Jack Swarbrick talks Showtime experience

A driving force behind Swarbrick’s approval of the project was the opportunity to take head-on the cynicism toward the authenticity of the term student-athlete.

At first, the notion seemed preposterous.

Never-ending camera crews moving to and fro. Opening up the doors to the pitfalls of the media. Exposing the innermost secrets of a game/business in which coaches thrive on maintaining privacy of secret plans and the element of surprise.

Allowing Showtime to basically take up residence within the hallowed halls of Notre Dame Stadium, the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and beyond? It could never happen.

When the idea first was pitched to Notre Dame Vice President/Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick, his initial reaction was one of great concern. But the more the University delved into it, the more green flags replaced red flags.

Thus, “A Season With Notre Dame Football” was born.

Earlier this week, Irish Illustrated sat down with Swarbrick to discuss the decision initiated by head coach Brian Kelly, the process, their findings amidst a 6-1 start to the season, and why, ultimately, Notre Dame agreed to follow through with what some considered a radical idea.

TIM PRISTER: How did the Showtime project come about?
JACK SWARBRICK: They approached us through CAA (Creative Artists Agency), which is Brian’s agency. That was the logical intersection. It first came through Brian. Brian brought it to my attention.

We had contemplated a version of it a year earlier and couldn’t quite get it worked out. This opportunity came independent of that. It just came together.

TP: So there was no plan where, ‘Hey, it’s 2015 and it looks like it’s going to be a really good Notre Dame football team this year…’
JS: No, you know us better than that. That would be giving us way too much credit. As I said, we had toyed with the idea a year earlier.

TP: You discussed it last year with Showtime?
JS: No. It wasn’t Showtime.

As much as anything, that experience (the 2014 season) educated us and alerted us to the complexity of it. Then we did the basketball program (a 90-minute special with Showtime called “Hoops U.”) and learned a lot with that and got more comfortable as a result of that experience.

So when this new proposal came to us, a lot of it had to do with our comfort level with the earlier Showtime production and viewing it as a good thing.

TP: Not too many head football coaches come to athletic directors with a proposal like this.
JS: Well, it’s one of the reasons Brian is such a great fit with Notre Dame because he understands the larger platform this thing is. You have to embrace that. You’ve got to be okay with that. That’s one of Brian’s many strengths. He saw this as an opportunity to use the platform.

TP: What were some of the red flags that popped up for you?
JS: I was really concerned about the intrusiveness of it. Can you have business as usual with this level of engagement? It’s one thing to do a show that covers your pre-season. But to be with you every week, every day?

So what I did was a lot of scenario creating. Okay, if this happens, are you really going to want these guys here? Give Brian all the credit. He understood it and he was comfortable with it.

TP: Maybe (Kelly) knew he was going to have a better team.
JS: Yeah, but as you well know covering us, there are events that have nothing to do with the performance of the team that can arise. Do you want that to be the subject of that week’s show?

TP: So what were some of the ground rules that you felt you had to pound out with them?
JS: We had to work through understanding how it worked and what the review process would be. Dan Skendzel (Senior Associate AD; Digital Media & Branding) handled all of that for us. He took the lead on all those discussions. I just communicated my issues to Dan and it was for Dan to work through them.

TP: Review process?
JS: Yeah, seeing rough cuts.

TP: So you do have some editorial input before it goes on the air?
JS: Not in a sense of, ‘This week’s show will be about…’ We don’t do that. But I can give you a host of things on a weekly basis that we’ll pick up.

Say there’s a shot of a white board in the background with play-call information on it. We’ll say they can’t use that shot. It’s one of my unique preoccupations, but I want our kids in Under Armour. So if a kid’s got the wrong apparel on, I don’t want that shot in there.

And sometimes they just get things wrong. One of the rough cuts this week had a guy identified playing the wrong position. So it’s that kind of stuff. The stories they choose to cover, we don’t play any role in that.

TP: The situation that arose with Ronnie Stanley and being denied captainship that was used as part of a promo. That couldn’t have gone over real well.
JS: No. We were really mad about that because something that was not to be in the show wound up in a promo. That just can’t happen. The (Showtime) crew here wasn’t putting together the promos, which was the essence of the problem.

TP: How did you handle the notion of this project with the players? You must have run this by them, or forewarned them in advance? Have you gotten any feedback from them that it’s been too intrusive? The impression I get as I watch each episode is that the players are digging this a little bit more every week, especially the ones that are featured.
JS: Yes, I talked to student-athletes. Part of that was going back to some basketball players and saying, ‘Looking back on it, tell me what you thought.’ Their positive view of it had a big impact on me. But I also met with some of the leadership on the football team.

