March 11, 2018
By John Heisler
There are planes, trains and automobiles, of course.
And there are meetings, menus, practice times and maybe even a subway ride or two.
That’s the life of anyone in the operations role for athletic teams at the University of Notre Dame.
Former Irish men’s basketball player Harold Swanagan is in his ninth year of handling that myriad of details for Mike Brey’s squad.
It’s about being “on call” on virtually a 24-hour-a-day basis — and it’s sometimes about updating travel arrangements on the fly.
For Swanagan and his counterparts (most Irish squads have an operations position, other than smaller squad size teams such as golf, tennis and volleyball) it’s a way of life.
Swanagan’s job planning Irish road trips begins the moment the schedule becomes official in late summer. He works to arrange flights, buses, hotels and all the other details for every Notre Dame travel assignment.
For last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in Brooklyn, the challenge involved not knowing exactly when the Irish might play their first game.
“We didn’t know what seed we were going to be. So we didn’t hammer out exactly when we would leave until later the previous week,” says Swanagan.
“One of our student managers planned out an itinerary for three different seeds, whether our first game was Tuesday or Wednesday, during the day or at night.”
Next Swanagan called John Jay College (on West 59th Street, about a mile from Notre Dame’s Times Square headquarters hotel) to let the staff there know requested practice times.
“We let the hotel know when we would be there to check in. Schedule all meal times and departure times with buses. It’s logistically a little crazy,” he says.
Irish teams are helped by their Teamworks app which provides all members of traveling parties instant updates on schedules.
Says Swanagan, “That helps a ton because it gives everybody an instant look at what the day is going to be without having to send everyone an email or text. We can communicate with the band, cheerleaders and even our bus driver.”
The biggest wild card for the Irish last week involved traffic in New York and Brooklyn.
Brey’s squad stayed in midtown Manhattan when it won a pair of NCAA games at the Barclays Center two years ago, so the Irish head coach had no interest in another property.
“We left three hours before tip-off because I’m nervous we’ll get stuck in traffic,” says Swanagan. “It should only take 45 minutes to get there, but you don’t know.”
Heavy snow hit the New York area Wednesday, which might have made the journey to Brooklyn more complicated than normal for the second-round Irish tournament contest against Virginia Tech. As it turned out the Notre Dame bus made the trip 10 minutes faster than usual because severe weather warnings made for so little actual traffic on the road.
Ironically, Swanagan recalls his most complicated bus trip coming in, of all places, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“It was our second year in the ACC and our first time down there on a weekday,” he says. “It was 15 minutes to the Smith Center from our hotel, but I did not know the road during rush hour was going to be ridiculously crowded.
“We were leaving an hour and 45 minutes before the game, and we should have been there in plenty of time. Then I see this long line of cars and I know we’re in trouble. Fortunately, the police controlled the lights and we got through, but we still only got there 75 minutes before tipoff–which is a little tight. So no matter what happens, you still don’t always know.”
The best-case scenario for Swanagan is when there are no issues:
“No hiccups? That’s good. I work for one of the best guys in the country. He’s laid back and he doesn’t get riled up about much of anything.”
Swanagan has been around long enough to have a good sense for what Brey wants to do.
“I have a feel for where we like to stay in terms of hotels. I’ll run things by him, just in case based on his schedule he needs to be back for something else.”
When Swanagan started he also handled all the Irish video work — that job now belongs to former Irish point guard Eric Atkins. Swanagan also has solid help from the Notre Dame student managers.
“Our managers’ program is almost like an internship when it comes to learning how the business runs,” Swanagan says.
He estimates that 90 percent of arrangements can be made long in advance:
“Then the week of the game you nail down exact times of travel and the practice schedule on the road.”
Swanagan also plays a major role in running Irish men’s basketball summer camps, handling the hiring process for everyone working and doing all the day-to-day scheduling.
“Then once the camp starts it runs itself,” he says.
NCAA rules prevent Swanagan from coaching on the court or from recruiting. But as a former player from the beginning of the Brey era, he is well-equipped to provide potential student-athletes with his take on the culture of the Irish program.
“My biggest part is to help them understand what this place is all about. I’ve been here the longest, I went to school here,” he says.
Swanagan understands the nature of his role features availability.
“It’s a 24-hour job,” he says. “My wife says, ‘Why don’t you ever turn off your phone?’ Because you never know what’s going to happen.”
When the postseason arrives, the Irish staff must respond quickly.
“We go into the bunker, create the game plan for team and coaches. We deal with flights, hotels. We’ve already got a template for meals,” Swanagan says.
“You get all that done on Monday and Tuesday and then you make adjustments down the road and fine-tune it.
“I just need the time of the game and the time of a shoot-around, and I can put it together quickly.”
Notre Dame’s trip to the Maui Invitational in November was a bit more complicated because the Irish travel party flew commercial. Mechanical issues for the flight home prompted some late changes, but the long Thanksgiving weekend helped eliminate some of the potential stress.
Swanagan, a forward on the Notre Dame basketball team from 1998-02, previously served as the athletic department’s coordinator of student welfare and development from 2005-09.
A four-year monogram winner, Swanagan, who served as a tri-captain for the Irish during his senior season in 2001-02, played professionally in Europe for two seasons — one in Nicosia, Cyprus, and one in Autun, France.
In his senior season (2001-02) with the Irish, he averaged career bests of 8.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while leading the Irish to a 22-11 record (10-6 in BIG EAST play) and their second consecutive trip to the second round of the NCAA Championship.
Swanagan, in his spare time, earned a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in educational leadership from Indiana University-South Bend in May 2009. His wife, Andrea, is a strategic planning program director in Notre Dame’s Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Research.
Swanagan was already on the Irish roster when Brey was hired in 2000 — and Notre Dame’s head coach remembers the team-first attitude displayed by one of his veterans. Swanagan is now one of four former Brey-coached Irish players on the Notre Dame staff, joining Atkins plus full-time assistant coaches Ryan Humphrey and Ryan Ayers.
Says Brey, “Swan was the ultimate rock for us, and he was a real believer right away. One of my biggest worries that first year was that Ryan Humphrey was now eligible but Harold had been starting. I probably lost sleep for a couple of nights trying to figure out how to approach Swan about starting Hump. So I grabbed him outside the training room when our first exhibition game was three days away.
“I said, ‘Hey, Swan, I just want to talk to you.’ I said, ‘I’m going to start Hump, with Troy (Murphy) inside.’ And he cuts me off and goes, ‘Coach, whatever you need me to do, man, I’m there.’
“And I hadn’t earned that with him yet, and that’s why he’s always been very special to me.
“I’m thrilled that he’s back with me now.”
Planes, trains, automobiles and a whole lot more.
Swanagan keeps a handle on it all.