Changing Notre Dame without changing Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The True Believer lives, appropriately enough, on Notre Dame Avenue. His house is just a few blocks from the campus that lured him back 10 years ago, more than three decades after he graduated with a degree in economics. On a coffee table in the living room of the house there is a book about faith and a book about the 1964 Fighting Irish football season.

On mild nights, the True Believer will sit on his back deck with a tumbler of WhistlePig rye whiskey, play some country music and contemplate how to make the improbable happen at his alma mater.

There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who look at Notre Dame’s golden dome and see a shiny roof, who look at Touchdown Jesus and see a mural; and the ones who look at those campus icons and feel a stirring inside, a calling to be part of a transformational college experience.

Jack Swarbrick, True Believer in the Notre Dame ideal, falls in the latter group. In fact, he may be the leader of the latter group.

“I think this place has a uniqueness about it that is very hard for people to understand,” the 63-year-old told Yahoo Sports last month. “You’ve got to revel in the distinctiveness of it. You’ve got to embrace it.”

Swarbrick is the athletic director at a place that keeps chasing what at times seems like a conflicting set of grand objectives:

To be a world leader in Catholic-based education.

To be one of the elite academic institutions in America.

To win at the highest level athletically – most prominently (and elusively) in football.

“The only leg of the stool open for questioning right now is athletics,” Swarbrick said. “I’ve got to find a way, because the faith and academics are in great shape.”

Fact is, most of Swarbrick’s department is in great shape, as well. The Irish were 23rd nationally in the Learfield Cup standings for 2016-17, which measures overall athletic performance, and have been as high as third in recent years. They’ve had national champions and championship contenders in several sports. Graduation rates and Academic Progress Rates for athletes remain resolutely high.

Jack Swarbrick is at the center of trying to put Notre Dame football back in the national championship conversation. (AP)

But football is the sport of myth and legend at Notre Dame, and its performance has lagged far behind its historical station for much of the last quarter century. It has come perilously close to rock bottom within the last year, going 4-8 in 2016 and being ordered by the NCAA to vacate victories from 2012 and ’13 due to Committee on Infractions findings of academic fraud.

Head coach Brian Kelly’s seventh season at the school was a complete bust, prompting major offseason staff changes and significant introspection. This season has started auspiciously, with a dominant opening victory over Temple, but the true measure of the Irish will begin to be taken Saturday night when Georgia comes to town.

The negative headlines of 2016, on and off the field, have intensified the suspicion that you simply cannot have it all at Notre Dame. That the school is a football anachronism, trying to thrive on an outdated model, fooling itself into thinking its three-legged stool can stand next to the one-pillar programs at Alabama and Ohio State and Clemson and Florida State and so on.

Jack Swarbrick, True Believer, is having none of that. The combination of books on his coffee table is not accidental. He’s a believer in a harmonic convergence of faith and football at Notre Dame, and has put his faith in football succeeding at Notre Dame.

“Certainly, a lot of institutions have high academic standards and a high degree of athletic success – Stanford, Duke, Northwestern,” Swarbrick said. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ you can do that. It’s harder, and you’ve got to stay true to your model. But no one’s really ever pulled off being an elite academic institution, highly ranked in athletics and having a fully integrated faith.”

No one except Notre Dame. And the fact that it was done there, winning football national championships with some regularity from the 1920s to the 1980s, creates a stubborn belief – a faith, if you will – that it can happen again in the 21st century. Awakening those echoes is Swarbrick’s daunting and complicated mission.

“We don’t have it right yet,” he said. “For the football program to consistently be in the hunt for a College Football Playoff spot is the starting point. … It can be done. I think it’s a fair question whether it can be done with the consistency of some institutions, and the way we once did. The margins are smaller for us. Even with optimum performance, our frequency is probably going to be different than some would like.

“But I’ve always loved big challenges, big stuff. Frankly, that’s what makes my job so fun and interesting.”

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Since Jack Swarbrick, right, hired Brian Kelly in 2009, Notre Dame has gone 60-31, including a loss in the 2012 national championship game. (Getty)

Sophomore Jack Swarbrick sat in the top row of the Athletics and Convocation Center on Jan. 19, 1974, overheated and overjoyed. In was an unusually warm winter day, and the building was sweltering. On the floor below, the Notre Dame basketball team snapped the longest winning streak in college basketball history, shocking UCLA 71-70, ending the Bruins’ run at 88 straight victories. Students flooded the floor that afternoon, and at that moment the school was as close as it’s ever been to fulfilling its lofty three-tiered mission.

The basketball team would be ranked No. 1 three days later, for the first time in school history. The football team had won the national championship just three weeks earlier, beating Alabama 24-23 in an epic Sugar Bowl. Faith and academics were the constants; now athletics was holding up its end of the stool.

If you were a Notre Dame student in that era of Ara, that time when Digger was building a basketball power, when Father Theodore Hesburgh was leading the university with progressive charisma, chances were good that you would become a True Believer. Swarbrick was all-in.

Athletics was interwoven into the daily life of the school. Athletes lived with non-athletes in the dorms, ate with them in the dining halls, played intramural sports with them as well. Swarbrick remembers star quarterback Tom Clements as a crafty point guard on a dorm team in the famed Bookstore Basketball Tournament. He also remembers a fearsome semifinal match between star tight end Ken McAfee and star defensive end Ross Browner in the Bengal Bouts, the school’s intramural boxing tournament.

In one of the few concessions to modernity at Notre Dame, the football players aren’t boxing each other or playing Bookstore Basketball anymore. But they did in Jack Swarbrick’s day, stitching another unique layer into his college experience.

