Notre Dame's diversity, approach to social justice appealed to new CB commit Philip Riley

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

For Philip Riley to be resold on Notre Dame, he needed more information.

The four-star cornerback recruit in the 2021 class verbally committed to the Irish in May. Then he decommitted on Sept. 25 and pledged to USC three days later. Riley said he regrets decommitting from the Irish because he based that decision on misinformation. He announced his re-commitment to Notre Dame on Monday.

“The (perceived lack of) diversity was one of the key reasons I decommitted. I was filled with a lot of nonsense about how Notre Dame is not diverse,” said Riley, a product of Bloomingdale High in Valrico, Fla. “It was really what I saw on Twitter and people reaching out to me. Family members, other schools and just people in general calling me and telling me what they were seeing and what they were witnessing from their experience in Indiana. Just what I was seeing online really disappointed me.”

In recent weeks, Riley said his conversations with the Irish coaching staff involved deep, hour-long discussions about a variety of topics unrelated to football, including diversity, race and social justice. The conversations helped Riley feel comfortable about Notre Dame again.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Clark Lea, recruiting/special teams coordinator Brian Polian and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens headed this effort. Riley said the data they shared with him spoke volumes.

“They pulled statistics about the student body there, how many people come from different countries and different backgrounds,” Riley said about the Irish coaching staff. “Their abroad program, how they send students out to different countries and they experience different parts of life, different perspectives on life.”

For 14 straight years, Notre Dame has claimed the national championship for graduating student-athletes via the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate. Notre Dame consistently ranks among the top five nationally in GSR for its football players, Black student-athletes and female student-athletes.

The Irish football roster comprises players from 31 different states across America and two other countries (Germany and Ghana). In the 2020 recruiting class alone, the Irish signed 17 players from 14 different states, Washington, D.C. and Germany. Notre Dame’s entire 2020 freshman class included 27 percent U.S. students of color and seven percent international/outside of the U.S. students, according to the university’s website.

Study abroad programs also are encouraged. Notre Dame ranks No. 7 nationally in undergraduate study-abroad participation, according to the university’s website. There are 16 programs across 30 countries.

These were the type of figures that appealed to Riley. Fitting in ranked among his highest priorities. Riley said he previously thought he might feel out of place in the Midwest. His ties are mostly on the West Coast and in Florida. Riley grew up in the Tacoma, Wash., area and still has family there. He transferred to Bloomingdale after finishing his sophomore season at Lakes High in Lakewood, Wash.

Riley also spoke with several Notre Dame football players, commits and students. They echoed that he would join a diverse roster and student body.

“That was definitely something me and my family were looking for with everything happening in today’s society,” Riley said.

In his discussions with the Irish coaching staff, Riley also learned more about how Notre Dame processed and responded to the social justice movement that started in America during the summer.

The Irish football program organized the “staNDtogether” unity walk on Juneteenth, the holiday which celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S. Approximately 1,500 people attended the event on campus, joining together to share prayers and speeches.

That month, Notre Dame’s athletic department announced Angie Torain would fill a new role as senior associate athletic director for culture, diversity and engagement. She previously worked as Notre Dame’s senior associate athletic director for compliance, legal and risk management. She was hired by Notre Dame in 2017.

In the coming weeks, Notre Dame amplified the voices of its athletes. They were encouraged to share their opinions about social justice issues publicly, and several of them did.

“They just showed me that they were giving their players a platform to speak their mind,” Riley said. “You see other programs not doing this publicly. Notre Dame really embraced it and really came forth as the leading program on social media just putting their players out there to speak their minds.”

Notre Dame started recruiting Riley in March. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Then came the dead period, a mandate issued by the NCAA that prohibits face-to-face contact between college coaches and recruits. So recruits cannot take official or unofficial recruiting visits to schools. The ongoing mandate is expected to be extended again through April 15, according to a report from CBS Sports last week.

The idea of Notre Dame appealed to Riley. He liked the tradition and combination of football and academics. But he had never visited South Bend. So he relied on secondhand sources to inform some of his thinking. Riley even messaged random ND students on social media. He cited their encouraging responses as a reason why he pledged to the Irish in May.

Seeking other opinions helped lead Riley to Notre Dame. That approach also played a role in chasing him away. So the Irish coaching staff offered their message and also advised Riley to visit campus. They wanted him to see it for himself.

Under the dead period, recruits can still visit campuses. They just can’t meet with college coaches or be granted special access to tour facilities. These trips are more do-it-yourself excursions. So on the week of Halloween, Riley trekked to South Bend with his stepfather. They walked around Notre Dame and ventured off campus to get a feel for the city.

“I’m just happy that I got to see it,” Riley said. “There’s a lot of diversity, a lot of people from different cultures and different backgrounds.”

If his status in the recruiting rankings holds, Riley will join Tee Shepard (2012), Cole Luke (2013), Shaun Crawford (2015) and Isaiah Rutherford (2019) as the only Notre Dame cornerback signees in the Kelly Era to finish ranked among the top 250 overall players in their classes on both 247Sports and Rivals.

247Sports ranks Riley as its No. 13 cornerback and No. 219 overall player in the 2021 class. Rivals slates Riley No. 24 at the position and No. 241 overall.

The 6-foot, 190-pound Riley said he plans to make his commitment official during the three-day early signing period next month. Then he will enroll a semester early at Notre Dame in January. His pledge brought the Irish to 20 commits this cycle.

“You definitely are hearing their voice and how much they care about the players, how much it affected them, what they were bringing to the conversation,” said Riley about the Irish coaching staff. “You see how much it was affecting them mentally and personally, how much they care about their Black athletes and just all the athletes in general.

“They were bringing up great points. They definitely are great guys to talk to about the subject.

“That really touched me and my family. That is something we really do appreciate a lot, just Notre Dame giving their student-athletes the platform to speak their minds and speak the truth.”

Valrico (Fla.) Bloomingdale High’s Philip Riley, a four-star cornerback in the 2021 recruiting class, visited Notre Dame for the first time the week of Halloween.