SOUTH BEND -- Nervous energy necessitated that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick remained on the move during men's basketball home games. Swarbrick would spend a slice of time seated in the lower arena before moving to pace in the tunnel that leads to the Irish locker room. He could be spotted in the second half high above the floor in the plush Club Naimoli, where he would watch from a safe and solitary distance. Regardless of the vantage point, Swarbrick likes what he's seen this season, even if a seemingly growing number of Irish fans don't share that sentiment. During a wide-ranging 25-minute interview with the Tribune last week, Swarbrick touched on a variety of topics, including the past, present and future of head coach Mike Brey. As the college football season wound down last fall, much attention turned to the future employment, and ultimate termination, of former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. As spring nears and another college basketball season sprints toward its conclusion, Swarbrick has no reason to believe there will be a repeat of that media circus this spring with Brey, winding up his 10th season at Notre Dame. "No," Swarbrick said when asked if sees any reason why Brey, who is signed through 2014-15, would not return for an 11th season. "We do evaluate the program at the end of the year (but) I don't head into that evaluation with that as an open question. My God, we have great confidence in him." A confidence that covers myriad areas for Swarbrick, who believes Brey is a good teacher, a solid game coach, an effective communicator and, maybe most importantly, someone who deeply cares about his players. Not only for who they are on the floor, but how they develop as young men away from the game. Brey, Swarbrick said, may care more about the people in his program than any of his head coaches, something that often overrides any season that ends with more losses and fewer wins than anyone might have first hoped. "Because we evaluate from the starting point of the student-athlete experience here, that sort of begins and ends the analysis," Swarbrick said. "Having a coach who cares that much about his kids, that works so hard to develop them, is really important to me." As is winning for every sport on campus, and men's basketball is no exception. When the Irish sputtered through the middle portion of the Big East schedule this season, and lost games they had no business losing, concern ballooned that the program had become stagnant under the current coaching staff. That five trips to the NCAA tournament in their nine seasons, including only one appearance in the Sweet 16 (2003), was as good as it could get. The only direction left to go, many feared, was down. Win or lose, apathy over the Irish seemed everywhere. "I don't share that view," Swarbrick said. "If you look at trends and you're looking at, 'Is the program progressing up?' then you have to ask yourself if Scott (Martin) had been on the team this year, how would we have performed?" Martin, a Purdue transfer whom Brey identified early last fall as the most talented offensive player he has ever coached at Notre Dame, suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October. Plug Martin into a potent offensive lineup that included Tim Abromaitis, who might earn league most improved player honors next week, fellow transfer Ben Hansbrough, All-American power forward Luke Harangody and tri-captain Tory Jackson, and Swarbrick believes the route of this season, both in conference and in non-league, would have been drastically different. How different? "We wouldn't be having this discussion for this program," Swarbrick said. "We'd be talking about what kind of (NCAA tournament) seed we'd have. Maybe it speaks to the issue of depth or other issues, but it's still a fact that that was a big loss for us, more than people understand."
