Swarbrick’s Patience Paying Dividends, Presents New Challenges

Twenty-two months ago Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was in the throes of a full-blown crisis surrounding the Fighting Irish football program. The team had just completely stumbled to a 4-8 record shattering the floor that some believed could never occur under Brian Kelly, the program was without a defensive coordinator following the prolonged disaster (and subsequent firing) of Brian VanGorder, while plenty of arrows were flying Swarbrick’s direction for his apparent lack of public acknowledgment–and responsibility–for the situation in late 2016.

When Swarbrick finally stepped into the light on his radio show on December 3, 2016 he mentioned it was ‘business as usual’ for the football program and that he never looked at one season in isolation as the 2015 season was ‘one of the best coaching jobs he’d seen’ in his career.

To be sure, Swarbrick’s comments ruffled some feathers insofar as they were a complete backing of Brian Kelly in addition to being, at least a little bit, somewhat tone-deaf to the frustration of fans who wanted more concrete answers to Notre Dame’s problems. In many circles, the Irish appeared ripe for major changes all throughout the football program, including a good hard look at the head coach. Swarbrick’s apparent calmness and public vibe that everything was fine flew in the face of the swirling turmoil.

Throughout this time, our 18 Stripes staff remained mostly ambivalent. Some agreed Kelly should be fired or that it was time to move on although the prospects of finding the next head coach weren’t very exciting*. Some agreed he should probably remain in South Bend although that very ambivalence about the situation was a really poor sign for the future.

*In late November 2016 we published The List of 30 coaches who could be realistic options to take over for Brian Kelly. Since then, 5 of those coach’s have been fired, 3 are inching closer to being fired, and while a couple have maintained their lofty status (Dabo Swinney, Chris Petersen) and weren’t that realistic to begin with there’s only a couple coach’s from 30 a year-and-a-half later that have clearly improved their programs: Jeff Brohm and to a lesser extent Justin Fuente. Not coincidentally, many people were in favor of those two.  

I leaned towards the former group of a firing but wasn’t too stressed about it because I felt Kelly’s tenure was coming to a close, 2017 would tilt the balance, and if needed the program would have a full year to find a replacement as the buyout decreased by several million dollars. An extra year to get the right hire wouldn’t have bothered me one bit.

To be fair, Swarbrick wasn’t nearly as calm about the situation after he green-lit extensive changes to the coaching staff outside of Kelly. Swarbrick’s patience with this situation took a lot of guts and his doubling down–not just on Brian Kelly but a full 2.0 rebuild of the staff and program–has paid off to a degree most didn’t see coming. Since the beginning of 2017 the Irish are on a 17-3 run winning 85% of their games while matching the best 20-game streak of the Kelly era that previously stretched from October 29, 2011 through August 31, 2013.

Needless to say, the coaching carousel doesn’t appear to be coming to South Bend any time soon. I’ve been utterly convinced that the end of Kelly’s tenure would be full of bitterness and acrimony and yet today the path forward appears as smooth as any since November 2012. The Irish are winning, the facilities have been upgraded in a way that seemed ridiculous a decade ago, the assistant coaches are thriving, and recruiting remains productive with quality player development.

Nearly everyone who doesn’t have an ax to grind with Notre Dame agrees that it’s a really difficult place to win today but is it possible we’re underselling the appeal of this job as head toward the 2020’s decade?

This brings up an interesting possibility of Kelly’s “good times” occurring as both he and Jack Swarbrick near retirement. Notre Dame’s AD is currently in his 11th year with the program and is over 7.5 years older than the Irish football coach. How much longer will Swarbrick be around?

Additionally, the current contract for Kelly expires following the 2021 season which means in the modern game of “why let anyone negatively recruit you” he should be due another extension some time this December. Maybe it’s just a one-year extension but even if it’s longer it’s pretty crazy that we were talking not that long ago about Kelly’s shrinking buyout in relation to a coaching search and the school may be adding an additional $10+ million to the ticket relatively soon.

With a two-year extension, Kelly’s new contract would take him one year removed from when he said he’d be on the beach sipping mai tai’s for the 2024 game against Texas A&M.

Is it fair to predict Kelly will now be the longest-tenured Fighting Irish head coach in school history? Will he put together 3 more seasons beyond this current campaign? Are we moving towards a most likely scenario where Kelly will retire from coaching and step away from Notre Dame instead of being fired?

One thing is certain, thanks to the even-handed justice of the NCAA there will be no run at Rockne’s wins record. Without the NCAA’s prudence, Kelly would be moving within ~25 wins of the school-record mark near the conclusion of this season. Instead, he’s still just half way toward the record.

