August 7, 2009

'Common thread of faith': Catholic upbringing shapes Notre Dame’s athletic director

A longtime member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, Jack Swarbrick became athletic director of the University of Notre Dame in 2008. Here, Swarbrick poses for a photo with Notre Dame Stadium in the background. (Submitted photo by Matt Cashore)

A longtime member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, Jack Swarbrick became athletic director of the University of Notre Dame in 2008. Here, Swarbrick poses for a photo with Notre Dame Stadium in the background. (Submitted photo by Matt Cashore)

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview with Jack Swarbrick, athletic director of the University of Notre Dame. See part two here)

By John Shaughnessy

He helped to lead the effort that will bring the Super Bowl to Indianapolis in 2012.

He also successfully coordinated the process that led the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to move its headquarters to Indianapolis.

Indeed, for more than 25 years, Jack Swarbrick served as an instrumental yet behind-the-scenes leader in connection to the phenomenal emergence of amateur and professional sports in Indiana’s capital city.

Then a year ago, the longtime member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis accepted a different challenge—becoming the athletic director of the University of Notre Dame, a high-profile position with perhaps the most recognized college athletic program in the country.

Through it all, Swarbrick sees “a common thread of faith” that has weaved its way through every part of his life.

In an extensive interview about his first year as Notre Dame’s athletic director, Swarbrick—a Notre Dame graduate, a lawyer and a father of four—talked about a wide range of topics: his faith, his family, Notre Dame football, the most heartbreaking loss he has witnessed, his reaction to being considered an “absolute idiot” by some people, and his approach to life.

The first part of the interview—focusing on his faith and his first year as athletic director—appears in this week’s issue. The second part—focusing on Notre Dame football—will appear in next week’s issue.

Q What are some of your favorite moments from your first year on the job?

A They tend to relate to the accomplishments of the student-athletes you get to work with. They’re such great kids. Some of those moments are

on-field victories, but a lot more of them tend to be personal moments—the interactions of the student-athletes, watching them handle victory and defeat, seeing a student-athlete getting an NCAA post-graduate scholarship or being named academic All-American or meeting their parents. All the really strong moments are wrapped around those personal experiences with the student-athletes.

The other thing I’d add to that is the strong memories of the first time I sat and chatted with Father Ted [Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame] just one-on-one in his office. He’s such a reservoir of historical information—not just about the school but the country, given his relationship with presidents and world leaders. It’s just fun to talk to him about the history of the school and the history of the country.

Q You mentioned moments with the student-athletes about how they deal with the joy of victory and the pain of losing. Can you share a specific moment that stands out to you?

A We had an exceptional group of young women in our senior class of our soccer team. In their four years at Notre Dame, they went to the Final Four three times. Twice to the final game. This year, they made it to the final game again, and they lost. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more emotionally invested in the outcome of a game than I was then. Feeling, frankly, their pain but appreciating what an extraordinary group of young women this is—and all they had accomplished.

There was a moment at the end of that game that will always stick with me. They were obviously just heartbroken. In the process of a championship like that, you have to wait around for all the trophy presentations. It takes some time. It extends the anguish. When it was over, they all walked slowly off the field to the locker room. And no one took the second place trophy. They had accepted it graciously, but they left it sitting behind them. It was an image I’ll never forget because that’s not what they came for. None of them had a particular interest in bringing it home.

Q What are some of the challenges that stand out to you from that first year?

A Any business has its own culture and its way of doing things. That’s especially true of a university. So there was the learning and trying to understand better the culture of the enterprise—how does it work, what’s my role, how are decisions made? Getting a feel for that just takes time. We [also] had a football season that fell short of our hopes. Given the time of my arrival, you sort of have to deal with that quickly and get engaged in that. So that was part of the challenge of the first year.

Q Talk about your faith and its role in your life.

A My grandparents were first-generation Irish-Americans on my mother’s side. In fact, so archetypal that my grandfather became the police commissioner of Yonkers, N.Y. Steeped in the Notre Dame lore even though my grandparents had never been within 500 miles of campus. Perchance, my family moved to Indiana and the possibility of going there became a little more real.