I probably could have anticipated this if I had thought about it, but there’s a real generational difference with this. Our players have grown up photographing and videoing their own lives through snapchatting…So they’ve got a comfort level with putting yourself out there. The more you move away from that generation, the less comfortable we are. So that’s been interesting to see.

My concerns about the intrusiveness of the student-athletes dissipated really quickly. It’s a non-factor. I remain very conscious of the cameras. But for them, it’s a non-factor.

TP: What about your concerns with the typical drain of time and energy on the student-athlete?
JS: There hasn’t been. They’re not doing multiple takes. They’re just following a guy to class. It is what it is.

I’m sure there are times somebody is asked to delay something so they can film it. But generally, it’s the students doing what they do. A lot of the interfacing that goes on – like getting permission from the professor to be in the classroom – is our responsibility. From a student-athlete’s perspective, they’re just walking into the classroom and doing what they always do. There’s just a camera there.

So I think it’s been much less of that. It just takes some getting used to when you’re in a meeting, you’re in a huddle, when you’re doing what you’re doing, and there’s a camera there. As I say, generationally, there’s a different rate of adaption there.

TP: You say you don’t dictate storylines, but did you have input on which players they chose to focus on, like a DeShone Kizer, who seems to handle it really well, Sheldon Day, Jerry Tillery? (Showtime) chose the players they would focus on?
JS: Yes.

TP: That’s interesting because that shows a great deal of trust from Notre Dame’s point of view in allowing them to choose student-athletes they want to focus on.
JS: Yeah, well, in for a dime, in for a dollar. You’ve got to accept that as part of this, and yeah, they’ve picked logical storylines, like when you go to Virginia for a game, C.J. (Prosise) is a focus.

You wind up with a group of kids who, by virtue of their comfort level and personalities and the role they play on the teams, get more time. But it’s not something that we’re dictating.

TP: What about in terms of the added pressure of the spotlight, particularly on individuals who weren’t established players yet, in particular, your young quarterback? Or does that go back to the generational thing where the players just don’t look at it as a big deal?
JS: I was more concerned in the context of the team dynamic. Does it impact the team dynamic because somebody is perceived as playing to the camera? That quickly went away from me as I watched our guys do it. In fact, the day Showtime was not at one of our practices, it seemed weird to the players. I had all kind of players say, ‘This really feels odd today.’

TP: I bet Showtime didn’t realize they were going to Dublin during the bye week.
JS: (Laughing) No, and that’s a pretty good example of a guy that we wouldn’t have necessarily said, ‘Focus on this person’ because Jerry Tillery is a freshman and he was going to Ireland during the break. But Jerry is such a neat personality and he has emerged in the course of the show. Normally, you wouldn’t put a freshman in that role. But Jerry is Jerry.

TP: You’re a guy that is forward-thinking and takes advantage of opportunities that benefit the department that you represent. What’s the future hold? Have some ideas popped into your head like, ‘Now, if we can do this, we can do that, too.’
JS: I can’t tell you in a specific way, but it has very much reinforced for us the decision we made a couple years ago to focus on our digital media capabilities, to be able to tell our story because in the modern media world, it is increasingly up to you to tell your story. We had to build our capabilities to do that. (Showtime) has reinforced the value of doing that and reinforced the value of having partnerships that help us do that.

We’ve gotten some great programming with NBC, beyond the games. The Strong of Heart series they’ve run on the NBC Network. Some of the Shamrock Series lead-up programming that they’ve done. This is one more example of that. All of it collectively has reaffirmed for me the value of, whether through partners or our own efforts, investing in this and doing it.

TP: What is the length of your partnership with Showtime? Is it a one-season deal that takes you through the bowl game or playoffs?
JS: The end of the regular season.

TP: Did you feel you needed to cut it off at that point?
JS: No. I think it just has to do with (Showtime) wanting it to be a weekly show and not having a month-long break or a bi-week break. We may have a discussion about that, depending upon post-season. But the original agreement was a 13-week deal.

TP: Feedback that’s come your way?
JS: It’s been really positive. Very, very positive, and it goes to the reservations I had. The decision to do it for me was about principally one thing, and that was in the national debate that’s going on about college athletics, the level of cynicism that has emerged in this debate and the one-sidedness of it from my perspective, I thought it was really important to have a voice in that discussion through this show. To be able to say, ‘You can be as much of a cynic as you want, but these are real students having this experience at our university.’

