Exiting Notre Dame AD addresses expansion, realignment and college sports’ immensely uncertain future

0
10

Jack Swarbrick wants a moment of Nick Saban’s time. That was among the thoughts shared by Notre Dame’s former athletic director, who left the Fighting Irish after 16 years Monday with former NBC Sports chairman Pete Bevacqua stepping in as his replacement.
Swarbrick, 70, recently spoke with CBS Sports for an exit interview of sorts. After more than a decade and a half as a powerful figure leading one of college sports’ most notable brands, Swarbrick departs having overseen the most national championships of any AD in program history. (Though none in football, of course.)
Swarbrick was in the room as a voting member of the BCS and later the College Football Playoff, holding unique power as an AD standing alongside 10 FBS commissioners. Under his watch, the Irish played for a combined three championships — one BCS Championship Game and two CFPs. That’s more than 126 FBS schools.
As for what’s next? Swarbrick wants to pick Saban’s brain about the future of the sport.
Swarbrick’s time at Notre Dame has included glory and tragedy (death of Declan Sullivan in 2010). Before last season, he concluded college football was a “complete disaster.” In 2018, Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins called the NCAA enforcement process “perverted” in relation to an academic fraud case. Last year, Swarbrick and Jenkins co-wrote a New York Times op-ed warning that college sports was headed toward semiprofessional status.
In disparate times, Notre Dame still can look itself in the mirror as a university legitimately attempting to balance academics and athletics. Its football independence has never been more solid. Combining revenue from NBC and ESPN — the latter through its scheduling partnership with the ACC — Notre Dame is believed to making somewhere north of $60 million annually in media rights. That money, plus its unique access to the playoff, are two drivers that will keep the Irish from joining a conference anytime soon.
Swarbrick suggested there could be further financial disparity in the near future as schools distribute enhanced CFP revenue once the new contract begins in 2026. For example, why is Vanderbilt — simply because it is in the SEC — receiving more than Clemson, a national power that chases championships in the ACC?
A key question of whether Notre Dame will get preferred access to the CFP, beyond at-large status, remains to be determined.
Despite upheaval in the ACC, Swarbrick doesn’t see much movement in realignment. He also discusses playing the CFP going head-to-head against the NFL.
Swabrick is enjoying time with his family, but he won’t be out of the picture completely. He’s too wise and important. His departure from Notre Dame isn’t a retirement but a retrenching.
What follows is Swarbrick’s view of college athletics as he leaves it to a future generation.
CBS Sports: I want to nominate you and Nick Saban for commissioner of college football. You’ve both attempted to keep the sport on some sort of straight line, as much as possible.
Jack Swarbrick: “I must say that I’ve been tempted to call Jimmy Sexton [Saban’s agent] and ask if he could help me get a little time with Nick. I would just love to share ideas with him about where it might go.”
He’s been out there calling for NIL reforms, etc. What do you think of his stances so far?
Swarbrick: “I think it’s great he’s doing it in such an intentional way. He’s just not, you know, talking to Stephen A. Smith about how the world should be different.”
You’ve mentioned a need for “academic integrity” in whatever major college sports becomes. Is that possible?
Swarbrick: “Is this activity going to continue to be integrated into the university, or is it going to be something separate? Increasingly, forces are pulling it away. Instead of it letting happen on a de facto basis, we ought to be asking the question and answering it.”
We had this conversation in 2015 when you had a vision of two college athletic associations — one that adheres to the traditional collegiate model and one that is more semiprofessional. Do you still believe that would work?
Swarbrick: “I wouldn’t rule it out. I never cease to be amazed at how much money drives decision making. At some point, you’ve got to think some number of universities are going to say, ‘We have to go back to a model that recognizes the athletes’ rights but is integrated into the university.'”
To that point, what went through your mind when the SEC and Big Ten combined got 58% of the CFP revenue beginning in 2026?
Swarbrick: “I wanted Pete to be on point for that. He represented us. If we’re going to expand the playoff, we always knew there had to be a way of recognizing the lost value of the bowl games to those conferences, right?
[Editor’s note: The Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls agreed to be in the permanent CFP rotation. Those bowls were tied to the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and ACC.]
