Following the victory at Southern California to end the regular season, Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick admitted he didn’t think the Fighting Irish football team would make a national splash until 2013. Earlier this week, however, he explained how the signs did point to marked improvement this fall.
Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick likes the coaching cohesiveness throughout all of Fighting Irish sports, including what Brian Kelly has done with his staff in football
The Irish lost five games in both 2010 and 2011, but last fall could have been significantly different had a few literal bounces gone head coach Brian Kelly’s way. The same can be said for a lot of teams each and every year, but the bad breaks for Notre Dame in 2011 were astonishingly unfortunate.
“We had a series of things, much of them our fault,” Swarbrick said Monday. “We had three goal-line fumbles last year, all of which went against us. Michigan fumbles at the goal line and it rolls to [quarterback] Denard Robinson and he walks into the end zone. And South Florida and USC, we fumble at the goal line and they pick it up and run  and  yards for touchdowns.
“I’ve frequently said to people, ‘Let me get those three plays back,’ and people have a different perception of the season.”
It was Notre Dame that was on the receiving end of many gifts this year. From Robinson’s poor throws en route to four interceptions, to a timely whistle on a goal-line stand against Stanford in overtime that might have been ruled a touchdown on another night by a different officiating crew, to a missed field goal by Pittsburgh in overtime (along with a missed penalty on the Irish for two players wearing the same jersey number on the same play), the Irish have been paid back in full.
“Now that catches up to you; it balances out,” Swarbrick said. “I get a missed field goal [vs.] Pittsburgh this year (hearty laugh). We’ve had several of those fortunate results this year. Sports always does that: it balances it out. Last year, when all the negative ones sort of grouped together, competitively I was saying, ‘Man, I know how much better we are.’ Unfortunately, I’m not sure everybody else could see it.”
Just as Kelly has, Swarbrick points to a cohesive coaching staff as one of the main reasons Notre Dame clawed its way to a No. 1 ranking and the BCS National Championship game against No. 2 Alabama on Jan. 7 in Miami. As he talked about the changes that were made in the offseason, he surveyed the Loftus Center, where all those coaches were present. The program could have easily seen several assistants poached, including defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who interviewed for the head coaching vacancy at Boston College.
“I’m not surprised, and an important reason that they are still here is they were so committed to this last game,” Swarbrick said. “A lot of people who were interested in them wanted them sooner than that. It’s a great tribute to these coaches. They felt a real obligation and commitment to this team and this championship game. They wanted to be here through it. That creates a different dynamic, you know, when a lot of people don’t want to wait.
“My obligation is to help our coaches reach their professional goals. I’m here to help them. If they’re ready, and it’s time and they have the right opportunity, I’m going to be their biggest supporter. You’re right, you’ve got to be thinking about, when that happens, how do you deal with it? Brian and I do talk about that. Sort of, ‘What if, and how do you approach it?’”
Kelly lost running backs coach Tim Hinton and offensive line coach Ed Warinner to Ohio State and Urban Meyer following an 8-5 campaign in 2011. He also watched Charley Molnar vacate his offensive coordinator post to oversee a Massachusetts program moving from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. That particular personnel move seemed amicable.
Both Hinton and Warinner had Ohio roots, which made the lateral moves easier to understand. Notre Dame brought in Harry Hiestand to head up the line and coordinate the running game, and Bob Elliott to take over the safeties when assistant Chuck Martin was promoted to offensive coordinator.
Swarbrick is pleased with how Kelly shuffled the coaches still on the payroll to address needs, which included promoting intern Scott Booker to tight ends coach, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks to co-defensive coordinator and moving Tony Alford back to running backs and adding slot receivers to his load.
“Part of it is the careful assessment of your current staff,” Swarbrick explained. “The moves he made when we had people leave last year are a good indication of that, where he really strengthened the program by getting people in places where they could be even better, more effective. Putting Chuck [Martin] as the [offensive coordinator], putting Tony [Alford] back with the slot [receivers] and running backs; that was a really creative combination combining the slot and running back together. [There was] a different approach to special teams. That’s part of the dynamic saying to yourself, ‘Okay, if I lose this guy, are there changes I’d make internally before I hire somebody?’
“We need to be financially competitive and we are. For coaches to work with these kids, it’s a pretty nice place to be. There are a lot of problems you don’t have when you’re working with young men like this. They recognize that. They’re pretty selective about what their next opportunities will be.”