This ain't your granddaddy's Notre Dame football anymore.
Slowly but surely (and definitely surprisingly), Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is escorting his school into modern times. It's taking time as the centenarian program needs a walker with those little tennis balls on it and it wouldn't hurt to keep your hand on its back as it moves. But forward it goes and it just might be catching up faster than you thought.
When Dr. Kevin White "stepped down" from his post as athletic director in June 2008, I had mixed emotions. For too long Notre Dame put so much focus on football as a business and the other varsity sports struggled for recognition by the administration and athletic offices, not to mention the fans.
Dr. White changed all of that. He hired new coaches and started fund-raising campaigns for better facilities. Under his watch, Notre Dame won national championships in women's basketball and women's and men's fencing. The baseball team made it to the College World Series. Hockey made the final game of the Frozen Four. Men's and women's soccer and lacrosse took leaps and bounds.
But for all of Dr. White's successes, his failures were just too prominent. The hiring, extensions and firings of Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, George O'Leary and Charlie Weis were, at least in the eyes of the alumni and fans, mistakes far too egregious to ignore.
Whether he truly stepped down or was fired behind closed doors doesn't matter. He took a job as the athletic director of Duke, where Olympic sports are far more important to the school and football is the afterthought.
In comes Jack Swarbrick.
He was brought in for one thing and one thing only: fix Notre Dame football. His first article of business? Fire Charlie Weis and hire the next face for the Mount Rushmore of South Bend.
He found his man in Brian Kelly, a coach with a pedigree at all levels of college football: national championships at Division II Grand Valley State, a MAC championship at Central Michigan and two straight Big East championships at Cincinnati. The key in all three of those colleges was that none of them had recent success. He built those programs and he built them fast.
The energetic, explosive tag team of Swarbrick and Kelly has at the very least breathed new life into the aging program. The feeling is no longer respect and awe for the storied history of Notre Dame football but instead they seem to embrace and even challenge the ghosts that preceded them.
Generally, at least from my perspective, athletic directors stay in the background. They make major announcements and get interviewed now and then but their jobs are mostly administrative. Swarbrick on the other hand seems to relish his time in front of the camera and may even seek the attention of the media.
He approaches his job not as an administrator but instead as the general manager from the NFL. His hands-on approach is fostering an exciting atmosphere in South Bend that hasn't been felt since the Lou Holtz era.
Kelly, too, seems to love working over the press. His predecessor, Charlie Weis, may have loved the chess games during press conferences and the "I know more than you ever will" attitude seemed to ooze off of him as he relaxed in his office chair. Kelly, on the other hand, leans forward against the podium. He engages each question as if it were the only one he'd answer all day. He knows the face of the Irish program is more than just X's and O's but also includes public relations.
In the last three years, Notre Dame football has seen many tradition-challenging changes. Players walk through the student section before warmups to remind them they they represent thousands of other members of the community. The schedule includes a neutral-site game each season that counts as a home-away-from-home game for the Irish to improve recruiting networks. The first night game in two decades occurs this weekend against USC, undoubtedly scheduled to show recruits that Notre Dame is still a "prime-time school."
The players no longer walk to the stadium from the cathedral but are instead paraded through the parking lots before ultimately walking under the shadow of "Touchdown Jesus," the very site of Notre Dame's original mecca: Cartier Field. Statues and banners line the stadium to honor those that came before the current roster.
And now, most recently, the tradition of equipment managers painting the helmets each week is dead. The new helmets released in time for the game against USC feature a paint that better replicates the gilded dome above the administration building that is the ultimate symbol of Our Lady's university.
The paint will be processed by Hydro Graphics Inc., an Oregon-based company, and the process is too complicated to be duplicated on campus week in and week out. The paint does still contain the 23.9 gold-karat flakes that matches the gold paint on the historic dome and the students will still help maintain the helmets between games.
Swarbrick has done an amazing job of not only reminding the players and fans that Notre Dame has one of the deepest, richest histories in the entire sport but also that change can be good, too.
Whether it be new helmets or a simple walk through the quad, Jack Swarbrick has taken the reins of history and is driving it forward into the new century (as will Brian Kelly).
No longer will Notre Dame football be mired in tradition and ghosts.
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