism and ending that conversation with enthusiasm that this would be a great athletic director for Notre Dame,” Jenkins said.
Eight years later, Jenkins says he doesn’t believe he could have made a better choice. He is effusive in praise for Swarbrick, the third-longest serving AD in school history behind Moose Krause (1949-81) and Knute Rockne (1920-30).
“I will say he is peerless in understanding the landscape in all dimensions — thinking ahead and thinking in a creative, strategic ways about how to move ahead. That’s served Notre Dame particularly well,” Jenkins said.
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford describes Swarbrick as highly respected in college athletics.
“He doesn’t necessarily say a whole lot,” Swofford said. “Yet I think when he does speak it’s extremely well-reasoned and value-based and in many ways a voice of experience.”
Swarbrick talked at his introductory news conference about massive changes coming for athletics, and the need to navigate the reshaping of conferences and any reformation of the BCS. Those words look prescient.
As the old Big East fell apart, he found a way to keep Notre Dame football independent — a priority for school officials and alumni. While schools scrambled to get into Power Five conferences, he landed the Fighting Irish in the ACC and gained valuable bowl tie-ins. He also made sure the university had a spot on the College Football Playoff board.
The Stanford law school grad also ended Notre Dame’s 17-year relationship with adidas in 2014, signing a 10-year deal with Under Armor worth a reported $90 million. He also came up with an idea that grew into a $400 million construction project that is adding three academic and student life buildings around Notre Dame Stadium , as well as 3,000 seats to the stadium. Despite the protest of some alumni, he approved artificial turf in the revered stadium that next season also will have a video board.
Swarbrick said while he anticipated some of the changes, he didn’t foresee the evolving relationships between universities and its athletes. He points to the NCAA last year allowing “cost of attendance” stipends to help with the actual costs and the plan this year to look at the amount of time athletes spend on sports.
He sees those changes as positives, saying universities must students’ interest in mind. But he worries some want to change the relationship too much, to an employer-employee status. He said that’s something Notre Dame would never accept. He believes many other schools have the same view.
“You may wind up with two different approaches to it. But I believe most of the universities we view as our peer institutions in a host of ways share our view,” he said.
He is concerned about the growing financial divide among college athletic departments that are self-sufficient and those that are subsidized by their universities.
“The tension is going to grow with them,” he said.
Swarbrick also worries that men’s basketball is becoming overexposed with the number of games on television.
“College basketball is a phenomenal game, but we present so much of it. It’s on all the time that the individual contests start to lose their value,” he said. “It shifts all the interest to the postseason.”
He’s also in favor of starting the basketball season in mid-December to make it a one semester sport and at looking at changing how conferences schedule non-revenue sports to cut down on travel by playing schools that are geographically closer.
Critics of Swarbrick will point out that the Irish haven’t won a national championship in football during his tenure, with the last title coming in 1988. Swarbrick said while he wants to see Notre Dame win a national championship in football as well as in every other sport, his main concern is making sure students and coaches have the resources to compete at that level.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly describes Swarbrick as a supportive boss who attends practice regularly and understands the challenges he faces.
“Because he has to eventually be my advocate, whether it be running interference or helping me achieve the goals to keep moving the program forward, he takes the time to do that. He doesn’t do that from his office,” he said. “And then he can articulate that to our administration, our trustees, and that is sometimes hard to do.”
Kelly said Swarbrick takes a collaborative approach.
“He doesn’t have to be the lead singer. He doesn’t have to say this is MY program,” he said. “We’re doing this together. We’re here to win together. He never comes around with the sense of, ‘I’m your boss.’ He’s, ‘We’re here to do this together. What do we need to do?’ It’s disarming from my perspective and allows me to tell him what I think and not feel like I’m talking to my boss.”
Swarbrick, who is 62, said he doesn’t think about how long he will continue.
“Part of me thinks what probably happens is you wake up and you know that’s it,” he said. “So there’s no plan.”