Jack Swarbrick had advance notice. As the long-heralded 2020 Irish schedule was set to implode, the Notre Dame director of athletics already knew there would be no trip to Lambeau Field or to Los Angeles.
Contrary to the narrative the SEC put out about being completely and universally blindsided by the Big Ten’s initial decision to play only conference games, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez had already reached out to Swarbrick, as had their counterparts at USC and Stanford in anticipation of the Pac-12 quickly making the same decision.
“We had a pretty good sense that that’s where it was headed,” Swarbrick said to Jac Collinsworth on NBC Sports’ new ND on NBC Podcast. “You then spend a lot of time talking to your colleagues at other schools, what are you thinking about?”
Soon thereafter came the Notre Dame role that has either been embellished in narrative or possibly undersold, a distinction that likely depends on the perspective of the telling and one that could come with a bit more clarity a decade from now.
“We did play a little bit of a role in trying to say, we don’t have to — that’s not a signal that we need to do something tomorrow,” Swarbrick said. “Let’s take our time and think about it.”
The ACC bided its time and thought. Swarbrick was thinking, too, less about if the Irish could play — a decision made further up the chain of command than him — and more about who they could face. If no Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, if no trip to Los Angeles, if no visit from the Cardinal, then what?
Rumors of Alabama certainly caught the public’s attention. Turns out, there was validity to those rumors.
“The risk in building our own schedule — and there was a point of time there, about a month or six weeks, where everyone in the country was calling and asking if we wanted to play them — the risk was their conferences would go all conference and then we would lose those games, too,” Swarbrick told Collinsworth, who will host pregame, halftime and postgame coverage of Notre Dame’s home games this season.
“There was a public report about Alabama and us playing. We absolutely had that conversation but turns out pretty fortunately we didn’t do that because the SEC went all conference a few weeks later.”
That risk drove Swarbrick to a few phone calls with soon-to-retire ACC commissioner John Swofford and the current arrangement of 10 conference games in 2020. Even that, though, nearly came apart for the Irish as the University went to two weeks of remote learning and campus quarantine shortly after students returned in August.
“When we had the spike on campus once we came back and [University Pres. Fr. John Jenkins] suspended classes, that was a moment for us to say, we have to see how the school does,” Swarbrick said.
However, such a situation would likely not doom the football season now. Swarbrick does not anticipate another spike leading to the entire student body heading home, but rather only a portion of it. Of course, all hope to avoid that entirely, particularly Swarbrick.
Collinsworth and Swarbrick also discussed general health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the decision to retain Irish head coach Brian Kelly after the debacle of a season in 2016. Third-year starting quarterback Ian Book shared some thoughts on his first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, and Collinsworth mused about the skill position players Book and Rees have at their disposal.
The podcast should be available for download from all your podcast listening services, including Apple Podcasts.