On December 7, 2016 a full-page ad appeared in The Observer, the student newspaper of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. It was titled “Notre Dame Football Has Failed Under Jack Swarbrick.” The ad was paid for by a group of alumni and fans who were disappointed with both the 2016 season and the general direction of the football program. The group didn’t stop there. The following Sunday, another ad appeared in the South Bend Tribune with a similar message. This one titled “The Four Horsemen of Failure.” In an interview with the Indy Star, Swarbrick was asked about these ads that were questioning the leadership of the Notre Dame football program. He simply said, “I never worry about that.” Swarbrick saw the ads as a sign of a deeply passionate fan base. He added that, “the hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion.” At Notre Dame, he doesn’t have to worry about that.
A strong relationship between the Athletic Director and Head Football Coach is pivotal in order to achieve success in college football. Without it, a coach can be prevented from achieving their full potential. The coach would feel as if everything he says or does is placed under a microscope. He would be uncertain about his future if he doesn’t meet or exceed expectations, regardless of how realistic those expectations are. All this takes the focus away from the student-athletes, and it can damage the future of the program.
Amidst all the turmoil of the 2016 season, Swarbrick has always had Brian Kelly’s back. After the team started 2-5 this past season, Swarbrick told ESPN, “Brian Kelly will lead this team out of the tunnel next year.” Notre Dame fans might feel that Swarbrick has to defend Kelly after singing him to a six-year extension in January of 2016, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think it shows us just how much Swarbrick trusts Kelly.
Their close relationship helped when rumors surfaced that Brian Kelly’s agent was inquiring about open positions outside of Notre Dame. Swarbrick knew all of the facts. He was able to filter out all of the noise that was being created by the media and fans. He knew how Kelly felt and what his intentions were.
The mutual trust between Swarbrick and Kelly also helped when tough decisions needed to be made in the off-season. When staff changes are needed, the head coach and athletic director have to weigh the risks and rewards. Staff continuity can be beneficial for recruiting and player development. However, at programs with high standards of success, change is required when a team under-performs.
Swarbrick believes in Brian Kelly’s ability to lead this football team. In the same interview with the Indy Star, Swarbrick talked about Kelly’s relationship with the team and how that relationship is perceived by fans. He said, “There is a perception that he’s not close to the kids, and nothing could be further from the truth.” Swarbrick gets to experience the interactions between Kelly and the student-athletes first hand. He’s with them on campus, on the sidelines, and in the locker room. Outside of the coaching staff and the student-athletes themselves, no one knows the relationship Brian Kelly has with his team better than Jack Swarbrick.
While he supports Kelly, Swarbrick will also be the first person to criticize him, the latter being done mostly in private. Swarbrick knows that nothing good can come from criticizing your head football coach in the mainstream media. It makes the program appear unstable, and it can prevent the program from making progress until the athletic director or head coach is fired. Instead, Swarbrick prefers to voice his questions and concerns to Kelly in private.
Just because they have a good relationship with mutual trust, does not mean Swarbrick and Kelly will coexist at Notre Dame for much longer. Without significant improvement on the field in the next couple seasons, Kelly will not make it to the end of his current contract. That being said, the recent staff changes and recruiting developments put Notre Dame in an excellent position to have success in the coming years.