After graduation, Swarbrick would go on to get a law degree at Stanford. He practiced law in Indianapolis while simultaneously becoming a major player on the local, national and international sports scenes.

He helped write bids for cities vying to host the Olympics, and was part of Indianapolis’ successful Super Bowl bid. As president of the Indiana Sports Corp., he was instrumental in moving the NCAA headquarters to Indy. At one point he was a finalist to become president of the NCAA.

Despite the deep sporting involvement, he wasn’t really looking for the job of Notre Dame athletic director when Father John Jenkins, the school president, courted him in 2007.

“I wasn’t terribly attracted to it at first,” Swarbrick said. “But my boss is an extraordinary guy.”

Jenkins’ beckoning was a calling he could not reject. The golden dome is not a shiny roof and Touchdown Jesus is not just a mural to Swarbrick.

Still, Notre Dame athletics needed more than a sentimental caretaker. It needed someone capable of modern athletic director duties: raising funds to build facilities; navigating conference realignment; and making the right coaching moves.

He’s checked most of those boxes – most significantly, maintaining Notre Dame’s football independent status while aligning with the Atlantic Coast Conference in all other sports. That was a True Believer-meets-modern-pragmatist move, and it has worked well for both entities.

He also had to fire football coach Charlie Weis – a peer who graduated from Notre Dame two years after Swarbrick – and replaced him in 2010 with Brian Kelly. It was a smart hire that has produced some real dividends, namely a 12-0 regular season in 2012 and berth in the BCS Championship game, plus a 10-win season in 2015. But the Kelly Era also cast some shadows on the golden dome in his first year, with the in-practice death of student manager Declan Sullivan and the suicide of St. Mary’s student Lizzy Seeberg after an alleged rape by a Notre Dame football player (the player was never charged). And then the academic fraud case arrived.

When the penalties were handed down late in what would be a 4-8 season, the Kelly Era had reached a crossroads.

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Brian Kelly overhauled his offensive coaching staff after going 4-8 last season. (AP)

The meeting happened at the house on Notre Dame Avenue. It lasted 8½ hours.

The topic: how to fix the football program. The participants: Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick.

“Brian was a full participant,” Swarbrick said. “He had a very unvarnished view of where we were, and that was the single most important thing we needed at that point. This is a coach who came in and said, ‘We’ve got a lot to address here.’

“On 80 percent of it, we were perfectly aligned. On 20 percent, we had to work our way through.”

Everything was on the table, but one thing was understood: Kelly would get a chance to fix his own program. There was not going to be a change at the top. That was an unpopular decision with more than a few Notre Dame fans.

“Obviously, I fervently hope the decisions we made were the right ones,” Swarbrick said. “But I’m really bothered by the reality TV, vote-you-off-the-island mentality that exists now. It’s almost like you can’t manage your way through a problem. I believed we could manage the situation, and I needed to play a direct role in that.”

Swarbrick was heavily involved in wholesale staff changes that resulted in three new coordinators and a new head of strength and conditioning. He interviewed coordinator candidates himself and even watched some video with them. For a guy with a law background who teaches an MBA class at Notre Dame, he took a full immersion in the art and science of football coaching.

Early returns in spring practice were encouraging. So was the summer in the weight room, with players giving that element of the new staff rave reviews. But Swarbrick maintained his personal vigilance into August, making the two-hour, round-trip drive every day but one to Culver Military Academy during Notre Dame’s eight-day fall camp at the school.

Yet as much as Swarbrick and Kelly were willing to change in terms of coaching personnel, the university-football dynamic remains inviolate. There are certain things that will always be done the same way at the three-legged stool that is Notre Dame, and those will be far different than at the single-pillar programs.

The school has autonomy on admissions decisions. The school administers all student discipline. There will not be junior-college transfers. There is a three-year residence hall requirement, and freshmen football players will room with non-athletes.

And, no, Notre Dame is never going to create a football facility that is an indulgent, full-time escape from the rest of the campus. Clemson’s miniature golf course isn’t going to be replicated in South Bend.

Swarbrick’s faith in the Notre Dame mission is reflected in the five framed pictures that hang in his office behind his desk. To him, they symbolize the five values of the athletic department.

The first is education, embodied by the picture of rower Anna Kottkamp addressing the 2015 graduating class as the valedictorian. The second is tradition, shown in a picture of a lacrosse player leading the team onto the field playing bagpipes (one player is tasked with that assignment every year). The third is faith, exemplified by a picture of former basketball stars Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, sitting on a scorer’s table with their lower legs entwined (“Faith in each other,” Swarbrick explained). Fourth is competitive excellence, embodied by national champion fencer Lee Kiefer. Fifth is community, which is portrayed by former football player Corey Robinson working with Habitat for Humanity.

“If you leave here and all you know are other athletes,” Swarbrick said, “we’ve failed you.”

At the very least, Notre Dame’s True Believer will not let his athletes forget their multiple missions. The reminders are everywhere.

The latest renovations to venerable Notre Dame Stadium include a remodeled locker room. The new elements are plentiful, and they are classy – from the flat screens to the showers to the lockers themselves. But they never throw out the past here.

And so the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign remains in the cramped stairwell to field level. And so does much of an old wall on the interior of the locker room. On the yellow brick of that wall are two plaques, one memorializing George Gipp and the other Knute Rockne.

There is one other item on that wall, and it looks so old you could imagine Rockne himself hanging it. Faith affirms that it will never be taken down as long as Notre Dame plays football.

A crucifix.

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