Stay the courseTo calm fears that the program's future has faded, Swarbrick offers the 2007-08 season as a reminder that for those who insist they know, nobody really knows. Notre Dame was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East, and expectations around town were minimal. But when March arrived, Notre Dame had finished 25-8 and a school-best 14-4 in the Big East. The Irish tied for second overall in the regular season, and Brey walked away with a second consecutive coach of the year honor. "That team is a good reminder for all of us because nobody saw that coming," Swarbrick said. "Each team is its own experience and as much as we'd like to think we know what next year holds, none of us have a clue. That's the danger here." Another danger is writing off a season as a failure before it concludes. At the time Swarbrick met with the Tribune, Notre Dame was 17-10 overall and 6-8 in the Big East. The Irish have since won three consecutive league games, including two against ranked teams. Suddenly, a first-round Big East tournament bye and a trip back to the NCAA tournament, which had seemingly seemed so distant days earlier, had become a very real possibility. "There's a lot of season left," Swarbrick said. Skeptics who believe the program may have peaked under Brey also point to the growing number of empty seats during the first year of Purcell Pavilion as another danger sign. Fans that are fed up with the utterly unattractive non-conference schedule stayed away by the thousands in November and December. Attendance spiked only slightly for conference play, but on the days and nights that the general population found its way to campus, the student body had all but tuned the program out. Swarbrick sees no reason to worry. Given the thousands of tickets returned by Notre Dame's football opponents, a number Swarbrick called "staggering," he knew that with the slight bump in ticket prices for the additional home games, basketball fans might find plenty more reasons to stay home. That doesn't necessarily mean they've permanently erased Purcell Pavilion from their GPS systems, or are waiting for the program to be steered in a new direction. "In this economy, it's very dangerous to infer that it's a vote of confidence," Swarbrick said. "Give me a recovered economy and then I can infer some other things. But right now, if a fan tells me that he can't get to a game, I certainly understand. "A lot of people are struggling to make ends meet." As for the students, they may simply want to see a winner. Chunks of seats in the student sections that were empty for home games against South Florida, St. John's and Pittsburgh were filled for Wednesday's home finale against Connecticut. It was the most animated and energetic the student section had been since a mid-January game against Syracuse. Why? Notre Dame was coming off consecutive victories over two ranked teams, and talk of a possible return to the NCAA tournament had ignited interest. Suddenly, there was reason to be excited. Notre Dame hosted six sellouts (third most in the league) and averaged 8,402 fans during the 2009-10 season - its lowest attendance average since 1998-99 when it averaged 8,298 with no sellouts. Are fewer fans a red flag? Not necessarily. Notre Dame's attendance ranks 11th among 16 teams in the Big East. But even if it sold out all 20 home games at 9,149, ND would still rank only ninth in the league. Arena capacity following last summer's renovation dropped from 11,418 to 9,149.
No excusesSwarbrick understands the frustration Irish fans feel when losses mount and hopes for a deep run in the all-important post-season is uncertain. It's only natural, but any disenchantment is not limited to outsiders. "They're disappointed, but so are the players and coaches," he said. "Their disappointment exceeds the disappointment of any of us. That's part of it. "This is a game without much margin for error and everybody has circumstances to deal with and we have ours." Atop that list remains the place that Notre Dame currently calls home - the Big East. A year after having three of its teams earn one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, the league may be even a stronger basketball conference. It's a fact that often helps, but sometimes hurts, programs like Notre Dame who operate under a different set of academic and athletic guidelines as conference colleagues. Swarbrick finds it interesting, and even a little amusing, when he hears talk of college coach A, B, or C at program X, Y or Z and how they might fare better in the Big East than Notre Dame has under Brey, one of only six coaches in league history with at least 100 conference wins. An Indianapolis native whose family still calls the city home, Swarbrick has great admiration for the Butler University men's basketball program. It is among the premier mid-major programs in the country, but, at the end of the day, belongs as a mid-major. "Put those guys in the Big East," Swarbrick said. "I mean, it's just not going to happen." Can it happen for Notre Dame? How often? Swarbrick's standard response is that the goal of every Notre Dame athletic program, be it basketball, golf or softball, is to compete for championships. In basketball, that means a run at a Big East banner and, at the very least, a trip to the NCAA tournament. "Whether it's reasonable to expect that annually we'll be at that level, maybe not," he said. "But we do expect to get there." Just as they did in 2007-08, Swarbrick believes that the Irish can take the proper steps to succeed in the Big East. They can and should be among the nation's top 65 teams selected each season to play in the NCAA tournament. They should craft a non-league schedule that balances both the academic concerns of early-season travel and holds fan interest. They can be a player in a league that sometimes serves as a feeder system for those looking more to the NBA and not for an MBA. "I think there's a lot of reason to be optimistic," Swarbrick said. "We'll get there."
Staff writer Tom Noie: firstname.lastname@example.org (574) 235-6153