Commentary

Swarbrick focused on ND's interests

Originally Published: June 9, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- On the passenger seat of Jack Swarbrick's SUV sits New York Times best-seller "Sway." The book is, according to its own subtitle, about "the irresistible pull of irrational behavior."

Swarbrick read it recently. Loved it. When asked whether a book about otherwise smart people making flawed decisions might be applicable to the current college conference tempest, the Notre Dame athletic director sighed.

"Yeah," he said, with a slight smile.

[+] EnlargeJack Swarbrick
AP Photo/Joe RaymondNotre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is facing tough decisions about the future of the Fighting Irish.

It isn't easy these days being Swarbrick, a smart man ensnared in an irrational time.

In his hands rests nothing less than the fate of college athletics. He knows that a single call to his friend Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany with the news that Notre Dame is finally ready to join that league would pre-empt a nationwide chain reaction of conference mergers and acquisitions.

But his job isn't to save the world. It's to plot the best course for the school that employs him, the school he graduated from in 1976. Preventing nationwide destabilization and doing what's best for the Fighting Irish are not necessarily mutually achievable goals.

So, yes, there is a bit of pressure on the 56-year-old former businessman's shoulders. Even if he's not eager to acknowledge it.

What Swarbrick is eager to do is protect Notre Dame's interests, which are as follows:

1. Remaining independent in football.

2. Helping ensure the strength and viability of the Big East, where the Irish play their other sports.

"All any school can do is focus on what's right for its culture, values and tradition," Swarbrick said over dinner Monday night. "That's what we're doing."

But Swarbrick also will continue to stick a finger into the winds of change howling around college sports. If this reaches hurricane force, something the school holds dear might have to give.

And the winds are picking up precipitously right now.

"I always thought this would play out over this summer," Swarbrick said. "This [recent reports of a Big 12 ultimatum to Big Ten flirters Nebraska and Missouri] reaffirms it more than changes it. It probably assures it.

"I expect whatever change will happen will occur in the next 45 to 60 days."

So there's your timetable. Sources say the ultimatums to the Cornhuskers and Tigers are real and have been delivered. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that Mizzou's deadline for swearing loyalty to the Big 12 is June 17. The Omaha World-Herald reported Tuesday night that the Huskers might be ready to start (and possibly end) the dominoes as soon as this Friday with a jump to the Big Ten.

Perhaps that means we will start getting concrete answers in a process shrouded in secrecy and plagued by misinformation.

Among the myths growing in the information vacuum is that this is an athletic issue -- all about the TV revenue, right? The reality, Swarbrick said, is that this is being driven much more by the academic side of campus at most schools than by the athletic side. Presidents and chancellors see this as a rare opportunity to change their educational neighborhood and better their universities in the process.

"If there's anything about this I think is widely misunderstood, it's the extent to which academic decisions are influencing this," Swarbrick said. "They sort of underline the very discussion here in a way the general sports fan can't really appreciate."

Notre Dame's academic administration is as involved as any, but Swarbrick has been the public point man. And as the face of the most attractive school in play this summer, he's trying to navigate quite the Catch-22. It goes something like this:

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
Warren Wimmer/Icon SMIND prefers to take the field as an independent.

Notre Dame doesn't want to go to the Big Ten. But if the Big Ten torpedoes the Big East by taking several institutions on its way to 15 schools, Notre Dame might be forced to join as member No. 16 -- because there might be nowhere else for its non-revenue sports to go and because it could face increased football scheduling difficulty if it doesn't. Yet if Notre Dame must go to the Big Ten, it would much rather go as the only new addition to a 12-team league -- which, of course, it doesn't really want to do.

Complicated, isn't it? No wonder Swarbrick takes pensive pokes at his prime rib while discussing scenarios nobody can predict with any certainty.

"It increasingly feels like there'll be a lot of change, or very little," Swarbrick said. "It's hard to see middle ground."

Fitting, given that there is no middle ground where Notre Dame is involved.

All those fans who complain about the Irish's independent status and sweetheart deals with NBC and the BCS know their schools would do the same thing in a heartbeat -- if they could swing it. Who wouldn't want complete scheduling autonomy, coast-to-coast reach and guaranteed TV ratings?

So Notre Dame's allure cannot be questioned, no matter how mediocre the football program has been recently. What can be questioned is what the Irish's place will be in the new world order -- and how long the new world order will last.

"I do feel very strongly that there probably is not a long-standing status quo anymore," Swarbrick said. "It'll probably become more fluid. I could see conference mergers where whole conferences would disappear in a merger.

"There are so many things that can produce seismic change. We're going to live with that sort of change more often than not. The emerging consumer of college sports is so different. Generations of young people are growing up who are so accustomed to rapid change. They don't understand things that don't change. They have shorter attention spans, are accustomed to change and less oriented to tradition."

That might seem like irrational behavior to some, but its irresistible pull is dragging college sports into a new era in real time. Where Notre Dame positions itself in the new world order will be vital to just about everyone.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.