South Bend, Ind. — Brian Kelly has coached 103 games at Notre Dame and athletic director Jack Swarbrick has attended every single news conference afterward.
The two will often have a brief chat before Kelly talks with reporters and they will usually leave together. Swarbrick is not interested so much in what Kelly has to say about the play calling or the quarterback’s performance.
“It’s both a show of support but also wanting to make sure firsthand I saw and heard what went on,” Swarbrick said.
Kelly and Swarbrick will begin their ninth season together, leading the most scrutinized program in college football, when the 12th-ranked Fighting Irish host No. 14 Michigan on Saturday night. Only four Power Five schools – Oklahoma State, Iowa, Northwestern and Duke – have had the same combination of football coach and AD longer than Notre Dame, and only at Oklahoma State did the AD hire the coach.
Kelly and Swarbrick are inextricably linked professionally, though not particularly close away from work. Swarbrick, a Notre Dame alum, hired Kelly to rebuild a program that had become antiquated. Kelly delivered a blueprint with a history of success.
Swarbrick’s job has been to support and implement, while also educating the coach on how that vision must fit at Notre Dame. They then work on modifications.
“You do have to be a partner throughout that, and sort of when you’re bumping up against things that are uniquely Notre Dame to remind the coach that is what they are and they help define us and you’ve got to treat them as unique attributes – not as obstacles,” Swarbrick said.
Kelly tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve while Swarbrick, a lawyer, is a self-described introvert.
Together they have brought some stability to a place where every Saturday is a referendum on the state of the program.
“It’s actually like opposites do attract,” said Kelly, whose .670 winning percentage at Notre Dame is the best of any coach since Lou Holtz (1986-96).
Swarbrick likes to tell the story of when former Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan gave him some sound job advice.
“He said when he’d hire a coach he’d sit them down and show them a list of everything that wasn’t going to change at Notre Dame,” Swarbrick said.
“He actually wrote it out. And he said within 30 days the coach is always in your office asking to change one of those things and you just take your list out and say remember, we said this was never going to change.”
That list includes athletes living in dorms with the general student-body for three years and a faith-based educational experience.
“If you’re a coach who wants to have control of all aspects of student discipline, well, that’s not happening at Notre Dame,” Swarbrick said. “You’re not going to have anything to do with or anything to say about drug testing. It’s not even run through the athletic department.”
Kelly came to Notre Dame after successful stints at Division II Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. An Irish Catholic from Massachusetts who played football at a small private college, Kelly seemed a perfect fit for Notre Dame. But such a thing really doesn’t exist.
“I will say any coach would have to learn about this place and what works here,” Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins said.
“I think Brian’s had a learning curve and I think I’d be surprised if he wouldn’t say that. You can’t have a program that may work at another place and insert it here and expect it to work because it’s not going to work. The students won’t graduate. You have to recruit the right kind of kid. You have to help them be successful off the field as well as on the field.”
Following the ugly end of Charlie Weis’ tenure as coach, Kelly stepped into an existential crisis at Notre Dame. The program needed to be modernized, from multimillion-dollar investments in facilities to smaller things like training table meals. But at a place where traditions are considered sacrosanct, even little things can lead to big fights – and Kelly walked right into some.
Swarbrick acted as both advocate for Kelly’s vision and a guard rail. Kelly said where it took longest for him adjust to what works best at Notre Dame was in recruiting. Kelly said too often he and his staff would target players they hoped could blossom at Notre Dame instead of sticking to those who were more natural fits.
“We spun our wheels for a few years,” Kelly said.
After Notre Dame’s 4-8 record in 2016, Kelly re-assessed the blueprint, a process that included a day-to-night meeting with Swarbrick to examine every aspect of the program.
“He would have made changes whether Jack was there or not,” Jenkins said. “But I don’t think they would have been as deep.”
Swarbrick said he attends about half of Notre Dame’s football practices. Kelly said his boss is not one to butt in, but by being present Swarbrick can provide big-picture assessments.
“Jack has a great ability to recognize the health of an organization,” Kelly said.