August 14, 2009

Notre Dame athletic director holds the line on faith and football

Members of the University of Notre Dame football team’s special teams unit huddle during a home game on Oct. 4, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame sports information department)

Members of the University of Notre Dame football team’s special teams unit huddle during a home game on Oct. 4, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame sports information department)

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

By John Shaughnessy

In his first year as athletic director at the University of Notre Dame, Jack Swarbrick had a front-row seat to view Notre Dame football—including its foundation of faith.

“The last thing our football team does before it enters the stadium is it goes to Mass,” says Swarbrick, a longtime member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “And I’m part of that Mass.”

The 2008 season that ended with a record of seven wins and six losses also gave Swarbrick an insider’s look at the team and its head coach, Charlie Weis.

“We had a football season that fell short of our hopes,” Swarbrick says. “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.”

In an extensive interview about his first year as Notre Dame’s athletic director, Swarbrick—a 1976 Notre Dame graduate, lawyer and father of four—talked about a wide range of topics: his faith, his family, his approach to life and Notre Dame football.

The first part of the interview—focusing on his faith and his first year as athletic director—appeared in last week’s issue of The Criterion and can be read online at

The second part—focusing on Notre Dame football—continues here as another season of college football is about to begin.

Q In an interview in January with The South Bend Tribune, you said, “In some ways, the scrutiny that people subjected the football program to—and my review of it—was the most enjoyable time of the year for me. I loved it.” Could you elaborate?

A “It’s sort of the perverse psyche of the lawyer. You know, give me the tough case, let me dive into it, let me try to figure it out. But I also tend to be data-driven, if you will. I love to say, ‘Let’s evaluate this. Let’s look specifically at the factors. Not, ‘Let’s just be cavalier in our thinking or our analysis.’ Let’s be rigorous.’

“That’s what I meant by that. It was an interesting, big question, a challenge to try and make sure I was looking at all the right things and thinking about them in the right way. That’s what I really like doing.”

Q When you talk about being data-driven and how that motivates your decisions, what data do you evaluate?

A “I evaluate all our programs the same way. It’s a host of things. For example, we’re looking at all the measures of a team’s academic performance—how did our program do in helping to ensure our student-athletes get a quality education, what’s their GPA [grade point average], what’s their graduation success, what are they doing when they leave us?

“We’re looking at measures of student-athlete welfare from a disciplinary perspective, from an engagement perspective. Are they fully part of the community?

“We look at a host of athletic performance issues, and those are unique to each sport. The win-loss record is one, of those pieces of data, but it’s not the only one. And it’s a very important one, but there are others. In what competitive environment was the won-loss record achieved? Who were they playing? Are they scheduling the way we should to achieve excellence? What’s the competitive landscape? Is this a team that has a reasonable chance of winning a national championship? If they do, how well did they perform toward that goal?

“We measure specific things that we think help us demonstrate progress. So I had, for example, 14 statistical categories in football that I wanted to measure our performance against other schools. It’s just important in all those facets to take the time to really collect the information so I do have a fuller understanding of the program and how it’s doing in achieving our overall goals.

“I face the same issue that I do with an extraordinarily successful program that I don’t think is producing the experience for the student-athlete that we want as I do with one that’s not enjoying on-field success, but is having an extraordinary result with the student-athlete’s experience. Both of those really matter.

“So you’re trying to get all your programs to where their performance across the spectrum of the student-athlete experience is what we want them to be. And great coaches achieve that. That’s the definition for Notre Dame of a great coach.”

Q After last season, you and Coach Weis sat down together and reviewed the season and the expectations. Is this a defining year for him?

A “No, I don’t . . . Again, I certainly understand the expectations of alumni and fans. But I’m going to evaluate every program and every year the same way. You do yourself and your program a disservice if you create sort of artificial hurdles or factors in any particular year.

“We’re going to look at the same factors that I looked at last year for every one of our programs. There’s nothing unique about the analysis we’ll engage in for football this year. It won’t differ from the analysis we’ll engage in for women’s soccer or men’s ice hockey or anything else. You sit down, look at those factors and reach a conclusion.”

Q What’s it like for you watching a Notre Dame football game now, knowing that people will want to know your thoughts, especially if the team loses a game?

A “There are two things about it that are fundamentally different. One is, I’m aware that people are watching me watch the game. So I’m very careful. I think some people can confuse that for a lack of passion. But there’s a certain stoicism one has to have when you’re in this position. So I have a little bit of that.

“But the fundamental difference is that they are now young men, young women and coaches I know well. And I tend to review their performance—not to be overly dramatic about this—in the way a parent watches his kids play. It’s a completely different experience.

“I desperately want my teams to win, but these are now people I know well. I know how hard this student-athlete is working in the classroom to maximize his performance. His aspirations in life are so high, you want everything for him.

“So the dropped pass or the spectacular reception are both felt on more personal terms than their impact on the game. You feel for the young man.” †

Local site Links: