SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Standing to the side as Notre Dame assistant coaches and players preparing for the upcoming BCS national championship game were interviewed nearby in the Loftus Sports Center, athletic director Jack Swarbrick considered what it had taken to make this seemingly inevitable revival of Notre Dame football actually happen.
The native of Yonkers, N.Y., recalled the words years ago of often-acerbic broadcaster Howard Cosell, pointing out the deficiencies of a ham-handed designated hitter forced to play in the outfield for a World Series game.
“'The game will find him, and it will expose that he can't catch a fly ball,' ” Swarbrick recalled, with a chuckle. “And sure enough, that's what happened.”
And, sure enough, that was what had been happening at Notre Dame.
“The great thing about elite athletics is if you've got a weakness, it exposes it; it will always expose it,” he said, adding by implication that much had unraveled or decayed: “You had to be willing to rebuild the entire program.”
It wasn't just that Notre Dame hadn't won a national championship since 1988, the longest drought between titles since the school captured its first in 1924 and clutched 10 others an average of every 5.8 years.
It was that the Fighting Irish had become “almost nationally irrelevant” in the eyes of some pundits, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said, moments after making an unrelated point that testified to why Notre Dame never should be relegated to that.
“No. 1 graduation rate in the country; No. 1 fan base in terms of size . (and television) viewership,” he said. “There's a lot of things that the school, the university, sells itself.
”So you shouldn't have to concede anywhere.“
But Notre Dame, in fact, had been receding, bottoming out when Charlie Weis' last three teams went 16-21 from 2007-2009, the final fallout in what was in some ways a chain reaction to the last Irish title.
Lou Holtz guided that 1988 team and in 11 seasons went 100-30-2, leaving him just five wins behind Knute Rockne's school record. For reasons that remain fuzzy, Holtz left after the 1996 season.
”Now everybody says, ‘Oh, you were a great coach, we loved having you,' “ Holtz, now an ESPN analyst, said during a Dec. 19 teleconference. ”Well, where were you when I was there?“
But Holtz essentially answered his own question.
”What happens is when you win (the title) everybody puts you on a pedestal. And once you're on a pedestal, no matter what you do, it ain't good enough,“ he said. ”We finished second in the country, and everybody called me an idiot. A guy finishes last at medical school, they call him ‘doctor.' When you win, you didn't win impressively enough and you didn't win big enough.
“You get nothing but criticism after that time. . Once you're on top, the only story then is coming down.”
Holtz's tenure wasn't without off-the-field controversy that surely contributed to his demise, but it's also true that after Notre Dame's 12-0 1988 season he had three other teams that lost only one game and, at least to him, were deemed disasters.
The dominoes of inflated expectations tumbled after he left, with Bob Davie going 35-25, begetting Tyrone Willingham (21-15) and, finally, Weis (35-27).
Sweeping changes no longer were an option to Swarbrick.
“People kept on saying, ‘this coach' or ‘this scheme' or ‘this approach to recruiting,' ” he said. “Fans always want to talk about schemes and recruiting. Both matter.
”But how you schedule your student-athletes in the course of a day is every bit as important. What your academic services are like, what your nutrition (program) is like, strength and conditioning — any piece of that that's broken gets exposed.“
All of that helps explain why Notre Dame turned to Brian Kelly, who had gone 34-6 at Cincinnati — including 12-0 in 2009 — and previously was an aspiring politician, architect of a Division II powerhouse at Grand Valley (Mich.) State and resuscitator of Central Michigan's program.
”What so attracted us to Brian is he was a program-builder,“ Swarbrick said. ”He had done it before. He knew how to do it. And he could articulate it. That's really the defining thing. .
“It wasn't, ‘We've got to address all these things.' It was, ‘Here's how we'll address all these things. Here's what we need to do.' And he had a real clear vision about it.”
The vision included a key variable, though.
“He had a flexibility: He didn't approach it the same way at every place,” Swarbrick said. “If it was a guy with a one-size-fits-all (mentality), it wasn't going to work.”