Oct. 2, 2013
By Todd Burlage
Looking back now four years and five games, even University of Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics director Jack Swarbrick admits his surprise at the amount of success and momentum the Shamrock Series games continue to generate so far away from South Bend.
From San Antonio in 2009 and now North Texas this weekend in the Lone Star State, to New York City and Washington, D.C., on the eastern seaboard, to Chicago in the midwest, the progressive idea of taking the University of Notre Dame to its fans and alumni has evolved into much more than a three-hour football game. The Shamrock Series has become a weekend festival of all things Notre Dame - and a chance to give, and to give back.
"People love the celebration it is," says Swarbrick, who came to Notre Dame in 2008 somewhat skeptical of the sustainability of this endeavor. "So it is two and a half days of really celebrating the university that they care a lot about. You're in downtown Chicago, or you're in the nation's capital in the heart of it all, or you're on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. All of that creates a really fun environment where people are talking about it and celebrating Notre Dame. It sort of creates a self-contained celebration where people are around each other and run into each other."
Swarbrick's initial uncertainty as to the long-term survival of the Shamrock Series - a game borne under the watch of former Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White four seasons ago with the trip to San Antonio - stemmed more from tricky scheduling than it did out of concerns over logistics or fan support.
Under the 7-4-1 schedule model adopted by White and followed during the 2009 and 2010 football seasons, Notre Dame played seven true home games, four road games, and the Shamrock Series game, which in terms of receipts and television coverage is considered a home game.
And while the benefits of essentially playing eight of its 12 regular season games as home dates were obvious for the Notre Dame fans and university coffers, Swarbrick immediately realized the 7-4-1 schedule model couldn't survive because it required too many opponents to play at Notre Dame Stadium without benefit of a return date, ignoring the home-and-home scheduling agreements traditionally used between schools.
"I had my doubts at the time that the 7-4-1 model would be sustainable," Swarbrick says, "and, in fact, I concluded it wasn't."
At first glance, Swarbrick feared that the Shamrock Series game would become a casualty when he restored the more traditional 6-5-1 model after gaining more control over scheduling for the 2011 season. But the question remained as to whether the annual feasibility and long-term interest of this unprecedented traveling Shamrock Series game could be sustained.
"I wasn't sure we could brand it successfully, that it would develop its own identity, so that's probably been the biggest surprise in that it has done that more than I thought it would," Swarbrick says. "I knew given our national following, and the commitment of the university in so many ways, I knew logistically and operationally it would work great but to what level it would be embraced was my concern."
And while finding a viable venue, a willing opponent and an agreeable date for this game provides some scheduling challenges for Swarbrick - especially with a commitment beginning in 2014 to play five Atlantic Coast Conference opponents each season - the opportunity to annually showcase his university throughout the country is well worth the added burden.
"Scheduling is a little more complex now, no doubt, but this game is a very high priority for us," Swarbrick says when asked about the fluidity of his schedule building. "Because of all of the benefits that are attached to this game, we're committed to it and we will work hard to continue to do it. And while pulling it off will get a little bit more challenging, that's not to suggest that we can't do it, and I am very confident that we can."
Notre Dame perhaps is the only school in the country that could successfully pull off such an endeavor as the Shamrock Series. And while the inaugural game four years ago in San Antonio featured a limited number of corresponding events and alumni functions - most notably the Friday night pep rally in front of the historic Alamo - one Irish football game has evolved into a full festival.
This weekend's Shamrock Series event lineup in and around the North Texas area included a kickoff luncheon with distinguished local and university guests, a special mass Saturday morning at the beautiful St. Patrick Cathedral, several academic programs including a presentation on "Latinos and the Future of America," and even a community service project sponsored by Notre Dame as a way to give back to the host city.
"I think what has changed from the earlier years is our ambition and our perspective about how big it can be, because it has grown each year. It keeps getting better," Swarbrick explains. "This weekend really has an identity, a very strong identity, and that's probably the biggest surprise and the thing that I am happiest about. We have now developed a series of events around it that people anticipate and look forward to. People look for it on the game schedule. A lot of people make a special effort to take part in it, and get to that city for that game."
And for the last five seasons and counting, the Shamrock Series has become a perfect way to celebrate the heritage and popularity of a university and the Irish football program in cities and venues all over.
2009: Washington State at The Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas
2010: Army at Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx, N.Y.
2011: Maryland at FedEx Field in Landover, Mary.
2012: Miami (Fla.) at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.
2013: Arizona State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta and Denver might be a few possible future landing spots for a Shamrock Series game given the potential regional opponents and large alumni presence in those areas.
"Having a story to tell, that's really what this is all about," Swarbrick says. "Just going somewhere to play a football game isn't the same as going to New York and celebrating the tradition and history with the military academies, or going to D.C, and celebrating our governmental relations, going to Chicago and celebrating the Chicago presence that Notre Dame has. When you do those, it knits it together for you. So as we look to venues, there's some we choose because they are historic venues, there's some because they give us an area that we can turn into a Notre Dame celebration. Those are the things we are looking for."
Swarbrick says the success of the previous Shamrock Series games has created enough excitement that finding an ideal venue and interested opponent is never a problem. "We get more inquiries than we could possibly handle," he says.
The trickiest part of scheduling these games comes when working through existing conference television contractual agreements, and the understanding of what this game means to Notre Dame.
"We view these as home games," Swarbrick says. "We have the (NBC) television rights for them, so your playing partner needs to be all right with that and understand that."
Like it or not, college football has become big business and these Shamrock Series games are obviously much more than just a way to celebrate the Notre Dame brand. These weekends provide another revenue stream that otherwise would go untapped.
"This also provides an opportunity to have another game broadcast in prime time," Swarbrick says of an added promotional perk. "We limit how many of those we will do on campus. When you play at night you always have a bigger audience, so again, it is part of celebrating Notre Dame."
And ultimately, that's what this weekend, game and mission of the Shamrock Series is all about - celebrating Notre Dame in ways no other university can.
"The Shamrock Series has very much exceeded my expectations. I was an optimist about it but it has worked so well in so many ways it has surprised me," says Swarbrick, pledging his full support to keeping this game an annual tradition. "It has just done a great job of allowing us to bring Notre Dame - not just a football game - but taking the university to a community and engaging especially the Catholic community there and our alumni base, and it has done that in a pretty powerful way."