Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, one of the most prominent and influential executives in college athletics, informed his staff Thursday morning that he will step down in 2024. His successor has already been chosen: Pete Bevacqua, chairman of NBC Sports Group and a second-generation Notre Dame alum.
“This is a dream come true,” Bevacqua says. “With the exception of my family, nothing means more to me than Notre Dame. I don’t have a memory in my lifetime, quite literally, where Notre Dame wasn’t a part of it. At this stage of my life, I feel like everything I’ve done has prepared me for this.
“I didn’t have a burning desire, necessarily, to be an athletic director. I had a burning desire to be the athletic director at Notre Dame.”
The exact date of Swarbrick’s departure hasn’t been decided, but it will be in the first quarter of 2024. As part of Bevacqua’s transition into the new role, he will start work on campus July 1 as a special assistant for athletics to Notre Dame president Reverend John Jenkins. Swarbrick will still have control over athletics while mentoring Bevacqua for several months.
The school is not characterizing this as a retirement, and the 69-year-old Swarbrick says he would “love to do one more thing in the industry.” But the decision to step down from a job he started in 2008 was made by Swarbrick alone.
“I feel great about where we are,” he says. “There’s a sense that it’s the appropriate time. It’s important for Father John to make the selection of the next AD, because I don’t know how much longer he’s going to go.”
Jenkins says that, as with many university leadership positions, he had been thinking about Swarbrick’s successor “for many years.” After building a relationship with Bevacqua through NBC, Jenkins and Swarbrick had a series of conversations with him in recent months about taking the job.
Swarbrick leaves an immense mark in intercollegiate athletics, on campus and in the larger national scope. In his tenure at Notre Dame, he led the way on several seismic decisions and accomplishments: the hiring of football coach Brian Kelly, which restored the Fighting Irish football program to prominence; joining the Atlantic Coast Conference while maintaining cherished football independence; ranking within the top three nationally in the NCAA’s academic progress rate and graduation success rate metrics every year of his tenure; and winning 10 NCAA titles across five programs (women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s lacrosse and fencing).
No Notre Dame athletic director can equal Swarbrick’s number of national championships—but none of them has been in football. The Irish last won one of those in 1988. “Notre Dame needs to win a [football] national championship again, and if I have a regret in my tenure it’s that it hasn’t been done,” Swarbrick says. “But the program has progressed a long way, and now it’s about taking one more step.”
From a national perspective, Swarbrick was one of the four architects of the 12-team College Football Playoff that will begin next year, working alongside Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, former Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. He has also been a prominent voice on a variety of major issues across the industry, from realignment to player compensation to prioritizing academics in an increasingly commercialized ecosystem.
Perhaps most significantly, Swarbrick and Notre Dame’s continued embrace of football independence—even after a one-year arrangement to play a full ACC schedule during the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season—has kept the entire collegiate landscape from disintegrating. The Irish are the most attractive potential expansion target and would be the domino that sends everything else in motion in terms of conference realignment. But they have resisted the possibility of earning more revenue by joining the Big Ten or any other league.
Jenkins says he views the athletic director position at Notre Dame as “a job like no other in college sports. You have to play at the highest level for national championships in Division I while you have a full student experience with a demanding academic curriculum and graduate at a very high rate. Duke and Stanford can say the same thing, but as an independent at Notre Dame, you have a major media contract to manage. Thirdly, you’re a member of the College Football Playoff. In all those areas, Jack has been remarkably impactful.”
One of the most significant drivers of Notre Dame’s independent status is its relationship with NBC, which seemingly will grow even stronger in the future with Bevacqua coming onboard. Notre Dame’s contract with the network runs through 2025, which means negotiations for the next agreement are not yet within range.
“It has been an unbelievable, mutually beneficial relationship for both entities,” Bevacqua says. “I have a strong suspicion that both Notre Dame and NBC would love to see that going forward well into the future.”
Even before Bevacqua was named as Swarbrick’s successor, the belief has been that the school is positioned for a significant increase in its annual revenue payments from NBC. That would be an important element of continued football independence. “I’m a fan of independence, for sure,” he says. “It’s another element of what makes Notre Dame different. I think those differentiators for Notre Dame are more important and more valuable today than they’ve ever been.”
The 51-year-old Bevacqua, a 1993 Notre Dame graduate, was a walk-on punter for the Fighting Irish under coach Lou Holtz. His return to South Bend continues the recent college athletics trend of leadership hires made from outside the traditional campus administrative realm. Before his work at NBC, Bevacqua was the CEO of the PGA of America, and he worked in a New York law firm after graduating from Georgetown Law School.
Of the current Power 5 commissioners, three were in the media/entertainment/pro sports world before taking their current jobs: Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, Big 12 commish Brett Yormark and Pac-12 leader George Kliavkoff. As the only athletic director with a seat at the College Football Playoff Management Committee table, Bevacqua brings another voice from the media industry.
“Such a large part of college athletics now, and the success of any athletic program, is baked into the media landscape,” Bevacqua says. “Obviously, having a very direct knowledge of where the media landscape is in the U.S., the power of linear television and where that’s heading, the paradigm shift of the direct-to-consumer streaming environment—you kind of add up those elements and I feel like I have the background and the professional experiences to come into this at a good pace. And then you couple that with the comfort of having this wonderful transition period with Jack, I’m going to be pretty well positioned to pick up the torch from Jack.”
Swarbrick himself was a trend-setter in terms of coming from an off-campus background. He took the athletic director job at his alma mater after serving as the chairman of the Indiana Sports Corporation and working closely with the United States’s Olympic sports leadership.
Bevacqua inherits a young and diverse group of coaches in major sports after significant turnover. Marcus Freeman, 37, is in his second season as football coach; Micah Shrewsberry, 46, will start his first year as men’s basketball coach; and Niele Ivey, 45, is entering her fourth season leading women’s basketball. Adding in women’s volleyball coach Salima Rockwell, Notre Dame is the only FBS-level school with Black head coaches in those four sports.
“I think this is the best complement of coaches we’ve had in my 16 years,” Swarbrick says.
Earlier this year, Jenkins and Swarbrick cowrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times that decried the progression of college sports toward semiprofessional, minor league status. Jenkins reiterates that he would like congressional assistance in regulating big-time college athletics, or else risk having the most prestigious Division I academic institutions opt out of that model of competition.
“We want to play at the highest level at Notre Dame athletically,” Jenkins says. “We want to maintain that spot, but we don’t want to lose the academic integrity of our program.”