I was very motivated to create for people – not just Notre Dame fans – but people across the country to see this. Every day is another story about something college sports is doing wrong, and I sort of viewed this as almost an obligation we had to tell the other side of the story.

TP: It’s such an outlier story to tell though with Notre Dame. There have to be people looking at this saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is really college football?’
JS: What I hope a lot of people say is, ‘Gee, I wonder how many other programs are like this?’ because there are a lot. There are a lot of schools that are committed to doing this the right way, and if we can get people to understand that, all the better.

We’ve seen that in some of the dynamics in the show with our opponents. Navy is the obvious example, but there is a lot of mutual respect and a lot of guys playing against somebody they knew from high school.

TP: Does the success of the show and the positive feedback make you wish it were on standard television so more people could see it?
JS: Yes, but I’m thrilled with Showtime’s promotion of it, with their production of it…We’ve worked hard to encourage it. We’re Showtime’s best sales team. I encourage everybody to go online and purchase it.

TP: From a recruiting perspective, the show has to have been a real positive for Notre Dame.
JS: I hope so. I can’t cite you an example of that where I’ve talked to a student-athlete who has talked about Showtime. But I talk to a lot of prospective student-athletes, including football players, and it’s very nice to be able to say, ‘I want you to watch the show, and if you have any questions about what we’re telling you about the experience you’ll have here, watch the show.’ I do hope some of that is happening.

TP: Coach Kelly’s feedback in general about the experience?
JS: I’ve checked in to make sure we’re doing okay. We had to set ground rules early on. The first week or two were not the smoothest thing in the world. But you figure it out.

The very first team meeting, Brian was addressing the team and the camera was moving around behind him. That doesn’t work. Find your spot! And stay there! But you work through things like that. You work through how to communicate with each other.

Brian has really embraced it, which is not surprising since he was the originator of the idea. But he’s encouraged others to embrace it. We’ve facilitated it because we do think it’s giving an accurate portrayal of the program.

TP: The first impression was, ‘It will be like (HBO’s) “Hard Knocks.”’ I didn’t think Notre Dame would allow it to be like “Hard Knocks,” certainly from a language standpoint.
JS: That was a really interesting part of the discussion. The fundamental dramatic tension created in ‘Hard Knocks’ is whether you’re going to get cut or not. We don’t have a version of that, so was this going to present stories that were interesting enough and compelling enough to make an audience want to watch it? The one thing we weren’t going to do was manufacture those. This was not going to be the Kardashians.

Two things happened: One, episodes two and three featured really significant injuries and how the team and individuals dealt with that. That certainly created a lot of dramatic attention.

The other thing was as the personalities emerged, as you got to know Sheldon Day, DeShone (Kizer) and Joe Schmidt, there clearly becomes an attachment, an affinity to know what happens next to these guys. That has been more compelling than I necessarily assumed it would be.

Again, we weren’t going to manufacture dramatic tension and we don’t have the issues of getting cut from an NFL squad, so what was going to hold the audience’s interest? It turned out to be pretty remarkable young men who are just very interesting.

TP: It seems to me that Kizer’s confidence has continued to grow and that the Showtime spotlight has helped that.
JS: That’s an interesting thought. You’ve got that glare with you all day long, so the change to game day may not be as great as it otherwise would be.

TP: The project was a gutsy thing to do, but you seem to be pulling it off.
JS: Everybody has their motivations, but I did feel a sense of obligation that if it was going to work, we had to try to do it because of the national discussion that’s going on.

If Brian said, ‘I’ve thought about this and it’s going to be too intrusive; we can’t get our team ready,’ we never would have done it. But given his strong interest in it and his belief that we could manage it, I felt an absolute obligation to do this. Secondarily, because it promoted Notre Dame, but primarily because I thought the cynicism that’s engulfed this industry is really bad.

TP: Have you talked to other athletic directors about their interest in doing a similar show?
JS: Yes. I’ve had a couple calls. One from an AD that has an opportunity with their basketball program and wanted to know about our experience.

We got this opportunity in part because of personal relationships with Brian, but also because of our independence. It’s just easier to do. You don’t have conflicts that would make this dynamic so much harder. If you go to a conference with this opportunity, how does it decide which of its teams get it? If you take it to the team, how do you get the cooperation of the conference?

TP: How did that work with basketball?
JS: There were some things we couldn’t you, some things we could. You work your way through it. It’s not that you couldn’t do it, but (the conference) is a layer of complexity. It was an unintended benefit of our independence.

TP: Barring a sudden turn of events, you would deem the project a success?
JS: As we look back on it, it’s been a great experience that I hope we can do more of.

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