Catching up with… Mike Karwoski

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Consider this a special off-season version of Catching Up. Monday marked the first day of training table meals for Irish athletics, the pilot program kicking off with a football team only dinner hosted weeknights in the Gug. The training table initiative, along with several other plans that are in the works, are being administer by Mike Karwoski, an associate athletics director at the university, who heads the Athlete/Sport Performance Program.

Mike was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the training table pilot plan, and the new Athlete Performance Program.

ITI: What was the impetus for starting the Athlete Performance Program?

Mike Karwoski: The impetus for us to review the concept of implementing an Athlete (or Sport) Performance Program was the arrival of Jack Swarbrick as athletics director in 2008. Jack’s background and experience over the years included extensive involvement in both professional and Olympic/amateur sports. He has been exposed to and involved with many different sport organizations and different models in the areas of sports performance. As such, over the course of Jack’s first 12 months he evaluated the things we were doing with regard to strength and conditioning, athletic training, sports medicine, nutrition, sports psychology and came away with the thought that we could benefit our student-athletes and coaches by trying to create a system in which all of these units reported through the same structure which would enhance our communication and the sharing of ideas to improve the overall performance of our student-athletes. The thought is to create a more scientific approach to the way we test, train, treat, rehab our student-athletes using the latest techniques and protocols. By creating a single unit encompassing all of these critical units the thought is that ideas and sharing of ideas and data will ultimately provide our student-athletes with innovative and cutting edge opportunities for performance enhancement. Generally speaking, we want to ask ourselves are we providing our student-athletes and coaches the best opportunity for peak performance.

ITI: Training table has been a hot-button issue, and the decision to start a specialized meal plan for athletes was a big step, especially in light of the weight-loss issues during last football season. Why has it been so challenging to get student-athletes to eat properly?

MK: First, it is important that I mention that the perception of training table is widely misunderstood. By having a training table, that does not mean that student-athletes are provided 3 meals ever day separate from the general student population. NCAA rules allow institutions to provide only one training table meal to student-athletes each day. In addition, NCAA rules state that partial and non-scholarship student-athletes may only participate in training table meals if they pay the cost difference between a regular dining hall meal and a training table meal. Clearly, those are important factors to consider for any institution that has a training table. What we know though is that nutrition and rest are two of the more critical issues affecting an athlete’s on-field/on-court performance. The issues with nutrition and rest are not just a student-athlete issue but impact all college students. These problems exist on every college campus. Although we may not be able to completely impact the rest aspect of performance except by providing student-athletes with more time effective and efficient practices and training sessions and by educating them about the need for rest we can have a fairly significant impact on nutrition. We moved in that direction a few years ago by adding a full-time sports dietitian to our strength and conditioning staff. Currently, Erika Whitman is in that position and she makes every effort to meet with as many student-athletes as possible to discuss eating habits and making the proper dietary choices for those individual student-athletes. This is a huge challenge because the dietary needs of a 300 lb. offensive lineman are going to be different than those of a distance runner on the cross country team which will be different from the point-guard on the basketball team and the starting shortstop on the softball team. Body type, genetics and activity level all impact the dietary and calorie needs of individual student-athletes. We have been discussing the issue of training table for some time. First and foremost, because of Notre Dame’s residential nature with the majority of students (and student-athletes) living on campus and having a meal plan to eat in institutional dining facilities, the creation of a separate training table just for student-athletes has bot been something that was widely embraced institutionally. Through education and data, I believe we have been able to show the need for a different nutritional model for student-athletes. By having a training table, the meal can be mandatory and monitored by both coaches and out sports dietitian. The issue with overall eating habits is typically (from what student-athletes tell us) a time management problem. With heavy class schedules, study needs, practice obligations and opportunities/activities associated with being a college student, decisions on what you do and what you “skip” need to be made every day. Unfortunately, rest and eating are usually two areas that do not get prioritized to the top of the list.

ITI: Each athletic program at Notre Dame has high expectations. What are some of the things this program does to help individuals and teams reach their goals?

MK: At this point, we are still developing the plan for our Athlete/Sports Performance Program. Generally, our focus has been on communication in terms of sharing data and ideas amongst our sports. We have great coaches and support staff in the areas of sports medicine, strength and conditioning, athletic training, etc. What we need to do is look at the services we are providing and ask if we are doing everything we can to help our student-athletes be successful. Further, we need to look at our specific sport training programs and determine if we are meeting needs properly. We want to make our training programs more individualized by sport and student-athlete because the needs are different. In addition, we want to try to introduce a more scientific approach in terms of screening/testing our student-athletes. We still have some work to do on the plan and certainly the implementation of things will be a long-term process. When a student-athlete graduates from Notre Dame, our goal would be for them to say that Notre Dame provided them every opportunity to be successful in their chosen sport and that we helped them improve.

ITI: In your research, did you find certain universities implementing programs like this successfully?

MK: There are a number of institutions who have some variation of a sports performance program. A small number have fairly advanced programs. Whether it be larger institutions with a hospital or medical school affiliation or institutions with an exercise physiology, sports science or athletic training educational program those places are generally a bit ahead of the curve. Resources associated with the hospitals and medical schools as well as access to research personnel has given these institutions a head start on others. The overall concept of sports performance and incorporating this type of program is fairly new to the college athletics landscape, but it is gaining traction. For the most part though, sports performance is about having all of the units impacting a student-athlete’s performance working together to achieve the best results. There are also several private, for-profit models that exist and we have visited or communicated with some of those facilities as well and have an idea of what they are doing.

ITI: For the Athlete Performance Program to be a success, what goals do you need to achieve? 

MK: First and
foremost, leadership from t
he athletics director and athletics administration is key. To our benefit, the implementation of our sports performance program is one of Jack’s key strategic initiatives and he has communicated that widely within the campus community. Second, coach and support staff acceptance and participation will be critical. We have outstanding coaches and staff who have great experience, expertise and ideas in their areas of focus. Tapping into those resources has been extremely beneficial for me as I have researched what directions we should focus on both short term and long term. At the end of the day though, what we implement first as part of the sports performance program must show measurable results. Whether that be a modification of services currently provided, alterations to the training programs for student-athletes or the implementation of more scientific testing/screening protocols. If we do not show results in some measurable way early, you run the risk of losing interest/traction with the overall program.

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.