Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Friday at 4: Jack Swarbrick’s time at Notre Dame marked by retained Irish independence, not by hires or construction

Notre Dame v Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 24: Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sideline before a college football game against the University of Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on September 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Notre Dame defeated the Pitt Panthers 15-12. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Getty Images

When Jack Swarbrick walks out of his Notre Dame offices for the last time at some point early in 2024, after nearly 16 years as the director of athletics, one thing will be beyond debate: Swarbrick will have left his mark at Notre Dame.

He took over after Kevin White left South Bend for the same role at Duke in 2008. While an athletic director has to worry about far more than football, Notre Dame’s athletic director will always be most judged by that program, and the Irish were coming off their losingest season ever, going 3-9 in 2007.

Charlie Weis would get two seasons under Swarbrick to try to right that ship, so it was not immediately realized the decade of checks the Irish athletic department was saddled with, but it was clear: Swarbrick inherited a football program, and thus an athletic department, that needed work.

He then hired the winningest football coach in Notre Dame history, navigated Brian Kelly’s surprise exit when 2021 Playoff hopes still lingered and instilled stability into the program in a moment that could have been absolute chaos.

Between those hires, Swarbrick oversaw the installation of turf at Notre Dame Stadium — it did not replace grass, it replaced literal dirt. He expanded the Stadium to include far more luxury suites and seats, perhaps a half-measure waiting for more work given the reality of who attends live sporting events nowadays. Swarbrick blessed the comedy of the visitors’ tunnel in the Stadium’s northeast corner and the return of night games beginning with the 2011 tilt against USC, though the piped-in audio playlist that October night was far from ready.

Add in the renovations to Purcell Pavilion and building Compton Family Ice Arena and those were the changes every fan noticed during Swarbrick’s 15 years-and-counting. Those along with hiring Brian Kelly and then Marcus Freeman, not to mention women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey (replacing Muffet McGraw after 33 years) and men’s basketball coach Micah Shrewsberry (replacing Mike Brey after 23 years), making Notre Dame one of two FBS schools with Black head coaches leading all three programs (joining Syracuse).

In the short-term, Freeman’s, Shrewsberry’s and Ivey’s success will determine how Swarbrick is remembered, and in that order. No matter how 2023 goes for Freeman and imported quarterback Sam Hartman, years 3-5 of Freeman’s tenure will alter how Swarbrick’s tenure is retroactively perceived. The stability he conjured in 2021 was the product of deft maneuvering, yet it largely dissipated when the Irish lost to Stanford last season. Freeman’s coming successes or failures will be remembered and tied to Swarbrick far more than a hyped week a couple of Decembers ago.

Yet, how Freeman fares should not be the top bullet point attributed to Swarbrick. His long-term achievement of keeping Notre Dame independent through the 2010s and now seemingly through the 2020s has been the singular task of Swarbrick’s tenure.

The partial membership with the ACC, announced in 2012 and beginning in 2014, staked the Irish position through the first round of modern conference realignment. As Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska all joined the Big Ten and the Big East crumbled under ACC influence, Swarbrick found a position for Notre Dame to continue as a football independent without sacrificing viability in any other sports. If it seemed like he had the Irish straddling a line, one foot in a conference and one foot out, that is because the balance of setting up basketball, hockey and all other sports for success while keeping football in a position unique to Notre Dame required such figurative flexibility.

That allowed the NBC partnership to continue unabated. It allowed the Irish to continue facing USC every season. And it gave Mike Brey, Muffet McGraw and Jeff Jackson conceivable paths to national title contention.

Navigating that same balance the last couple of years while the College Football Playoff pondered expansion solidified Swarbrick’s long-term stamp at Notre Dame. The Irish are now positioned to be a perennial Playoff contender when it expands to 12 teams next year, all while remaining a football independent during this Big Ten and SEC arms race.

The hiring of NBC Sports Group Chairman Pete Bevacqua to succeed Swarbrick certainly suggests the Notre Dame-NBC relationship will continue. (Writer’s Note: Those conversations occur about a dozen levels above this scribe and no NBC information trickles down to this keyboard.) If/when that officially extends past 2025, Irish football should be again clearly independent for the foreseeable future.

The day may come when that independence ends, but the fact that it persisted through the 2010s and is unlikely to end in the 2020s is a testament to Swarbrick’s understanding of the national landscape.

However Freeman, Ivey and Shrewsberry fare, whatever anyone thinks of the expanded Notre Dame Stadium, Jack Swarbrick keeping Notre Dame football independent of a conference in two decades of massive changes to college football is the landmark accomplishment of his 16 years as Irish athletic director.

tweet to @d_farmer