Senior College Football Columnist

Irish AD Swarbrick can move mountains, would move Big 12 too


Jack Swarbrick was runner-up when the Big 12 hired Dan Beebe as commissioner in 2007. (US Presswire)  
Jack Swarbrick was runner-up when the Big 12 hired Dan Beebe as commissioner in 2007. (US Presswire)  

The Big 12 is looking for a commissioner. They ran out their old one five months ago. Amid the turmoil of conference realignment and scandal, you may still remember.

It's not the best job for a lot of reasons, nor the most stable league. But it is a heck of a rebuild opportunity for someone. If you consider stepping around divergent cultures, jealousies, agendas and power struggles like they were cow pies a rebuild.

Forward thinking has not been a Big 12 habit. Former commissioner Kevin Weiberg had the "outlandish" idea five years ago of starting a Big 12 Network. It was outlandish only to the conference ADs and presidents who shot it down. He got frustrated and left. Today, Weiberg is a Pac-12 associate commissioner helping establish the best, brightest startup network on the college horizon. (Sorry Longhorn Network.)

Nor is it the most congenial league. Dan Beebe stepped into this wood chipper and had the league on track until the Missouri governor spoke in late 2009.

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Colorado and Nebraska got nervous and left. Oklahoma and Texas almost followed, twice. That started a cascade of events that led to Beebe's ouster in September.

Why would Jack Swarbrick want to risk his wing tips in that field full of cow pies? Sandy Knapp has a hypothetical answer.

"Jack would be a fabulous [Big 12] commissioner," she told me this week.

The first questions for a lot of you: Who are Jack Swarbrick and Sandy Knapp? Swarbrick is the Notre Dame athletic director. Even in his powerful position, he remains one of the best under-the-radar thinkers in pro and college athletics. His name has come up to succeed Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas because he almost beat out Beebe for the job last time around. Previously, his name had been in the running for the Stanford AD job.

In his former life as an attorney, consultant and Olympic administrator, Swarbrick helped bring the NCAA office, Final Fours and the Super Bowl to Indianapolis. That makes him a veteran at moving mountains.

Knapp knows what Swarbrick would be getting into. She is a former cohort as president of the Indiana Sports Corporation and a friend for three decades.

"I think he'd be fabulous," Knapp reiterated from Austin, Texas, where Knapp and her husband reside. "[But] they missed their chance. The Big 12 would be a completely different deal these days if they had the courage and the presidents' conviction [not] to take somebody they know rather than take a risk."

Knapp is referring to September 2007 when Swarbrick was the runner-up for the Big 12 job that went to Beebe. Less than a year later Swarbrick was at his alma mater with what looks now to be a retirement job. He is 57 and happy. Notre Dame athletics -- aside from football -- are mostly thriving.

"I don't know if the final chapter has been written on that at Notre Dame," said David Frick, a former law firm partner with Swarbrick. "Jack has developed a vision of how to play in the elite world of college athletics, yet maintained ties to the university."

But if Swarbrick ever got the itch, word on the street is that the Big 12 wants an out-of-the-box thinker to lead it. They are looking for someone like Larry Scott, former head of the Women's Tennis Association who has revolutionized the Pac-12 and arguably college athletics. While Swarbrick has more of a traditional link to college athletics than Scott, his methods are legend.

"Don't let logistics get in the way of a good idea," Knapp said. "That's Jack."

When the NCAA was looking for a new national headquarters, Swarbrick helped put together an Indianapolis incentive package worth $50 million. That was 12 years ago. The Final Four now is played in Indianapolis once every five years. Swarbrick had a hand in securing that deal, too.

When Indianapolis dared to bid on the Super Bowl, it lost by a vote to Dallas for the 2011 event. Undeterred, Swarbrick had the idea for the physical bid packages using eighth graders flown out to hand deliver them to NFL owners. The kids brought basketballs signed by Larry Bird, racing helmets with the individual NFL team logos. The message was that Indy was big time. And that the Class of 2012 would be there to welcome the NFL.

Think about that for a minute. The Super Bowl. In Indianapolis. The conclusion from earlier this month is that the city and its organizers hit an absolute home run.

"Somebody else always had the light shining on them brighter, yet Jack was the mastermind ...," Knapp said. "There always was an intent to Indianapolize an event, do all the extra things, do all the things that haven't been done yet. We always felt like we were fighting sea shores and mountains and weather."

Metaphorically, sounds a little bit like the Big 12. The flatland Pure Prairie League is going on its third lineup in three years. If there is further expansion, 2013 would make it four in four years. It needs a kick in the butt. It needs Texas and Oklahoma to keep their hands off and let a commissioner work his magic.

It needs stability. It needs vision.

Why couldn't Swarbrick arrange a Big 12-SEC challenge much the way the Pac-12 and Big Ten have decided to play intersectional nonconference games beginning in 2017?

"Our idea is you can't stand still," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said when the deal was announced.

With all the contentious factions within the league, the Big 12 tends to do just that -- standing still instead of standing out.

Why can't there be a Big 12 Network, even with Texas out of the loop and the Longhorn Network off to a sluggish start?

If Indianapolis can host a Super Bowl, why can't the Big 12 get its act together?

Don't let logistics get in the way of a good idea.


Swarbrick is a man so able to balance his job and his family that he previously commuted from Indianapolis to South Bend several times a week. But the kids have grown and there are growing roots at Notre Dame. There are other names that have surfaced for the Big 12 job. NCAA Final Four guru Greg Shaheen has been mentioned. He is essentially a younger version of Swarbrick and would be a fine hire.

On its surface, it would be a tough job choice -- AD of Catholic flagship vs. major-conference commissioner. Security is never assured in either position. In both jobs, things can go bad in a hurry. Swarbrick helped guide Notre Dame after the tragic death of student videographer Declan Sullivan. The AD took his share of criticism.

The Big 12 just has to decide what it wants to be. Beebe spent $1 million with an Austin-based marketing firm last year on the "How We Play" rebranding of the league. It was useless two months later when Texas A&M left the league. After feeling sorry for Beebe's earnest attempt to change the league's perception, you didn't know whether to laugh, cry or kick a field goal.

Through all of this upheaval, the message has stayed constant: Any league that includes Oklahoma and Texas is worth saving. Well, it's saved again for now. Big TV money is in its future, but it needs to get back to being a conference rather than a content farm. It needs to be more, and it may have waited too long.

"He may be playing in a larger sand box," Frick said of his old friend now settled in with the Irish, "than a conference commissioner."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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