Oct. 27, 2011
By John Heisler
Somewhere in between phone calls (and more cell phone calls), texts, e-mails, meetings, scheduling, strategy, the BIG EAST Conference, the BCS and monitoring the ever-changing conference realignment comes the real meat and potatoes of Jack Swarbrick’s job as vice president and director of athletics at the University of Notre Dame.
It’s all about positioning 26 varsity sports to win championships – preferably of the NCAA variety, with BIG EAST Conference versions also encouraged.
It sounds so simple.
Recruit the very best student-athletes you can, roll out the balls, invite the fans – and tell all those respective coaches to win games.
In reality, it’s a more complicated process that, at Notre Dame, has involved several decades of decisions to upsize those programs. Not so long ago, a great many of Notre Dame’s so-called Olympic sports had little to no scholarship help.
Beginning with Gene Corrigan in the early 1980s and extending through the tenures of Dick Rosenthal, Mike Wadsworth and Kevin White, the Irish programs slowly but surely grew in stature. They added scholarships, coaches and dollars for recruiting and travel budgets. By the mid-2000s, all 26 sports benefited from the full NCAA allotments of scholarships.
But, as former Irish football coach Lou Holtz used to say, “The other teams give scholarships, too.”
So, with dozens of NCAA Division I programs all attempting to win those same championships in their own ways, with their own resources, on their own campuses – the challenge for Swarbrick became how best to position the 13 Irish men’s sports and 13 women’s programs.
“When you look at our roster of head coaches, we have eight who have been at Notre Dame at least two decades,” says Swarbrick. “So we’ve got plenty of experience and longevity in terms of coaches who haven’t needed a campus map for a long time. They’ve been around their sports for a long time, they’ve been around Notre Dame for a long time, and that gives them a very solid perspective on what their individual sports require for success.” One Swarbrick wrinkle involves the use of various athletics staff members to assist in the administration of the 26 sports. He inherited an aspect of that program, as he understood — like his predecessors — that his schedule makes it impossible to deal with 26 head coaches lined up at the office door at eight o’clock every Monday morning.
So Swarbrick took the sport administration program and upsized it. Where in previous years several senior staffers had responsibility for multiple sports, Swarbrick spread out that responsibility so no one had more than a single sport. That gave more people the experience of working with a sport and ensured that each head coach received an administrator’s full attention.
The intent is for the administrator to help eliminate red tape and to, in effect, be Swarbrick’s and the department’s eyes and ears when Notre Dame’s athletics director obviously can’t attend every practice and every game in every sport. Swarbrick also formalized the administrative assignments, creating training sessions for the sport administrators and scheduling regular meetings for sharing of information in that regard.
He offered his own list of a dozen key guiding items for sport administrators to consider – everything from “Understand Your Head Coach’s Expectations” to “Engage Your Industry” to “Know How to Navigate the Available Resources” to “Master the Ciller `C’s – Communication, Creativity and Character.”
“Like with our coaching roster, we also benefit from a great legacy of administrative experience,” says Swarbrick. “People like (senior deputy athletics director) Missy Conboy, who played basketball here, and (deputy athletics director) Bill Scholl have been around Notre Dame for most of their careers, and that’s a huge benefit in terms of understanding the institutional athletic culture here and how it translates on the national stage.”
To make sure that every sport is addressed on an annual basis, Swarbrick schedules yearly out-of-season meetings with each head coach and that sport’s administrator. Each sport has its own notebook — loaded with facts and figures on everything from recruiting, to academics, to wins and losses, to community involvement.
The intent is to sit down with each sport, evaluate all the pluses and minuses, and determine, at least from the viewpoint of that head coach, what it takes to win a championship in that particular sport. Then it becomes a matter of determining what (additional) resources can be made available to make that dream come true.
“I think it’s crucially important for each head coach and each sport administrator to spend quality time being more strategic about what we’re doing with their sport,” says Swarbrick.
“We all have a tendency to become wrapped up in the day-to-day minutiae of what we do, and yet we need to focus on finding time to take a few steps back to look at what’s going on and what we can do to better marshal all the resources we have in the best ways possible.”
Other Swarbrick decisions have been more subtle but also have been designed to give all Irish sports better chances for big-picture success: — Early on he created a sport performance team designed to better integrate the various administrative areas — such as athletic training and strength and conditioning – that specifically impact the performances of student-athletes. — He noted the absence of any video production facilities on campus, and quickly established a goal of upsizing both the production and distribution areas when it comes to offering video content involving Notre Dame athletics. — He pushed the Notre Dame Monogram Club to find more and better ways to recognize and engage former Irish student-athletes in an effort to create more and better long-term connections between the current sports programs and some of their long-ago alumni.
He also embraced a particularly aggressive decade in the facilities department – with new, top-flight stadia coming online in lacrosse, soccer and hockey just since Swarbrick came on board in the summer of 2008. Notre Dame athletics is now in the process of creating another facilities master plan that will address future needs in that category for another decade to come.
“It’s safe to say that facilities, all by itself, is a category that requires constant attention,” says Swarbrick.
“We’re always looking at what we need to do in terms of upgrades and improvements, and the challenge is to be able to anticipate those from a budgeting standpoint in an economy that we have to assume will continue to be challenging.”
Often the difference between winning a title and not is not something you can wrap your arms around. In that regard, Swarbrick benefitted from his years in Indianapolis working in and around a number of the Olympic sport programs – where they are competing against the best in the world in terms of trying to gain a sliver of an advantage in training or competition.
The Irish are consistent national contenders in fencing – yet the difference in finishing first as opposed to fourth can be a touch here and a touch there. In women’s soccer, a number-one ranking hasn’t necessarily presaged an NCAA title – considering the 2010 Irish squad accomplished the latter despite receiving an characteristic number-four seeding, meaning the experts evaluated Notre Dame coming in as being only the 13th-16th-best team in the country. On more than one occasion, the underdog mentality has proven a boon for Irish title bids.
The Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team took Duke to overtime in the 2010 NCAA title game, then lost its bid on a five-second dash to the goal by the Blue Devils’ faceoff man.
“We’ve won national championships in eight different sports, and we aren’t interested in stopping there,” says Swarbrick.
“As administrators, we aren’t going to be the ones to play or coach. So our roles are to determine other areas where we can make a contribution.”
Irish sport administrators also sit down with all graduating student-athletes to ask them what the University and the athletics department can do better.
“I don’t think our business has ever been more competitive,” says Swarbrick.
“One of our head coaches recently talked about one of his colleagues whose motto was to win at something every day.
“That’s the mindset, and we’ve got a lot of people working 365 days a year within their sport at Notre Dame to turn all that into something special at the end of the season.”
Next: Part 6 – Digital Video: How It Impacts Notre Dame’s Athletics Future