Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Swarbrick Comes Home

As first reported Monday evening, Notre Dame filled the vacated Director of Athletics post today with Indianapolis attorney Jack Swarbrick, Class of '76 (the same year as current University president Father John Jenkins).

Though he has no collegiate athletics department stops on his resume, he has, as one of the senior partners at Indianapolis law firm Baker Daniels, been a key player in a number of high-profile amateur and professional sports enterprises while a member of the Indiana Sports Corporation (he served as chairman from 1992-2001). While at the ISC he led successful efforts to secure and host the 1987 Pan-Am Games, the 1991 World Gymnastics Championships, three successive US Olympic Trials in swimming, several Final Fours as well as the Big 10 Tournament in college basketball, and the move of the NCAA's corporate headquarters to Indy in 1999. When the NCAA presidency came open in 2003, he was one of the three finalists alongside current NCAA chief Myles Brand. His most recent achievement was helping Indianapolis land the 2012 Super Bowl. Whatever somebody who can get the NFL Championship to southern Indiana in February is selling, I'm buying.

At today's introductory press conference, the exceedingly confident Swarbrick was asked about his views on the lighting fast-evolution of collegiate athletics and Notre Dame's role in it, particularly in relation to football:
I think it's essential we play that role. And that's not being hubristic. It's the importance of schools that have Notre Dame's values leading that change. I don't mean to suggest by that that we would lead it alone. But I hope we will lead it with other institutions that share our values, share a view of how intercollegiate athletics ought to be fully integrated into the academic mission of a university.

I'll stay away from the specifics of the crystal ball, other than to say I would suggest to you they're a convergence of forces. It's hard to imagine them playing out without change, significant change, happening. Part of that's what's going on in the world of broadcast and media, the grand experiment that is in the NCAA Network and the incredible significance I think that has for college sports down the road.

To paraphrase another "attention-grabbing" quote in his opening remarks, Swarbrick noted that "Notre Dame cannot be dictated to" when the changing and evolving power structures of collegiate sports continue to shake out in the 21st century.

I think it's safe to say right now, a total of one day into his career as Notre Dame Athletic Director, that Swarbrick was what many fans had in mind for Kevin White's replacement. An alumnus with razor-sharp intellect and almost thirty years of experience in "the art of the deal", he seems far more aware of what he represents than his predecessor. I like the hire and more importantly I like Swarbrick's approach to the job.

Having said that, we now have to wait and see what precisely that will be. There was a long and dubious chain of evidence suggesting that Dr. White had been the front man for the power behind the throne, with his hands tied regarding "big picture" decisions like long-term football scheduling philosophy and hiring/firing powers within the football program; some of the reports suggesting popular candidate (and fellow alumnus) Steve Orsini's reluctance to accept a "less-than-total" stewardship of the gridiron as the reason for his staying at SMU only heightened that suspicion. Having seen Day One of the Swarbrick regime though, I don't think Orsini's "announcement" was anything other than a grand gesture towards SMU following up on the news that Notre Dame landed their number one choice. And as to the question of where precisely the buck stopped inside Fortress Irish, it wasn't just "crazed" posters on NDNation with concerns. Apparently the candidate had some questions too:

Swarbrick's curiosity was piqued in the aftermath of Tyrone Willingham's 2004 firing, Charlie Weis' hiring and the recent decision by athletic director Kevin White to leave Notre Dame for Duke.

Was the athletic director in charge, or was Notre Dame's Board of Trustees calling the important shots?

"Those were all my first questions...I read the same things you read or wrote, and I wanted to understand it better. I wanted to talk to (Chairman of the Board of Trustees) Dick Notebaert and Father Jenkins about how they viewed the role of the athletic director.

"I came away absolutely convinced that I have all the authority I need and have to have to do this job right."

Jenkins said Swarbrick "has total authority."

"I would not have hired him if I did not have confidence in him to do the work of the athletic department," Jenkins said.

Swarbrick insists he wouldn't have taken the job otherwise.

"(When it comes to) the coaches in several of the key sports, the athletic director has to be the person who administers that process, establishes the criteria that you want to have and then comes forward with the recommendation for who he or she wants to hire," Swarbrick said. "I don't think that decision should ever be made without the involvement or approval of the president."

It may be way too early to state it, but I think the hiring of Swarbrick represents the completion of the regime change that began with the long goodbye of Monk Malloy four years ago, then continued with the Willingham firing, Weis' hiring, and the gradual fade of Kevin White. It is now unquestionably a team built entirely in Father Jenkins' image. Time will now have to tell if Notre Dame, and its many fans and alumni, gain from that.

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