“A differential was inevitable. … In addition it was designed to represent performance during the last decade. I thought that one might have been a little more school based. I think you’ll see the conference distribution of CFP money in particular reflect that.”
Since you’re a neutral observer now, what do you favor, 12 playoff teams or 14 beginning in 2026?
Swarbrick: “I don’t think it makes a lot of difference. More opportunities for people is generally good, so I’m fine with 14. I think 12 creates more value in terms of extra [first-round] byes. I could go either way.”
Where does the Notre Dame football program stand right now?
Swarbrick: “I think it is as well positioned as anytime in my time here. I think Marcus [Freeman] has assembled the best staff during my time here. I don’t think anybody has a defensive [Al Golden] and offensive coordinator [Mike Denbrock] combination better than ours. Marcus has always been a phenomenal recruiter.”
You were one of the original architects of the expanded playoff, starting the original work in 2019. When you began with Bob Bowlsby, Craig Thompson and Greg Sankey, could you have imagined where it would be five years later? I’m talking specifically about the fits and starts and delays.
Swarbrick: “I never could have imagined the challenges surrounding adoption [of expansion]. Frankly, we lost a lot because of that. I just think if we’d gotten this resolved more quickly and implemented sooner, I think a number of things might be different. I’m not sure realignment would look the same. Hindsight is 20-20.”
That begs the question With all this realignment, where does it stop — particularly with Florida State and Clemson wanting out of the ACC?
Swarbrick: “My crystal ball is cloudier than it’s ever been. That’s saying something. I don’t see a lot of momentum towards further realignment right now. There are some schools that, if they made a move, might change that. But frankly, we’re probably first among that, but we’re not likely to.
“I don’t see the catalyst right now. The Big Ten and SEC have the assets they need to position themselves for their next media negotiation. I understand the ACC has disgruntled members, but I’m not sure there are better options for them. The ACC’s legal position is a very strong one.”
With all this money in the system, is the stewardship role for the CFP about revenue sharing and/or health and welfare for the players?
Swarbrick: “The CFP was never set up to be that sort of entity. Its scope was intentionally limited to be an event management activity. The need to make sure student-athletes benefit from this is recognized by anybody, but there’s a strong preference letting those decisions be made at the conference level, or in our case, Notre Dame’s level.”
So what’s the next pressure point? The ‘House v. NCAA’ trial is less than a year away.
Swarbrick: “That’s right. There’s got to be a future model that everyone can live with. While settlement discussion are of course about money for past activities, they’re also focused on what the future model looks like. I’ve spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill discussing that. … We don’t need any more catalysts to encourage us to get that model defined.”
Where is that effort on The Hill? NCAA president Charlie Baker and scores of commissioners and ADs are lobbying for some kind of help from Congress.
Swarbrick: “I don’t think anybody has high expectations in a presidential election year, but I must say, there is a clear understanding and sense of urgency. We may not get to legislation until the beginning of next year.
What do you think of Baker?
Swarbrick: “I’m a huge fan. I’ve said several times. I don’t think the NCAA is governable, but I like our chances of him governing it.”
The NFL has reacted negatively to playoff games being played on Saturday (Dec. 20, 2024). Your reaction to that?
Swarbrick: “You have to [get past that]. We can’t in the near term. We are not doing a service to the student-athlete or the schools, and we’re not maximizing value at the end of the day if we can’t eventually find a different calendar. Whether that means moving the start of the season back to Week 0 or doing something else, we just have to find a way because that is going to be one cluttered weekend.”
Does moving the start of the playoff up to the second week of December rectify that?
Swarbrick: “Without question. We want to be conscious with the Army-Navy tradition, of course, but if the whole season moved up a week that’s exactly what would happen during [a Saturday in] which the NFL can’t play games.”
I wasn’t sure if the NFL played on the second Saturday of December.
Swarbrick: “It’s actually a federal law that doesn’t let them play on Saturday until the third week of December. It’s a law that granted their antitrust exemption for broadcast negotiations.”
What’s your first vacation?
Swarbrick: “Anything that involves my grandkids right now. I don’t see any exotic trips.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here