Sept. 17, 2014
Wander into the office of University of Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, and you’ll notice five similar-sized, framed photographs on the far wall behind his desk.
At first glance, they mostly appear to be scenes from the Notre Dame campus.
There’s an image of Irish men’s soccer coach Bobby Clark holding the 2013 NCAA Championship trophy won by his Irish.
There’s a shot of the Tom Dooley sculpture at the Grotto. (A famed doctor, humanitarian and political activist, Dooley attended Notre Dame in the 1940s and wrote a poignant letter expressing his feelings about Notre Dame to then-University president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., shortly before Dooley’s 1961 death. That letter is also on display at the Grotto.)
In the middle is a photo of President Barack Obama greeting graduating members of the Irish football squad in 2009 when Obama was the Notre Dame commencement speaker.
There’s a shot of the Golden Dome along with the sculpture of Christ with his arms raised.
Finally, on the far right, there’s an image that shows the tunnel leading from the Notre Dame football locker room to the Notre Dame Stadium field, with the Play Like A Champion Today sign and the list of 11 consensus football national championships prominently displayed.
At first glance, there might not appear to be any particular meaning behind the series of images.
However, spend any time with Swarbrick and you’ll understand they are not there by accident. In fact, the photographs represent the core values that Swarbrick has identified as the mission of the Notre Dame athletics program.
Here they are:
* Excellence (represented by the photo of Clark): That one reflects the University’s commitment to excellence in the way it competes.
“Notre Dame is all about excellence,” says Swarbrick. “It’s reflected in the physical campus, the quality of the academic programs and the performances of our athletic teams. This is at the core of (University founder and former president) Father (Edward) Sorin’s legacy and (University president) Father (John) Jenkins’ directive that we `let no one ever again say that we dreamed too small.’
“You can’t achieve excellence if you are reluctant to articulate and adopt clear expressions of that goal. For athletics it is all about approaching each season in every sport with the goal of winning national championships. Team championships and individual championships, championships won in the competitive arena and in the classroom (as reflected by our national rankings in the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate and Academic Progress Rate figures), and individual representations of greatness from Heisman Trophies to All-America designation–our commitment to competitive excellence takes many forms.”
* Community (represented by the Dooley sculpture): It indicates that athletics will contribute to the fabric of the Notre Dame family by using sports as a vehicle to serve others, celebrate the University and promote the health and welfare of members of the community.
“Other universities may talk about community, but there is nothing like the Notre Dame family. The image reflects my favorite place on campus. Tom Dooley’s letter is a remarkable expression of faith–and I love the fact he wants to be back here one more time. He wants to touch and feel the Notre Dame community and connect to it one last time in a very tangible way. That expression of community, for me, is really powerful,” Swarbrick says.
* Education (represented by the commencement image): That displays Notre Dame’s commitment to offer an unsurpassed undergraduate education by ensuring the athletics experience is an integral part of the education of each student-athlete.
“Our commitment to education in the classroom is self-evident, and yet I think it is so very important to articulate that our commitment extends to the education that takes place through sport. Of all the things we do, this ranks first–making sure our coaches and student-athletes understand that what we do in terms of athletics is fundamentally about educating young people through the lessons we teach every day in practice and during competition,” Swarbrick says.
* Faith (the Dome): The athletics department will always make sure that the University’s Catholic character informs all that it does and is reflected in a commitment to integrity, fair play and sportsmanship.
“Our Catholic faith is central to who we are and is represented in our pre- and post-game team prayers, our integration of the members of the religious community into our program, and the team masses,” says Swarbrick. “But, as importantly, it is reflected in the `faith’ that teammates must have in each other in order to succeed and the respect we must have for our opponents if we are to effectively demonstrate the values of Notre Dame. In essence it is about recognizing the image of God in others.”
* Tradition (the PLACT sign): It suggests the Irish athletic staff will honor, celebrate and be guided by the unique tradition that is such an important part of Notre Dame and its storied athletics program.
“I’ve always appreciated the enormous asset that tradition is at Notre Dame, and yet I’ve come to better understand in some ways it can also be an obstacle. The value is in making sure we are protecting and honoring the great traditions. To do that effectively, however, we must avoid the temptation to call everything a tradition, while also allowing each generation the chance to create its own traditions,” Swarbrick says.
The images are changed from time to time as new scenes (like the one representing Notre Dame’s most recent national title, in men’s soccer in 2013) replace others. Stop by Swarbrick’s box at Notre Dame Stadium and you’ll find the same five pillars represented in photos, along with a framed explanation of them. That’s how much they mean to Notre Dame’s director of athletics.
“It was an interesting process to come up with these, because our staff members, coaches and student-athletes were actually participating. When I first got to Notre Dame I visited with the senior staff group and talked to them about what they did, just to better understand the operation. I was literally making notes about the things I heard repeatedly.
“It was part of a discovery process for me the first six months I was here, including conversations with the members of the athletic family. What’s our culture? What were people identifying as the key things that define who we are? I didn’t want to sit down and ask people what the culture was–I wanted to hear what language people used. “These were the five things that kept re-occurring in those conversations. So we use those five values to build our strategic process.
“The interesting thing is that their meaning has evolved for me over the last six years–and that evolution never ends. You re-evaluate the values and rearticulate them and try and connect them to our current experiences.
“Enterprise cultures are dynamic things–they are living organisms. If you don’t cultivate them they lose their vibrancy. But, if you do, they keep evolving.”
The five pillars aren’t the sort of values that smack first-timers in the forehead when they come to Notre Dame. But, over time, their representations slowly but surely have washed over the Irish athletics staff in such a way that–just as Swarbrick had hoped–they inform, in some substantial way, decisions and strategy being crafted from one day to the next.
For Swarbrick, those five core values explain why athletics exist at Notre Dame–and they provide an ongoing blueprint for the staff to map out a game plan.
Notre Dame’s athletics director always has a new anecdote that helps explain why the pillars make sense. Maybe his favorite of late came last spring after Irish junior Emma Reaney set an American record in winning an NCAA title in the 200 breaststroke. Seconds after the race ended, while being interviewed for television, Reaney beamed and gushed about Notre Dame, saying, “I wish I could explain how proud I am to do this for Notre Dame. I’m obsessed with my school.”
Reaney had reached a milestone few ever achieve (and no previous Notre Dame swimmer ever had), but in that moment of triumph her thoughts were not of the extraordinary effort and sacrifice she made, but rather how her university and all it represents were central to her achievement.
For Swarbrick, that represented just one more not-so-subtle reminder that those five values could all come to fruition in ever-meaningful ways.