May 11, 2023

Analysis Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick made big decisions

SOUTH BEND — Kickoff was a couple of hours out and the upper concourse of Notre Dame Stadium was nearly empty one late Saturday afternoon in October a few years ago when a reporter noticed a familiar figure headed his way.

The individual wore a suit and a tie and a Notre Dame baseball hat pulled low — his standard gameday attire — but the man behind it was unmistakable. Hours before a home game against rival Southern California, athletic director Jack Swarbrick sought something the job seldom afforded.


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Swarbrick stopped and chatted for a few minutes. In his early years as athletic director at his alma mater, he seemed standoffish, a little aloof, somewhat detached from those in the media whose jobs kept them in close contact with everyone associated with Irish athletics. He wasn't what you'd peg as a people person.

With that wall always up, he was difficult to get to know when he arrived in the summer of 2008, but that would change. As the years passed and big decisions came and went, Swarbrick softened. He became more approachable, more affable. He let those who had otherwise been outside his inner circle in, if only for a minute.

That was him that day in the stadium. He explained that he hoped to steal some time for himself, to think about the game and the weekend and all that it encompassed. To get away from being the NOTRE DAME ATHLETIC DIRECTOR for a minute and enjoy the silence.

Like that, Swarbrick walked off down the concourse.

On Thursday, Swarbrick walked away from the role he served for nearly 16 years. Like the January announcement that last basketball season would be it after 23 years for head coach Mike Brey, the word "retirement" was nowhere in Thursday's 1,023-word release.

Apparently, retire is a four-letter word on that campus. News of Swarbrick's expected exit arrived just after 11 a.m. It should have sent some shock waves across an otherwise quiet campus.

It didn't. News that Swarbrick had done enough and served enough and was ready to let someone else (Notre Dame alumnus Peter Bevacqua ‘93) do the job was no surprise. Swarbrick's contract runs through the upcoming 2023-24 school year. There was little chance he’d stay beyond that, and increased rumblings that he likely would leave earlier.

He's leaving earlier.

He's ready to be more grandfather than Godfather.

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Asked often over the last few years if he would stay beyond 2024 if was asked to stay, if he even wanted to stay, Swarbrick demurred to the lawyer in him. He’d say this or say that in response and then at the end, you’d ask, wait, what did he say?

That was Swarbrick. A lawyer by trade who often played that card when it needed to be played. At Notre Dame, it needs to be played a lot. But the best times, the most memorable moments around him was when he didn't play it. Those were times when he seems so … normal.

As he dived deeper into his tenure, there remained only one big decision. It had nothing to do with Notre Dame football keeping its all-important independence or who might replace the program's winningest coach of all time. It had nothing to do with how Notre Dame women's basketball might move past the stunning retirement of a Hall of Fame head coach or how the men's basketball program would replace its winningest coach in program history.

Swarbrick aced those exams easily. The bigger the decision, it seemed, the better the decision. He chased those big moments. He thrived in those big moments. He rarely stayed to savor those moments. With him, it was always, what's next?

When you’re the athletic director at Notre Dame, everyone in college athletics is watching. What's he going to do? What are the Irish going to do? Those moments drove Swarbrick. He needed them like oxygen.

When a global pandemic threatened to torpedo Notre Dame's 2020 football season, Swarbrick worked some sorcery and parked the program in the Atlantic Coast Conference for that fall. Independence, pandemic or not, be damned. The Irish wore the league logo on their jerseys. Their players earned all-league honors. They played for a conference championship. Swarbrick found a way when there seemingly was none.

He’d pulled that Houdini trick before, seven years earlier when it looked like Notre Dame athletics as we knew it would forever change when the musical chairs of conference alignment commenced in 2013. The Big East was crumbling, and Notre Dame needed a lifeline when none seemed available.

Where would Notre Dame land? Would it even have a seat when the music ceased? Some had the Irish ticketed for the Big Ten. Others on campus believed it would be the Big 12. Football certainly would have to go along for the ride. There seemed no other way. It was going to happen, but never did.

Swarbrick wouldn't let it. He dialed up the ACC and made a deal to join the league but preserve football independence. Notre Dame football still matters today because of Swarbrick. Notre Dame athletics has a (relatively) solid home in the ACC because of Swarbrick. Notre Dame football and Notre Dame men's basketball and Notre Dame women's basketball seem in great hands because of Swarbrick.

Now when realignment resurfaces and teams move leagues — Oklahoma and Texas to the Southeastern Conference, UCLA and USC to the Big Ten — Notre Dame barely blinks. That's Swarbrick.

None of that can go unnoticed, no matter how glad you are that the guy's going to be gone.

Swarbrick made the right deals at the right time and made sure Notre Dame football stayed intact. All of it. He remained a power player in college athletics throughout his tenure. Any "seismic" (gotta use that word at least once, right?) decision isn't made without Power Five commissioners — and Swarbrick — having seats at the table. He was a driver of the 12-team playoff model that's sure to alter the college football landscape in 2024, yet it didn't move Notre Dame off its college football pedestal.

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When it comes to the craziness that is college football, it's always conferences A, B, C, D … and Notre Dame. That's not a coincidence. That's Swarbrick.

The 69-year-old often was at his best when big decisions were needed. His home-run hires are everywhere. Marcus Freeman? Bam! Niele Ivey? Bam! Micah Shrewsberry? Bam! Turns out Shrewsberry was his last big swing.

That last big decision? That would be when he would leave. We learned when Thursday.

There were whiffs. Like the apparel marriage with Under Armour, which seemed shoe-horned forced. Like tearing down what was once the sports information department and reconfiguring it to whatever it is today. Like hiring baseball coach Mik Aoki, who never really took the program where many believed it should go.

There's also Oct. 27, 2010. You can't write about Swarbrick and sweep that date to the side.

That was the fall day when 20-year-old junior Declan Sullivan was told to climb a scissor lift to film football practice on a day when winds that blew through Michiana hit 50 mph. The decision ended in the Notre Dame student's fall and death. Swarbrick deemed the day "unremarkable."

It made you cringe then. It makes you cringe now. It's probably the one comment Swarbrick wishes he could take back. It has stayed with him all these years, and will forever. It should. It was crass. It was heartless. It was wrong. It was too much empty suit and nowhere near enough empathy.

All these years later, just seeing that word in that context is still so sad.

Say what you want about Swarbrick, and so many have. Say that he was aloof. Say that he was detached. Say that he didn't always have that personal touch when one was needed. Say that he wasn't always "savvy" when savvy was needed. Say he was complicated, but so is the job, more than anyone ever knows.

Say anything, but remember to say something else when he leaves early in 2024.


Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.