In my Irish-Catholic upbringing, faith was a big part of our lives. It shapes decisions you make and the way you approach your life. I think that’s the essence of faith. It’s personal, but it also impacts all facets of your life. When I look at the arc that brought me from high school to being the director of athletics at Notre Dame, there’s a common thread of faith. You make decisions based upon your view of what’s right and wrong. You trust that the path you’re on is the right one, that there’s a plan that makes sense.

It’s great now to be in a place where faith is central, and it’s very central to the university. The last thing our football team does before it enters the stadium is it goes to Mass. And I’m part of that Mass. At the officers’ and deans’ retreat, before we start our sessions, we say a prayer. It’s integrated so much into what we do on a daily basis.

Q How does your faith influence your approach to being athletic director at Notre Dame?

A It manifests itself in a ton of ways. Our issues of sportsmanship, for example, tend to be formed by and evaluated, in our case, from a foundation of faith—what’s consistent with our Catholic ideals. Decisions on how we run our program, decisions on who joins our program, which student-athletes become part of our family—all tend to touch on, one way or another, issues of faith.

That’s not to suggest we are recruiting by religious faith. We don’t do that. We are mindful of it. A student-athlete has to be comfortable in a faith environment regardless of his or her personal dogma. If you’re not, we’re not the right place for you.

Q You’re a 1976 graduate of Notre Dame. What’s it been like for you to be back at the university from a personal standpoint?

A There’s a great joy in being able to give back to a place that had such an impact on my life. I was always struck by the number of teachers my children have in high school who are graduates of the high school. I now understand it better. Part of it is the affinity you have for the place, but part of it is wanting to give back to a place that helped to shape you. So there’s been a special joy in that.

Q For more than 25 years, you were an instrumental yet behind-the-scenes leader in connection to amateur and professional sports in Indianapolis. What’s it like for you being a more high-profile leader at Notre Dame, which has perhaps the most recognized college athletic program in the country?

A In many ways, the experiences are similar. You’re working hard to build something and the focus is community-based. The goal is to make the community better. Many of our fans think I have the best job in the world. They think that because of their love of Notre Dame athletics. It’s certainly good for that reason. I think I have the best job in the world because I get to contribute to the development of Notre Dame through athletics.

What’s different is the public scrutiny. I’m very comfortable with that. Not to pay a lot of attention to it, but I know on any day I can go on-line and find people who are putting forth the proposition that I’m an absolute idiot. Your ego is never out of control. But I also know as much as those folks love the institution I work for and care about it, they just don’t have the information I have and they never will. So I’m comforted by the fact that if they had the information I have, they might see things differently.

The different dynamic is that my family hasn’t developed over time with me being the truly public figure that now I am. So that can be a bit of a challenge. In this Internet world when any half-hour someone is saying I’m an idiot, now they’re saying somebody’s father or somebody’s husband is an idiot. You have to make sure your family is OK with that, that they can work their way through it and not be harmed by it. If this job were ever inconsistent with my role as a husband and a father, I wouldn’t do it. That’s my first priority.

Q In your approach to life, what guides you?

A Family is, in so many ways, central to the way I operate and I think. The opportunities I’ve had are in large part by-products of extraordinary parents and four sisters who created such an environment for me. While I know they get to experience this in a different way, it’s disappointing that neither of my parents were alive to see me as Notre Dame’s athletic director because, in so many ways, this would have been exactly what they aspired for me to do.

It ties directly back to those grandparents, their aspirations when they came to America, and their faith—their strong Catholic faith. That family dynamic, the heritage, my children and a remarkable wife who’s put up with this for a long time—that really shapes so much of me and what I do. Now it’s very much the privilege of helping to shape other young people’s lives, not just my own children.

The other thing that shapes my approach to the job is I’ve always liked the opportunity to try and think a little non-traditionally and build things. I’ve always liked the opportunity to take on a big project and try to figure out how to do that. When people said, ‘Indianapolis never can get a Super Bowl or get the NCAA to relocate to the city,’ that’s what I love—that challenge.

So when people wonder if a university with a commitment to faith and the academic aspirations of Notre Dame can compete at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics, that’s an ideal challenge for me. I’ve always loved those really large challenges that have major impacts. That’s one of the things that really attracted me to do this job.

(Next week: Jack Swarbrick discusses Notre Dame football and the factors he uses to evaluate all Notre Dame coaches, including head football coach Charlie Weis.)

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