November 18, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Jack Swarbrick

John “Jack” Swarbrick, Jr.

Name: John “Jack” Swarbrick, Jr.
Title: Vice President and James E. Rohr Director of Athletics – University of Notre Dame
Firm Background: Partner, August 1980 – September 2008
Office: Indianapolis
Practice: Corporate

In 1997, the NCAA moved its headquarters to Indianapolis, cementing the city’s status as a national hub for amateur sports. Jack Swarbrick, then a partner at Baker & Daniels, led the city’s efforts to court the NCAA. Fifteen years later, Indy hosted its first Super Bowl — to resounding acclaim. Jack played a leading role in that bidding process too. Today, in his 13th year as athletic director at Notre Dame, Jack spends his days among student-athletes and, by his estimation, attends a sporting event just about every weekend night. One of the walls in his office is built from the old bleachers from the iconic Notre Dame Stadium, byproducts of a massive three-year renovation that Jack spearheaded, which concluded in 2017.

Simply put, Jack has had an outsized impact on the sports world, which has been the focus of his career for going on 40 years. So you might be surprised to hear that Jack did not exactly set out to pursue a career in the sports industry.

A Focus on Community Work

After earning a J.D. at Stanford in 1980, Jack had one priority as he sought a place to begin his career: he wanted to be somewhere that would allow him to do meaningful work in the community.

“I chose Baker & Daniels out of law school largely because I thought it would allow me to get involved in the community more than the firms I was considering in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Baker & Daniels had a strong engagement with the community of central Indiana, and community engagement was my passion; that’s how I wanted to use my law degree,” Jack said. “It was pure coincidence that, when I arrived, Indianapolis had just launched an amateur sports initiative as an economic development strategy.”

Jack’s career at the intersection of sports and community began with Indiana Sports Corp, a nonprofit focused on driving civic organization, community engagement and economic development through sports.

“I got started purely as a volunteer — mopping floors at events, passing out towels,” Jack said. “Eventually, I started to run events, and I got to know people in the sports industry, and they started to come to me to seek assistance with legal issues. Pretty quickly, everything I was doing, both professionally and as a volunteer, was related to sports.”

With the firm’s support, Jack distinguished himself in the sports world, and opportunities kept coming. He helped run the 1987 Pan American Games in Indy, which many still cite as a pivotal moment in Indy establishing itself as a host city for major athletic events — and getting on the NCAA’s radar. Indy was the first city to break even financially as host of the Pan American Games.

Jack credits the firm with giving him the space to pursue this new “sports practice” — even if he occasionally caught some ribbing from his colleagues for spending so much time out of the office.

“The firm could not have been more supportive of my dedicating pretty extraordinary amounts of time to sports initiatives,” Jack said. “I worked on a lot of projects that caused me to have to step away from the firm for a while. It’s a great example of the firm’s support of my community engagement.”

Jack also noted that many of his Baker & Daniels colleagues were deeply involved in a sort of “Indianapolis renaissance” during this time, and that the community involvement was “part of the culture of the firm.” Jack found his place in the sports aspect of that renaissance.

“At that time, the community energy was in sports. If I were a lot younger and moved to Indianapolis today, I'd probably be involved in life sciences or something here,” Jack said.

Notre Dame Comes Calling

Despite establishing himself as a force in the amateur athletics community, becoming an athletic director was not how Jack envisioned his career progressing — but one conversation was all it took to change his mind.

“I got a call out of the blue from Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, who asked if I was interested in the open athletics director position. I told him I probably wasn’t — but I’d love to talk about what I think the university should be looking for. An evening with him totally changed my perspective, and I was fully bought in,” Jack said.

He has served as Notre Dame’s athletic director since 2008. While sports dominate his day-to-day life, Jack has unsurprisingly found ways to connect Notre Dame athletics to the broader academic community and student life.

“One of the projects I’m most proud of here is a major renovation of our football stadium. We took our most significant athletic facility that we used [for seven home football games] a year, and we turned it into a year-round facility,” Jack said. “We built 800,000 square feet, and most of it is dedicated to non-football activities. It’s home for our anthropology department, sociology department, music department and our student rec center. We built this all into the complex.”

The connection between academics and athletics is one of the most rewarding aspects of working at Notre Dame, Jack said.

“I work with extraordinary young people,” Jack said. “They are highly motivated and talented. It takes elite talent and work ethic to be a part of Notre Dame athletics. For these athletes to also be able to get admitted to Notre Dame academically, it’s a very small subset of people in the country, and they are special. The relationships I get to form with them — that is the most rewarding part of my job.”

However, the job is not without challenges, and recent changes — particularly the flurry of conference realignments and the new right of publicity policy permitting student-athletes to profit off of their own name, image and likeness — have tasked colleges with adjusting to major changes on the fly.

“Our industry is under enormous stress as it changes right now,” Jack said. “My focus is to help steer Notre Dame to a safe harbor on all of this. I suspect the timeline for getting that done will probably coincide pretty closely with the right time for me to ride off into the sunset.”

The Importance of a ‘Clarity of Purpose’

In his position working with young people, Jack fields a lot of questions about career advice. His answer always hearkens back to the motivating force that has shaped his career decisions from the very beginning.

“I tell people to focus on having great clarity about what is important to them, and what they want to engage in professionally,” Jack said. “If you don’t know, decision-making is really hard. For me, it was a passion for community development. Once I established that clarity of purpose, and became engaged in the community, those decisions became easier.”

But while having a singular focus is important, Jack also encourages people to keep an open mind — and not to shrink from new, even unexpected opportunities.

“Don’t get blinded by a path you’ve chosen. I’m going to be a litigator, or I’m going to make partner in eight years, or whatever it is,” Jack said. “You’ve got to be open to the other opportunities that are inevitably going to come your way. My one strength may be that I almost never said no to an opportunity, no matter how crazy it seemed at the time, because I came to see each as a way to grow, to learn something else. Whether they are Notre Dame student-athletes or attorneys just starting their career in law, I hope they will be open to this line of thinking.”

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