When Auburn halfback Tre Mason was wrestled down at the Tigers’ 37-yard line, the clock came to a close and the Florida State Seminoles rushed to the field in exhilaration. The look of disbelief on the faces of Auburn’s players, shocked by the Southeastern Conference’s run of seven consecutive national championships finally coming to an end, was hammered home by the crowd’s euphoric and boisterous chants of “A-C-C! A-C-C! A-C-C!”
It took a Southern program to end a Southern conference’s dominance. And somewhere Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was watching, perhaps stroking a white cat as the chess pieces moved according to his cleverly devised plans.
Notre Dame’s partnership with the ACC, a collaboration Swarbrick spearheaded, begins in 2014.
And why shouldn’t Swarbrick look down upon his developing empire as though a Bond villain, even if he lacks the element of malevolence required for such a title? Notre Dame’s athletic director has done nothing but succeed since taking over the helm in South Bend, striking gold where his predecessor floundered.
The head coaching failures of George O’Leary, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis were all under the tenure of former athletic director Kevin White, and all within a span of eight years. Swarbrick threw a bullseye with his first toss by nabbing head coach Brian Kelly from the Cincinnati Bearcats, a man who would win AP Coach of the Year honors in 2012 and lead Notre Dame to its first undefeated regular season in 24 years.
Swarbrick’s prowess has extended far beyond selecting a great coach, however. In addition to putting Notre Dame football back on the map, he’s succeeded in dragging the Fighting Irish program into the 21st Century.
Notre Dame now boasts a training table for its football team, a crucial element in player development and one that was present at nearly every other elite program. Notre Dame’s training table has a menu specially designed to provide maximum support to the strength and conditioning program, and the table is overseen by a nutritionist to ensure student-athletes are making proper meal choices.
Swarbrick’s modernization efforts have even involved areas long considered to be off limits by a powerful alumni base that strongly values tradition. In December Swarbrick announced a decision would soon be made as to whether Notre Dame would continue to use natural grass at Notre Dame Stadium – which it has done since the venue opened 84 years ago in 1930 – or officially switch to field turf. There are even whispers of a jumbotron being installed in the next round of proposed stadium renovations, a subject that has evoked anger from the fan base for years. Regardless of where one stands on these taboo issues, the fact Swarbrick is on the verge of installing features long considered impossible is a feat in its own right.
The 21st Century makeover has even included spicing up Notre Dame’s appearance by introducing a new golden helmet that more closely resembles the Golden Dome, and overall changes in uniform for the Shamrock Series, moves intended to draw the attention of recruits who enjoy the hourly changes Nike imposes on Oregon’s uniforms and apparel. The alterations to Notre Dame’s appearance are connected to its past by the Shamrock Series, an ode to the Fighting Irish’s historical barnstorming days. The series has taken Notre Dame to New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Dallas and an eventual battle for Irish supremacy at Fenway Park in Boston against Boston College, marking the first football game played in front of the Green Monster in 47 years.[Related: Notre Dame Switching to Under Armour]
Despite completely overhauling Notre Dame’s structure and finding the coach of its future, Swarbrick’s Piece de résistance involved striking a partnership deal with the ACC. Notre Dame’s future as an independent was uncertain, with conference expansion on the verge of forcing its hand into membership. The challenge was to find a home for Notre Dame’s Olympic sports while maintaining the Fighting Irish’s independent status, a monumental task considering Notre Dame was in desperate need of access to a conference’s bowl tie-ins. As illustrated in 2013, with no bowl tie-ins and failing to qualify for the BCS, the Fighting Irish were left to fight over bowl allotments that conferences were unable to fill.
Swarbrick struck a deal with the ACC that the Charlotte Observer described as “controversial” and “one-sided in Notre Dame’s favor” before ultimately concluding the arrangement was a “massive coup for the conference.” Notre Dame’s athletic director had successfully navigated the threat from conference realignment and struck gold in the process. The Irish secured a foothold for its Olympic sports and access to the ACC’s bowl tie-ins, making Notre Dame eligible for any ACC bowl as long as it has a record greater than, equal to, or within one game of, an ACC conference member. Even more impressive, while Notre Dame must share its revenue from ACC bowl tie-ins, all revenue earned from a potential playoff appearance belongs solely to Notre Dame.
One of the most underrated aspects of Swarbrick’s agreement with the ACC is a long-term affiliation with the South. Southern programs have won nine consecutive national championships, seven of which were from the SEC alone. Brian Kelly and his staff have worked diligently to increase the presence of Southern talent on the Fighting Irish roster, and partnering with the ACC will help Notre Dame secure access to fertile recruiting grounds, with 61% of Class of 2014 recruits from the Rivals 250 hailing from the South, and 32% from ACC Southern member states alone. The 21st Century of college football lives below the Mason-Dixon line, and Swarbrick has managed to make sure Notre Dame will play an integral part.
Should Notre Dame’s athletic director ever choose to hold a white cat while looking down upon his pawns as they move into position, there’s no arguing he’s earned the right to do so.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, as well as appeared on MSNBC as a sports contributor. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org