The life of a big-time college football coach can be extremely stressful. Competing 12-14 times a year against some of the top minds in football with teams that are often similar in talent, these coaches are expected to win every time. Should they stumble — sometimes even just once — the local media, the fan base, the boosters, and their administration can turn on them quickly, regardless of how many times that coach has delivered in the past. The impatience of fans and boosters with a “win or else” attitude often leads college programs to cut ties with their coach, even in cases where the school will have to pay out millions of dollars to that coach, turning their eyes to the newest hot commodity on the coaching carousel.
Notre Dame, perhaps the most storied program in college football history, has resisted this temptation. After hiring coach Brian Kelly away from the University of Cincinnati, the Fighting Irish had failed to ascend to their expected heights. Following last night’s victory over USC, while many pundits debated the future of USC head coach Clay Helton, Kelly was able to reflect on his own experience in that same place just two years ago. Following a humiliating defeat to USC that dropped Notre Dame to 4-8 on the season, speculation was rampant that Kelly’s days in South Bend were over. Yet Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick refused to give in to public pressure.
“It was never a question,” Swarbrick told USA Today. “… I said at midseason we weren’t changing. We never even considered it. Never talked about it again.”
Column: Can Notre Dame football win big again? Jack Swarbrick, True Believer, is driven to see it happen https://t.co/pmOzeY9B8X— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) September 7, 2017
Swarbrick was mindful that Kelly was the same coach that had led Notre Dame to a 12-1 season in 2012 and had posted winning records in each of his first six seasons in South Bend. Kelly had been a celebrated coach prior to coming to Notre Dame after churning out some impressive Cincinnati teams. Swarbrick knew that Kelly hadn’t become a worse coach with experience.
Instead, Swarbrick and Kelly discussed changes. “The most impressive thing to me was when we sat down, there was nothing that Brian didn’t put on the table to look at,” Swarbrick said. “Personnel. The way we practice. Scheduling. Our approach to recruiting. Nutrition. I mean, he put everything on the table.”
Kelly and Swarbrick made changes to the staff. They hired new coordinators in all three phases of the game and also hired Director of Football Performance Matt Balis. Since that miserable 2016 season, Notre Dame has won 22 of 25 games. Undefeated this season after last night’s victory over USC, Notre Dame is very likely to earn a berth in the national championship playoff this year.
“… Wins and losses matter a lot,” Swarbrick said. “But it’s what you see in practice every day. It’s how you see the kids grow and what they’re doing.”
“I’m probably going to violate some (privacy) law here, but this is the first time in my 11 years not a single student-athlete (is) on academic probation in the semester,” Swarbrick continued. “That’s where the program is right now culturally, right? No disciplinary issues. Just really great kids. And that’s what you’re looking at.”
An undefeated playoff team full of student-athletes with character — the goal for every college football program in America — is the reward for Swarbrick’s patience. Other programs should take note.