Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Swarbrick's First "Offseason" | by Kevin

(ed. note-- welcome to our buddy Kevin, who's joining the BGS braintrust! This is his first post.)

Jack Swarbrick has packed an eventful first year into his first seven months.

Before and after mid-November's surprisingly unsurprising home loss to Syracuse and the annual thrashing by Troy, Swarbrick's office had been the center of speculation, controversy and encouraging new developments. Confounding critics and prognosticators, Charlie Weis is back. However, for the first time in the Weis Era, his offensive coordinator/running back coach and defensive and offensive line coaches are not. Both a dedicated running back coach and a "run-game coordinator" are among the job descriptions within Weis's reconfigured staff.

In other Joyce Center news, the building is losing a tenant: the hockey team will move into a new, stand-alone home in 2011, complete with space for a title banner or ten.

In recent months, Swarbrick has provided glimpses into his evaluation of the football team, his post-USC sit-down with Charlie Weis, and his vision for the future of Notre Dame's Athletic Department. Let's run through some of the bigger items to cross his desk this winter.

Charlie Weis. Swarbrick and Weis met at the beginning of December to discuss Weis's future at Notre Dame and what that future might need to resemble if it will extend beyond 2009. In a December 4th interview with the Chicago Tribune's Brian Hamilton, Swarbrick explained that "I went into [the meeting] with a view that if he and I have a shared vision of what needs to happen with the program, he'll continue as the coach." Swarbrick did not elaborate in detail what that "vision" entailed, but it was apparently comprehensive. Swarbrick explained to Blue and Gold Illustrated's Todd Burlage that he "looked at every aspect" of the football program, and that he and Weis discussed "everything I saw about the program, and everything he saw about the program, and comparing where we thought the program was, and what we thought we needed to do going forward." As the story goes, in a serendipitous turn of events for Weis, the two men shared visions, and Weis remained the Notre Dame head coach.

Did Swarbrick prescribe Weis's staff changes? If Weis does at long last commit to and achieve a more potent running attack, can these developments be attributed to Swarbrick? The truth likely lies somewhere closer to "football coach addresses football problems" than "Jack Swarbrick diagnoses problems and saves team." Indeed, in a January Q&A (now archived) with the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen, Swarbrick disclaimed responsibility for evaluating Weis's assistants, while still revealing a discussion that veered toward the granular:

Q: As you move away from your meetings with head football coach Charlie Weis back in December in California, are you starting to see your shared visions unfold? Are you happy with the way that's going?

A: "Very much so. There were a host of things that we agreed we wanted to do, and we're in the process of pretty systematically going after those things. I could not be more pleased with our working relationship and the collegial nature of how we approach problems together. He's been a real good partner."

Q: When you shared your vision of the program in the meetings, did it get down to the kind of specifics such as who should be calling plays and such as personnel on his staff? Did it get down to that much detail?

A: "It was very detailed. I want to be clear, it was not as much about people as it was about functions -- greater clarity of responsibilities in the staff. How do we approach the offensive game plan? Play-calling? So it was that level of detail, but it's not for me to evaluate assistant coaches. The head coach does that, does it well."
For his part, Weis detailed his post-season post-mortem, which in part focused on the oft-discussed run-game shortcomings: “I've done a lot of study on our football team and where our football team is at this point in comparison to BCS championship caliber teams, and we're a distant trailer, in the run game in particular,” said Weis. “So I felt that just me being the coordinator, I felt that I needed somebody that had to put an emphasis on the run game."

That ND had trouble running and stopping the run could not have been a revelation to Weis. Did he need a little nudge to jettison line coaches who had worked with him since the 2004-2005 offseason, or did he simply provide the right answers to Swarbrick's question? These answers are best left to readers more astute than I. In any event, Weis is back for another year, he's made some changes, and both Bryant Young and I like them.

Football Scheduling. In more global matters, Swarbrick also spoke to his feelings about the often-toxic subject of the 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy championed by former AD Kevin White. Some ND fans found encouragement in Swarbrick's introductory comments last July that "Notre Dame must participate in leading the "extraordinary change" he predicts will soon greet intercollegiate athletics. However, Swarbrick appears to, in broad strokes at least, embrace the concept of scheduling seven games at Notre Dame stadium, four true away games, and a 12th "neutral site" game of debatable contours. Swarbrick's January 19th comments to Eric Hansen (now archived; linked again to the free abstract), that off-site games such as the October 31st game against Washington State in San Antonio have "virtually nothing to do with football" caused quite the cyber-stir. He provided a little more scope to his view in a September 16th discussion with Michael Rothstein at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:
I embrace the 7-4-1 concept and I embrace it because I very much like the notion of using the off-site game to promote Notre Dame. This isn't just about playing a football game somewhere else. This is about bringing Notre Dame to a marketplace for a few days. Social service projects, educational seminars, all of that, religious functions. I want to make sure as we build that off-site element into our schedule, we're getting, we're spanning a lot of geography, scheduling attractive games. There's that part of it.

The other part of it is to find a way to maximize the number of home games. It's great for the student-athletes, it's great for the teams, it's great for the fans. We're not alone in that. Everyone's trying to do it. That's the challenge, with everyone trying to do it how do you find enough opponents? You can't fill that schedule with home-and-homes. It doesn't work. The math doesn't work. So you have to try and find, forge partnerships, try to find people who will come in and play, be attractive opponents. And then I want to be really mindful of the tradition and history of the place. We have very important rivalries that are important to college football, important to Notre Dame. You want to protect those.
Something for everyone, I suppose. For one, the prospect of coordinating an off-site game with Notre Dame's popular fall service project program or other community service opportunity is intriguing. Time will tell how Swarbrick plans to use this structure: will we see matchups with Alabama in the South, or is another Washington State around the bend?

The New Hockey Arena. Additionally, after years of championship-quality play in an intramural-quality facility, Jeff Jackson's hockey team can finally expect a venue befitting the team's stature. Last week, Notre Dame announced plans for a stand-alone, 5,000 seat, two-sheet hockey arena. This plan supplants designs to simply remodel the team's current Joyce Center rink. The icers will open their new home in the 2011-2012 season. Notre Dame's press release also mentions that the arena will serve "the community as a whole, and, in particular, to the many area youth hockey and figure skating programs that are in need of an additional venue." This added benefit was likely no coincidence; in September 2008, Swarbrick explained:
I want to make sure that building on the facility side, in building those facilities, while we look carefully at the core sport function, we're asking ourselves how we can maximize the use of the facility. Can it have community applications, both in the broader Notre Dame community but also in the greater geographic community. Can we program it effectively to use it as an outreach tool for the university? How can you design it so it can have multi-function purpose when it's not being used for the sport application? That's my orientation on the facility side.
In corporate speak, the new hockey arena is a win-win. String that word together ten more times, and it has the makings of a nice 2009 football schedule.