Dec. 19, 2000
by Ken Kleppel
In only his third year at Notre Dame, junior Harold Swanagan has just about seen everything.
A prized recruit upon his arrival in 1998-99, it has been one step at a time for Swanagan. He first became a surging role player, then turned into season-long starter and is finally a seasoned veteran, who is making his biggest impact coming off the bench.
Whew! A long journey traveled during his time at Notre Dame, but just talk to Swanagan and the fan favorite is likely to shrug it all off with a smile. The forward naturally points to his teammates as making all the difference.
“It’s a family thing for us. Everybody has been there for each other. Troy (Murphy), Dave (Graves) and I have become closer in these three years. With Ryan Humphrey coming in, we’re getting closer to him too. The team is just getting together right now. If one person is in trouble, everybody is in trouble. If one person is in a fight, then everybody is in a fight. That’s how we look at it. We are always together through the good and the bad,” Swanagan says.
According to junior forward Graves, Swanagan’s role in this family is a critical one.
“I think Harold is the biggest key on our team. He’s the guy that gets the trashy rebounds, the dirty points and screens for us to get people open. That is so valuable on the floor and is hard to replace. Harold understands his role and he plays it better than anyone else I have ever seen.”
“I’m just competitive as a person and as a player,” responds Swanagan.
“If the team isn’t going right, I come in and try to do what I can to get the team back on track. I am just a do-everything guy. I try to do what nobody else wants to do – take charges, play defense, rebound when they need me to rebound or score when they need me to score.”
Characterized by this unselfish attitude and blue-collar approach, his aggressive and in-your-face style around the basket has provided a physical presence as both a rebounder and scorer that perfectly complement Murphy’s play in the Irish front court. Murphy, the BIG EAST Player of the Year, is the first to step in line and point it out.
“I relish the chance to play with Harold,” says Murphy.
“He’s a great friend, a great person and a great player. His role changes and he just goes out and plays as hard as he can. He can adjust to any type of game situation – he can play fast and slow, can set screens and get people open. Anything you need, Harold brings to the table. He really is an unsung hero for this team.”
“I am a fit-in player and try to fit in where I belong. We have a lot of good players on our team, ” says Swanagan modestly.
“I guess my niche is to make everybody else better by playing hard.”
Swanagan’s role was immediately defined just weeks into the 1998-99 season and has evolved ever since.
As a freshman, Swanagan notched his first career start against Seton Hall and scored a career-high 22 points and 15 rebounds in place of an injured Murphy. He provided an instant impact off the bench just weeks into his career, scoring in double figures against both top-ranked Duke and nationally-ranked Indiana in November, and added 15 more points against eventual national champion Connecticut in January. Averaging just less than seven minutes a game the first three contests of the season, Swanagan would average over 17 minutes per game throughout the remainder of the year appearing in 29 of 30 contests.
Swanagan continued this transition into the 1999-2000 campaign. Averaging 6.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and just over 22 minutes per game last season, Swanagan started all but four of the team’s 37 games and quickly emerged into the spotlight.
Swanagan expects to keep going forward as new head coach Mike Brey takes over the Irish program.
The relationship with Brey has been perfect from the start. Swanagan quickly discovered Brey’s vision to be a subtle reflection of the squad’s bustling optimism.
“He is a great person on and off the court. He is easy to talk to and everybody likes him. He’s had our respect from the beginning,” Swanagan says.
“He didn’t come in telling us what he was going to do. He asked us what he thought we could do as a team and what our strengths and weaknesses were. He basically told us to work on our strengths and weaknesses and he would see us when practice starts.”
Playing against Swanagan in a high school tournament, and now alongside him at Notre Dame, senior forward Humphrey offers a unique take on the Kentucky native.
“I knew Harold from playing against him in high school and found out that he is a big, burly guy that can jump,” Humphrey says while flashing his big smile.
“Harold comes off the bench and gives us a spark. But in actuality we have six starters today. He comes in and sets a monster screen when you need it. When you’re open, you know who set the screen – it’s Harold.
While attending University Heights Academy in his native Hopkinsville, Ky., Swanagan averaged over 21 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks per game as a senior. He was Kentucky’s leader in field-goal percentage and captained his team to the Class A state tournament, earning Most Valuable honors and shattering a backboard in the process.
But as Swanagan has discovered, small-town Hopkinsville, near the Tennessee border, is certainly no match for the bright lights of the Big Apple.
Playing at Madison Square Garden twice in each the 1999 Preseason and 2000 Postseason National Invitation Tournament, as well as in the 2000 BIG EAST Conference Tournament, Swanagan and the Irish ventured into New York City three times throughout the 1999-2000 campaign.
“I think getting to play in New York and getting to see the big city have been a few of my top moments. I always wanted to go to New York. That was a big thing for me growing up. I think this upcoming year playing in Rupp Arena against Kentucky will be a big moment too.”
Swanagan’s favorite part of the game reflects his competitive nature.
“Traveling to different places and playing against those big crowds and making those crowds upset when we beat the home team is just great. The home crowds the last couple years have been great to us at Notre Dame, and we have even received a lot of that Notre Dame support when we travel too. But there is something about going in against a team, having their hopes up real high, and just breaking their spirit. Being the competitive person that I am I want to go there and do all I can to achieve that goal.”
Causing fits in the front court for opponents and dashing the hopes of their fans, it is almost fitting that Swanagan deems Notre Dame professor Amy Orr’s Social Problems as his favorite class.
“It’s about problems that society has,” replies Swanagan.
Yet Swanagan has found his own personal problem solver to be his Aunt Marybeth.
“My whole family was pushing me towards the right thing to do. But I would have to say my Aunt Marybeth has been my greatest influence. I lived with her and she took care of me from seventh grade on up to the 12th grade. She still takes care of me now when I go home. She has been a big part of my life. She took me under her wing.”
Swanagan extends this influence as an on-court and off-court example to today’s freshmen.
“I think that everybody tries to help each other all the time. With the younger players, you have to tell them to just take their time and do the right thing. If you’re open, pass the ball, if you’re not, don’t pass it.
“Don’t get easy turnovers. Just play your game and let it come to you. I try to motivate people by speaking to them. If that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll show them the way it should be done and hopefully they’ll follow.”
“Harold is very funny and he’ll joke around with you, but when he’s on the floor, he knows it’s time to work,” says Graves.
“He leads by both and example and by words. He puts Torrian (Jones) and those younger guys under his wing and teaches them how to play the game. He is just so valuable to our team that he might be the most valuable player that we have.”
Swanagan simply directs his attention to the future.
“For me, my expectations are just to make everybody better and do what I can to help out the team,” says Swanagan.
“There is no limit for this team. We just have to put it all together. The Final Four and NCAA Championship is what I want – I want to make people notice that Notre Dame is a basketball powerhouse.”
But for now, Swanagan will take it one step at a time.