Inside the evolution of Irish athletics

Notre Dame’s athletic department now stands at the forefront of college sports. In the first of a four-part series, Irish Illustrated details how Jack Swarbrick has pushed Notre Dame forward in some innovative ways.

Jack Swarbrick knew he wanted to do this when he took over as Notre Dame’s athletics director eight years ago. Now he’s as close as ever to realizing a department vision driven by innovation more than tradition and guided by science more than history.

After scrambling to catch industry leaders for the first half of Swarbrick’s tenure, Notre Dame now resides on the frontline. An athletic department lost in nutrition when Swarbrick arrived has since mastered that discipline while evolving the physical, mental and professional development of its athletes.
In the first of a four-part series, Irish Illustrated details how Notre Dame got here, leveraging its partnership with Under Armour, searching for best practices beyond college sports and broadening the definition of what an athletic department can do.

“I think I’m a pretty marginal manager,” Swarbrick said. “But I think I’m pretty good at seeing the bigger picture and anticipating needs.”

For Notre Dame, those needs included a gut rehab of how the athletic department collected and interpreted data. It meant a professional resource for the coaches of 26 sports. It meant making sure Notre Dame’s athletes got a college experience as much like a normal student as logistically possible, from internships to study abroad to career services. It meant creating a custom leadership seminar for athletes instead of contracting another generic consultant.

Yes, the first goal when Swarbrick arrived was as small picture as keeping weight on the defensive line in November. So the school started a training table for all sports. It drew a necessary distinction between student and student-athlete. But that only got Notre Dame caught up to everybody else.

The next step, one the University seems set to take, is getting ahead.

“I work for a visionary,” said Senior Associate Athletics Director Mike Harrity, charged with leading Student-Athlete Welfare and Development, plus the expanding Sports Performance Division. “There is no template for what we’re doing. No one is approaching it this way with one vision.”

For Swarbrick, this seed took root during his work with the United States Olympic Committee while working as an attorney in Indianapolis. From pool decks he could see how swimmers fought over fractions of seconds through training, biomechanics, rest and recovery.

So as much as Swarbrick’s legal background prepared him to negotiate media rights deals and navigate conference expansion, that Olympic connection prepared him to build Notre Dame’s modern athletic department.

When he arrived here the athletic department saw innovation as an extracurricular. If specific programs mined data, they kept results to themselves. Trainers didn’t talk to strength coaches unless they had to. Sports science was the study of how quickly athletes could get to the dining halls after practice.

Fixing nutrition came first.

“We saw a dramatic impact from that,” Swarbrick said. “We were really quite good at developing a team and team chemistry, but we were nowhere on supporting the individual athletes’ development by applying science and analytics.”

Then Swarbrick reorganized the athletics department, employing Harrity to marshal resources to revamp the Rosenthal Leadership Academy and career services. Suddenly, Notre Dame’s athletes got the personal and professional development that the rest of the student body got, but customized to their schedules. A study abroad program to South Africa arrived last year. Now Greece, Jerusalem and Brazil are online too.

What’s next is Director of Performance Sciences Duncan French PhD and Director of Mental Conditioning Derin McMains, both tasked with solving known problems for Irish coaches and identifying ones unseen. According to Harrity, both hires are firsts of their kind in college athletics.

Under Armour helped Notre Dame land French over interest from NHL and NBA teams through a connection to Vice President of Athlete Performance Paul Winsper. The two had collaborated as fitness coaches at Newcastle United in the EPL before French began work with Great Britain’s Olympic programs. 

Notre Dame needed somebody as comfortable around squat racks as research papers. French qualified. He’s trained professional athletes. He’s authored more than 60 research documents and has his PhD from Connecticut in exercise physiology.  

“I had to basically fly out, sit down and tell him he’s going to Notre Dame,” Winsper laughed. “It had to be somebody who fits the culture, who knew a lot of different sports.

“He can get in a track suit and get into the gym and teach with the best of them. He can step away, put on a shirt and tie, and present with the best of them.”

French came on board earlier this year and is charged with translating the data Notre Dame already has via GPS devices and figuring out new uses for it. He also ties Notre Dame’s coaches, strength staffs and trainers together into a more holistic approach to recovery and training.

If the old way of strength training was designed by sport and the new way is tailored by position, French can customize it to the individual. That means doing biomechanical maps of athletes when they arrive, identifying imbalances and creating a training map to fix them. Why wait for an injury when a change in training can possibly prevent it?

French is also tasked with understanding how Notre Dame can enhance rest and recovery. He is in talks with a company who tracks athlete sleep by placing devices under mattresses to measure quality and quantity of rest.

“We’re swimming in data,” Swarbrick said. “We really needed somebody who can help us figure out what’s important. How does this affect performance?”

McMains came to Notre Dame from the San Francisco Giants, where he served as Peak Performance Coordinator for the entire organization. With three World Series rings for his work – he also played and managed in the minor leagues – McMains serves as a resource for coaches on messaging, motivation and collaboration.

“What we lacked here, in part because of my background, was a resource for the coaches,” Swarbrick said. “I’m not the AD who was a coach. There’s a credibility that comes with having done it.

“I’ll know that Coach A is a phenomenal communicator. Or Coach B sets up practice more efficiently than anyone else. My frustration was I couldn’t take those observations and translate them into something that would impact all our coaches. This guy is four-square what I’m looking for because of his perspective.”

McMains started at Notre Dame on Nov. 30 of last year.

As for what success looks like for French and McMains, Swarbrick set the bar in their first year at getting buy-in from coaching staffs across campus.

Largely, they’re there now. French has already polled Brian Kelly and Muffet McGraw and how their strength training and practice regimens can be enhanced. McMains has already met with most of Notre Dame’s head coaches and started an Iron Sharpens Iron workshop among them to share best practices.

“It’s really exciting as coaches to see not only that Jack is talking about getting us there, but putting people in place to help us get there,” McGraw said. “I’m thrilled with what we’re doing.”

With coaches on board, the next step for French and McMains is helping Notre Dame realize a winning return on that investment. While their roles are supporting ones – the same goes for Harrity in Student-Athlete Welfare and Development – the belief is if Notre Dame can develop every part of its student-athletes that it will enhance both sides of that hyphen.

In other words, Notre Dame believes in a four-year and a 40-year decision.

“It’s the promise that we make in the recruiting process to help maximize the potential in each student-athlete,” Harrity said. “If we’re not delivering on that in all ways every day, then we’re coming up short. That’s unacceptable.”

June 1: Behind the sports science of Duncan French
June 2: How Derin McMains taps potential under the helmet
June 3: Why Notre Dame bets a well-rounded athlete will be a winning one Top Stories