For Swarbrick, he will have to juggle how much praise (and money!) to dish out to the current coaching staff because he may not be around to see the end of those decisions, and there’s also a harsh lesson at Notre Dame, that what looks good today may not necessarily look that way tomorrow. Everyone making those high-level decisions in South Bend right now has to weigh those concerns. As difficult as it may be for some to think right now, imagine a 10-3 finish to this 2018 season. Now what does the future look like with regards to million dollar contracts?

By |2018-10-21T22:31:20+00:00October 21st, 2018|Football|41 Comments

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IrishTexan
IrishTexan

I’m still not sure where I stand on “Kelly 2.0”. If we’re talking about 22-3 or 21-4 over the past 2 years, then I think we can truly say that a corner was turned. But we’ve had good starts under Kelly in other years that have turned south, so I really just want to see that he can keep it all together in the last month of the season. I hope he does, of course, but we thought things were looking good in 2014 in Tallahassee, and that we were just a step away in 2015.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

I still don’t see anyone better that is attainable. He definitely has flaws, big flaws, but all of the other guys do to. Except for Darth Saban, his only flaw is winning every damn game. I’m liking what I’m seeing from Brohm. I would like to see more though.

juicebox
juicebox

I like Brohm a lot. He has drastically improved recruiting at Purdue. They have gone from 71 nationally for 2017, to 52 for 2018, and are currently at 25 for 2019. Will be interesting to see how long he is there before someone bigger and better snatches him up.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Rumors of a homecoming to Louisville are already getting pretty loud. I don’t know if Louisville can afford to get rid of Petrino though all things considered they must want to…And usually where there’s a will there’s a way.

juicebox
juicebox

Interesting, didn’t realize he went there. Makes sense since his little bro tore it up there. I’m now assuming this is a foregone conclusion that will happen by the end of 2019.

It would be interesting if he would stay at UL long term if he has success. Would the draw of his alma mater would keep him there if say an SEC team, or a post BK ND, came asking with a big offer…

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

Might want to pump the brakes until we get through November, especially given 2014/2017. I think we can safely say it was a correct call if we go 11-1 or 12-0, as that would be 20 regular-season wins in two years. (I believe a couple years ago I said 20 regular season wins in the next two years would be the criteria for clear success. I thought there was little chance of that. Odds are, I was wrong.) But if and until we get there, well, we haven’t gotten there (I think we’ll get there).

In any case, assuming even a 12-1 season (either 11-1 and a NY6 win or 12-0 and an L in the semifinal), that’s a 25-13 3-year span since the last extension. Is that really extension-worthy? That’s non-obvious to me.

Of course, the trend would be very positive for the record and, in that case, this would be the second-best season since Holtz, but, still: we bought high after 2015, and we’d be buying high after this season too. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt asking for recruiting purposes if he’ll sign a deal that doesn’t bump up his buyout, but I presume he wouldn’t take it.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

This year very likely makes three 10+ win seasons out of the last four years. That’s definitely worthy of an extension in this day and age.

More Noise
More Noise

When that ol’ bandwagon starts rolling it always feels crappy to me to pump the brakes, being an enthusiastic person. As well being mostly an admirer of BK’s positive traits as I see them (CEO style, works within the ND values system, recruits good guys on the team who mostly seem to develop even more that way, went all in to reinvent after ’16, etc.) I really hate to mash that brake pedal. But after Tallahasee (though we did get screwed), BVG, Palo Alto ’15, BVG, the Turnover chain, BVG… guess I too have to be in the let’s wait and see crowd.
Having said that, I saw plenty of other seasons under admired coaches go south after heartbreaking defeats (Ara and USC multiple times, not to mention Purdue; Lou and Miami ’89 and BC ’93). So I guard a faint flicker of hope that it will all work out OK… and to get the point of this thread, that an extension will be fully merited by all our opinions.

juicebox
juicebox

What were/are the rules about # of regular season games and what exactly keeps changing? We played 10 prior to ’74. Then mostly 11 until 2002 (we also only played 11 in 2005). But we played 12 in ’89, ’91, ’97, ’99. Why was it so inconsistent for a stretch? Were we playing Hawaii a lot?

KG
KG

In 91 and 97, we did play Hawaii. Not in the other years. 89 we played UVA in the Kickoff Classic, which was an “extra game” in those days. Wikipedia says 1999 we played the “Eddie Robinson Classic” at home, but I guess that counted as an add-on “preseason” game like the Kickoff Classic did.

juicebox
juicebox

That explains it. Thanks!

Andy Roberts

There were also a couple of years in there (2002-03 for instance) where there was an ‘extra’ Saturday of CFB season just due to the calendar, and at the time you were allowed to play 12 games those seasons even though the standard was 11. There will be another one of those next year and in 2021, which I think is why we agreed to Labor Day games in each of those seasons (gives us 2 bye weeks those years).

Orlok
Orlok

Harsh critic of Kelly here. I called for his firing in 2014 and 2016.

