At the end of Jack Swarbrick’s second year in charge he watched one of Notre Dame’s spring sports get bounced early from the postseason. The program was supposed to make a title charge. It didn’t come close. As Swarbrick left the stadium a player’s father approached.
“He asked me, ‘You know why that just happened?’” Swarbrick recalled. “I didn’t know. He told me it was because too many of those kids didn’t know what they were doing when they graduated.
“And he was absolutely right.”
Overlooked among the enhancements delivered under Swarbrick are some that go beyond the term student-athlete. These are not million dollar facilities or new Under Armour gear. These are the Rosenthal Leadership Academy, the new study abroad programs and the customization of career services for athletes.
Did Jerry Tillery going to South Africa make him a better defensive tackle? Did James Onwualu working at Bank of America make him a better linebacker? Did DeShone Kizer going through the Rosenthal Leadership Academy make him a better quarterback? Swarbrick pounds the table that they do, for football and Notre Dame's 25 other programs.
“Rarely do these things separate themselves,” Swarbrick said. “I want to have a career service component because I want them to have great careers, but there’s a competitive consequence of all of our seniors going into their senior seasons knowing that they’re doing next.
“Going abroad, they come back more energized. They build relationships with people who aren’t on their teams that they would never otherwise build. They establish a relationship with a professor that they may have never otherwise had. It makes them better.”
Notre Dame’s emphasis on Student Welfare and Development is the focus of the final installment of Irish Illustrated’s look at the evolution of Swarbrick’s athletic department.
Senior Associate Athletics Director Mike Harrity overhauled the Rosenthal Leadership Academy four years ago, taking a program that had leaned on consultants and customizing it with in-house attention. Last year 119 athletes took part in the program, which is broken up by semesters and summer school. Notre Dame has nearly 750 athletes across all programs.
Athletes nominate teammates for the experience and coaches offer input too. Men’s soccer had the entire junior class attend. Hockey has been a major devotee. Football will do a half-day this summer before training camp. Some athletes repeat the process to dig deeper, which Kizer and women’s basketball standout Brianna Turner will do this year.
Not only does the interaction socially connect athletes across sports, they share common experiences. How a football player overcame a crisis of confidence can help a women’s lacrosse player do the same. How a volleyball player held teammates accountable in the locker room can work in men’s lacrosse.
“It normalizes it,” Harrity said. “There’s a power in ‘me too’ for them. Finding a leadership voice is so important.”
Each Rosenthal course includes five sessions and a retreat.
Notre Dame surveyed participants anonymously and more than 95 percent believed the program enhanced their leadership skills. The overwhelming majority also believed the program helped them better hold teammates accountable moving forward. Every respondent said they’d recommend the retreat to a teammate.
“That’s the highest form of credibility that we can achieve,” Harrity said.
The change in career services came three years ago when Notre Dame moved a program coordinator into the Joyce Center. Career fairs started to fit practice schedules. Big speakers were out, customized sessions for athletes were in. Notre Dame made the case – both to athletes and the companies interviewing them – that the sporting experience was a resume booster not a distraction.
The career service move gave athletes better access to internships, which Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Brandon Wimbush all capitalized on this summer. Now finding a summer internship is common practice, not an outlier activity.
Claire VeNard is a program director in Student Welfare Development arm of the athletic department and also a former Irish athlete. She played soccer for Notre Dame from 2003-07.
“When I was in school it was nice if you had an internship but that wasn’t the expectation,” VeNard said. “That’s ramped up in a huge way now. It would be exceptional if you hadn’t had any kind of professional support or advice or experience.”
The structured abroad programs began last year with South Africa. They expanded this summer to Greece, Jerusalem and Brazil. South Africa returned too with two separate trips.
Overall, 15 programs and 28 different athletes participated.
For football, Drue Tranquill and Corey Robinson made the Jerusalem trip. Tyler Newsome, John Montelus and Max Redfield went to Brazil. Scott Daly and Cole Luke went to Greece.
The programs organized by the athletic department, which are for credit and include athletic trainers abroad, are paid for by scholarships.
“You look at the student-athlete and they were scheduled out of these from the start,” VeNard said. “How do we get creative and find ways that we can find something that helps them benefit from that type of growth?”
To Swarbrick, these enhancements give Notre Dame athletes an experience as close to a regular student as possible. But he believes they make for better athletes too.
“The entire career services change arose out of a single conversation,” Swarbrick said. “We had a young man who decided not to compete anymore because he didn’t think he could get the job he wanted when he left here because the job fairs were occurring when he was at practice and his resume didn’t look like anybody else’s. He was absolutely right about the problem, but his solution wasn’t the right one.
“Let’s not lose the benefit of being an athlete. Let’s address this.”
On multiple fronts, Notre Dame has.