When it comes to the triple option of bluntness, transparency and honesty among college athletic directors, I'm thinking if I've ever met anybody who surpasses Notre Dame's Jack Swarbrick along those lines.
I'm still thinking.
So here are the Fighting Irish, surging like crazy in football at 7-1 after blowing out six consecutive opponents to rank third Tuesday night in the first College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings, and that's only part of the story. For the rest, consider the following: With Swarbrick on the other end of the phone from South Bend, Ind., I returned to last season, when a large chunk of the Notre Dame fan base wanted Brian Kelly gone. Never mind that he took the Irish to the national championship game with a perfect record in his third year as head coach. Who cared that two years ago, he had Notre Dame just a couple of plays shy on the road at Clemson and Stanford of the CFP? Kelly bashers screamed themselves from blue and gold to simply red over the Irish plunging last year to a 4-8 record. Just like that, they had enough of the guy whose seven seasons at the time were the best for a Notre Dame coach since Lou Holtz retired 21 years ago.
Yes, Kelly's regime has produced a slew of off-the-field issues. It's just that most of this Kelly-directed anger is because of his actions (or lack thereof) on the field, and here's the thing: Among active coaches at the FBS level, he has more victories than anybody.
I don't get it.
"Well, I certainly understand it, because that's the same passion that provides support for the program," said Swarbrick among the definitive experts on the Fighting Irish Nation. Not only is this his 10th season running Notre Dame's athletic department, but he was a student on campus in the 1970s during one of the Irish's most prolific stretches. Back then, the Irish produced a national championship under Ara Parseghian when Swarbrick was a sophomore, and they got another one under Dan Devine the year after he graduated in 1976. Such memories of Notre Dame's lost magic helped trigger that growing dislike of Kelly among Irish fans, and their outrage spread from social media to Swarbrick's ears. He added, "I want them to be passionate about Notre Dame football. That doesn't mean I expect them to be objective or fair necessarily, but I do expect them to be passionate. I love it. I embrace it. But it had zero impact on me. That's not sort of the way I work. I had a plan. I was following it through. I knew what I wanted to do, so it wasn't that the plan was better or right. I just tend not to be influenced by external views."
About that plan ...
Did it involve Swarbrick firing Kelly if he didn't do, well, whatever, or if the Irish began this season as ugly as they did the previous one, when they dropped five of their first seven games, including a brutal one at home to Duke?
"No, no," Swarbrick said within milliseconds. "I made the statement at midseason that Brian would lead us out of tunnel during our first game of this season against Temple. If you're going to make the comment, at least from my perspective, I make it by first asking myself, 'Are we going to win another game this year, and if not, will I still be OK with this statement?' That's the way I approached it. I made my mind up that we were going to approach this from a management perspective, not a personnel perspective."
To translate: College football isn't the NFL, where you can respond to an awful season by cutting and dealing players. Instead, Notre Dame decided to replace coaches, just not the main one. There were six new assistants overall, but the biggies were the coordinators. In came Mike Elko on defense, and he has transferred his ability to create schemes to produce turnovers at an astounding rate from Wake Forest to the Irish. Kelly also gave up his passion for play calling on offense. That role went to Chip Long with striking results. While Brandon Wimbush continues to evolve during his first season at quarterback into a complete player, the running game is as bruising as it gets in the country with a bunch of impressive runners behind a pro-caliber offensive line.
During Notre Dame's offseason, did all of those changes come from the mind of Kelly or from its AD as part of his plan?
"Oh, I think Brian and I largely were on the same page. We saw it the same way," Swarbrick said. "It really wasn't a matter of one convincing the other. We went through a pretty exhaustive process of going through every element of the program. We went through every coach. Every administrator. We evaluated what needed to be changed and what didn't. I would say 80 percent of it, we were completely in sync, and the other 20 percent of it, we talked through it until we were in sync. It's a routine process we've gone through after every season, but it was much more extensive this year. You know, the year before that, we were 10-3, and you're contemplating smaller changes. Coming off 4-8, everything was on the table, so it took longer, and it was more extensive, and it produced pretty significant changes."
Uh, yeah. And Swarbrick wasn't just talking about the new video board inside of Notre Dame Stadium. After the Irish began the season by smashing Temple, they matched Georgia blow for blow at home before what is now the No. 1 team in the CFP rankings survived Notre Dame in the final seconds for a 20-19 victory. No worries for the Irish, because they picked up where they left off against Temple with routs against Boston College, Michigan State, Miami (Ohio), North Carolina, No. 17 USC and No. 20 North Carolina State. They've yet to allow an opponent this season more than 20 points, and their average of 41 points per game is tied with Toledo for 11th best in the country.
In sum, Notre Dame has virtually the same players who couldn't survive their opponents or themselves down the stretch of games last season reaching November with their only loss coming by one point near the end of the game against the best team in college football.
"Well, no. I didn't see this coming," Swarbrick said. "I anticipated that we would be significantly better, and I was that certain we would have addressed all of the things that we had identified as issues. What the impact of that would be on the won-loss record, you never know. I tend to focus on it more from a program dynamic. Are we restoring the health of the program, and I was confident we were doing that."
Which brings us to the question that matters the most to those with the Golden Dome sparkling in their souls -- you know, like the South Bend, Ind., native typing these words. How close are these Irish to resembling those of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz in spending years as consistent members of the college football elite?
"We can always build more depth, because depth tends to be such a big factor in college football today," Swarbrick said. "So I think we have to continue to build our depth, but I think we have the staff and the facilities and the core of young men who have the potential to keep us in that mix every year. Everybody has ups and downs in this business. There are no exceptions. I do feel like we're positioning ourselves for an extended period with some really solid play and a philosophy that will work well for us."
So far, so great.