But let me ask this: why are we talking about not extending him at the end of November? That seems crazy to me and as long as he’s at ten wins by then we should extend him.

1. First back to back ten win seasons in 25 years.
2. Willingness to change staff and scheme philosophies.
3. Shortage of other qualified candidates, as noted in 2016 and now.
4. Low cost of a two year extension relative to profits (in excess of 30 million a year. That’s profit, not revenue) from having a good head football coach.

When your look at those last two items, you realize short extensions are just a cost of doing business. Not extending Kelly would be a slap in the face and another school might make a serious attempt to hire him.

So yes, wait until the end of November for that extension. But don’t get cheap then if he’s won ten games.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Well put, and I concur entirely. This is probably an 11/12 win team and the third time in four years ND has been relevant and a playoff contender in November. That’s encouraging and good work in the post-Lou reality of the college football landscape. That type of performance is naturally going to come with the reward.

It’s a bit jumping the gun to move to right to extension now, but I do think it’s important that this piece is written to show how much of a change/bounce-back from 2016. Swarbrick looks like his decisions are vindicated no matter how the season quite turns out, sticking with Kelly was probably a wise call based on the results since then. Like Eric wrote, what looked like turmoil has become a smooth program in the past two seasons.

DrIck
DrIck

I might pick a nit at #2 a bit and counter with sticking with BVG after 2015 AND all of 2016

Orlok
Orlok

Yeah, I’m making the assumption (and definitely just that) that Kelly is “changed” and won’t turn a blind eye to clear underperformance (as the defense did in 2015) anymore. I realize that’s a strong assumption, so really, for me, (1), (3) and (4) are the reasons to keep him.

Scarponi
Scarponi

Though the willingness to pull Wimbush for book at 3-0 this season supports the Kelly has changed narrative.

Orlok
Orlok

By the way, great article, Eric. Love the big picture pieces you write. Thank you.

But also, because I’m a crazy person: could you speak in more concrete terms about how this affects our ability to find Kelly’s eventual replacement? Has to open up a better set of candidates with better facilities, recruiting, and win percentage, right?

Clay Cossé fka Mouth
Clay Cossé fka Mouth

Hire Mike Sanford. With Charley Molnar as OC and Chuck Martin as DC. Anything else I can help you with?

Orlok
Orlok

Right. Your first and second phone calls are to Mike Sanford. But when he declines because of the great position he’s in, do you call Chris Peterson?

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

Hah!!

TimsSon
TimsSon

I was also one at a loss about Kelly following 2016, and the end of last year.

I have been thinking lately, though, about how happy I am that in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, and now again 2018 (please let it continue!!) it was / is possible to enjoy a real, true glimmer of hope for a championship so deep into a season. Of course the November falterings in the 2014, 2015, and 2017 hurt, and you look at them and say, “Kelly SHOULD HAVE done better”.

I was at the 1993 BC game. We sat behind the BC bench in box seats that my dad bought off some professors kid outside the old stadium box office window and wasn’t sure were real until got in. Pete Bercich dropped the interception on BC’s final drive right in our eye line, and when they kicked the field goal it looked like it would go wide for a second. I was on campus for the 2002 BC game. The 2002 loss hurt so much because in the decade since 1993 it was clear year’s like 2002 were probably going to be an anomaly, something that might happen once in a blue moon, when things fall right. Weis’s 2005, and 2006 never felt like that, despite the winning. During 2012 somebody on the old site made a comment after the Oklahoma win that they were enjoying the winning so much that they were reading single every article they could find, just to enjoy the possible. I was doing the same. And can do the same this season, and last, and in 2015 up to the end.

So now when I look at Kelly’s last few years, and despite the meltdowns, I feel happy to at least have had the opportunity, in five of the last seven years, to have felt a championship was really possible. This optimism is not my natural state, especially when it comes to ND football. My heart literally pounds the entire game, and sometimes I wish I could just turn off the game and come back to see who won, to keep from taking years off my life.

Looking at the list of 30 proposed coaching options from a few years, ago, and how most have been uninspiring, makes me feel even better about Kelly and the state of things now. Maybe it ends badly this year, maybe it ends great. I don;t know.

I am just happy right now I guess that with Kelly as he is now I don’t have to worry that I;ll only see ND undefeated in mid October once a decade.

More Noise
More Noise

I was at BC in ’93, to your rear and up some… oooff! And BC ’02 for that matter. Anyway, well-written, from the heart, and my heart is with you!

Coyote1985
Coyote1985

I think this would be a great article for December, or better yet, February. Kelly may bomb, he may win a championship, or he may end up somewhere in between.

Jack Swarbrick always says that he does not evaluate coaches in the middle of the season. I think that is a very good approach.

DCIrish84
DCIrish84

It would be interesting as an offseason discussion to update the list. Presumably, Jack has a list in his drawer if something happened to Kelly.

All that said, I think he gets an extension.