Notre Dame's Brian Kelly survived controversy by winning. Can he survive academic misconduct when he's losing?
At Notre Dame, it's exceptionally important to be considered different. Maybe nowhere else in the country is appearance so vital to the identity of a place: It fancies itself the high-minded sanctuary where athletic and academic excellence can coexist without the need to compromise on either. Feel free to debate how plausible that is. At Notre Dame, it must seem to be possible or else what's the point. South Bend is no battleground for perception versus reality. Perception, it can easily be argued, is all there is.
So here is why Brian Kelly is in deep, deep trouble as the school's current football coach: He is losing the perception crusade worse than he ever has, if he hasn't completely lost it already. The football team is finishing the 14th losing season in 128 years of playing the sport, a year that began with multiple player arrests and ends with the NCAA ordering Notre Dame to vacate victories from 2012 and 2013 after an inquiry into academic fraud. The defeats would be problematic but not necessarily mortal sins, not in the context of Kelly's tenure as a whole. A belly flop off the moral high ground, however, is intolerable at Notre Dame. And not even Kelly's fiercest allies can protect him for long if very influential trustees and benefactors feel the fabric of their beloved institution is coming unwound.
It doesn't even matter whether that's true or whether Kelly, the seventh-year coach, bears responsibility for any of it. As soon as people of influence feel things are too significantly un-Notre Dame, those to blame are all but finished.
We say "all but," because there's nothing a 10-win season can't cure. In this way Notre Dame has never been much different from anyone else. So far, Kelly has survived the death of videographer Declan Sullivan, who should never have been sent atop a scissor lift that collapsed due to high winds in October 2010. (I was in South Bend that day as the Notre Dame beat writer for the Chicago Tribune. The wind was anything but typical.) Kelly has survived the 2010 suicide of Lizzy Seeberg, a student at neighboring St. Mary's College, which followed a much-criticized investigation into an alleged sexual assault of Seeberg by then-Notre Dame player Prince Shembo. (Notre Dame's handling of the case ultimately prompted an investigation by the civil rights office of the Department of Education.) Kelly has even survived his own sideline tantrums, which drew the ire of Notre Dame fans who expect a certain level of comportment from their coach. (Though, honestly, where else does that happen?) Kelly has come through because there have been enough insular excuses and enough academic success paired with enough victories—a 55-23 record before the face plant of 2016—to help Kelly clear controversies large and small.
That's not a defense of any of it. That's simply what is.
But now we have the worst of all possible scenarios, at least as Notre Dame imagines it. A failed football season doesn't always in truth fall directly at the feet of the head coach; the Fighting Irish's 2016 campaign is the rare case that does. Kelly mishandled his quarterback dynamic, put too much faith for too long in defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder and led a recruiting effort that produced far too many holes on the defensive side of the ball. And this doesn't even address in-game decision-making that precipitated three blown double-digit leads this fall.
And still: As much as the program's followers cringe at a tenure full of bull-headed game-planning—no one forgets Kelly eschewing a game-winning field goal attempt for a pass that got intercepted against Tulsa in 2010, then issuing a pejorative "Get used to it" afterward—this is a coach who put together a 10-win season only a year ago. Charlie Weis went 3–9 in 2007 and held his job two more years. The current Notre Dame athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, is among the more even-keeled administrators in the nation. On wins and losses alone, Brian Kelly was almost assuredly set for a chance to atone in 2017. (Though he probably would want to keep it competitive against USC on Saturday. If we're talking about perception, Notre Dame fans might prefer a javelin through the eye socket over a blowout loss to the Trojans, in any year.)
Then the NCAA spoke up Tuesday. It was old news that a former student athletic trainer gave improper assistance to multiple football players; five of them served very public suspensions in 2014 as a result of the school's internal investigation. (The NCAA's findings indicated eight players were involved overall.) But the ruling that Notre Dame had to vacate all victories involving ineligible players was more than a semantic blow. For this school, for this program, it was a public shaming with crushing symbolism. Forget that Notre Dame initiated the original investigation and issued its own discipline, or that it will appeal the directive to vacate the wins, or that it has legitimate grounds for that appeal. At best, the perception is that Notre Dame football is as susceptible as anyone else to taking shortcuts that merit a strong response from the NCAA. That may be the most unpardonable of all transgressions at Notre Dame, which is saying something given what's happened over the past seven years, and it did so under Brian Kelly's watch.
Kelly said Tuesday that his culpability in this academic fraud case is zero. And he may be right. And it doesn't matter even a little. Not at Notre Dame.
What matters is Notre Dame maintaining the perception that it does right on and off the field. A coach can even last for a pretty good while if he manages to do incredibly well on one part while only occasionally faltering on the second.
This year, five football players were arrested before the season began after police discovered marijuana and a handgun in their car. This year, the football team couldn't even beat bad opponents en route to a losing campaign. This year, the NCAA smacked the school for academic fraud. This year, Notre Dame didn't look anything like Notre Dame. It looked like just about everyone else. And that means big trouble for everyone involved, especially the guy at the top.