12 years later, Jack Swarbrick and Notre Dame look for Brian Kelly’s replacement, an easier job now thanks to Kelly

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Replacing Brian Kelly will not require the same sales job of Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick that replacing Charlie Weis did. Exactly 12 years to the day that Swarbrick fired Weis, he again starts a coaching search. This time, Swarbrick expects the interest to come to him.

“The circumstances could not be more different,” Swarbrick said Tuesday morning. “Then I was in the process of trying to find someone to fix a very broken program and in a circumstance where, frankly, a lot of people didn’t think this was a place they wanted to be because they didn’t think Notre Dame was committed or able to produce championship football teams.”

Swarbrick did not point out that the same reason may or may not be what prompted Kelly to head to LSU, despite all the progress Kelly helmed in South Bend and Swarbrick praised him for, even after this abrupt departure.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the difference I see today as I embark on another search,” Swarbrick said. “In my 14 years, this program has never been in better shape. We have never been in a better position to take the next step in building this program into a consistent contender for national championships, and I am excited with the opportunity to attract the next leader to do that.”

Technically speaking, the No. 6 Irish (11-1) remain in contention for a national championship this season, with their postseason fate still hanging in the balance until Sunday afternoon, but Swarbrick did not name an interim head coach on Tuesday, pointing toward the staff’s stability as something he will lean on for now. Reading between the lines, that is likely more a nod toward associate head coach Brian Polian and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, two longtime Notre Dame assistants with experience in the administrative and overseeing duties that Kelly often delegated, than it is pinning the program on defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, both already reportedly offered jobs at LSU by Kelly.

“This staff is so well structured and the responsibilities are so well understood, I feel less of a need to have a designated interim,” Swarbrick said.

Every indication is that Freeman is a candidate for the long-term job at Notre Dame right now, as well, despite not having any head coaching experience. That may be the biggest difference between now and 12 years ago in Swarbrick’s search.

“Last time we did a football search, we built a list of characteristics. I can’t remember now, I think it was 11 or 12, that we built first and then we screened candidates against that list,” he said. “High on that list was rebuilding a program. Rebuilding a program doesn’t even show up on the list this year. A different focus takes you in different directions, and that’s where I’m pleased to say we are today.”

The characteristics Swarbrick mentioned Tuesday included “fit at Notre Dame,” a CEO approach to “building and managing a staff,” actual football-related tendencies, recruiting abilities and a focus on developing players.

“We’re going to take those characteristics and we’re going to find the best person,” Swarbrick said. “I don’t want to set any individual criteria as part of that.”

Swarbrick did not set a timetable on this hiring, but with the early signing period beginning December 15, no one should expect the process to last long.

Swarbrick’s forward-looking words were all rather generic. No one will be shocked he wants to hire a head coach that can answer, “What’s your approach to playing the game? What’s your style? What do you do? How do you achieve victory on the football field?”

His comments about Kelly’s departure, though, were surprisingly illuminating.

Swarbrick and Kelly first discussed his exit for LSU late Monday night, well after the news had broken on social media. Kelly was not looking to create a bidding war for his services, something Swarbrick said he appreciated.

“When we talked, he indicated he was resigning to take another position,” Swarbrick said. “He thanked me for the opportunity the University had provided to him, thanked me for our friendship, which I very much appreciated. And I wished him the best, and we talked a little bit about how today would work.”

Swarbrick had seen the call coming, even before word broke Monday afternoon that Kelly and LSU were in conversation.

“There had been enough in the weeks leading up that gave me a pretty strong sense that there might be other things that were attracting Brian,” Swarbrick said.

That differs 180 degrees from what Kelly presented publicly, but a combination of the reality of coaching for 12 years at Notre Dame and some subtle hints from Kelly left Swarbrick well aware, or perhaps well aware in hindsight.

“There is just a sense you get when you work closely with somebody for 12 years that there’s a certain restlessness, and I could sense that,” he said. “I could sense that in some conversations. There was a Freudian slip or two along the way that grabbed my attention, and whether that was intentional or not, it just feels a little bit like somebody who might be open to a different opportunity.”

Kelly told the Irish roster that opportunity represented something for his family, a new endeavor of sorts. He never pushed Swarbrick for program- or University-wide changes that had been met with such resistance that it felt like a dealbreaker.

“This wasn’t a matter of saying, ‘I need X or Y to remain at Notre Dame.’ There just weren’t any of those conversations. I would not have resisted to enter into those conversations,” Swarbrick said. “We’re always talking about improvements in the program, constantly, and we have a capital improvement plan that spans the next three years. So it’s not about not doing things to get better. We talked about what those would be and what those would look like and there wasn’t distance between us.”

Instead, it would seem Kelly simply wanted to leave, and he had wanted to leave for at least a few weeks. He leaves Swarbrick needing another head coach, but that need is far less dire than it was in 2009.

“We are in that position in significant part thanks to coach Kelly, who did a marvelous job of helping to restore the program at the University of Notre Dame.”