Notre Dame response to fraud probe creates more questions than answers

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s wall of silence Friday finally gave way to an early-evening press conference that conjured more questions and conjecture than it actually quelled.

In the aftermath, Irish fifth-year head football coach Brian Kelly has to repel those gawking from the outside looking in from connecting dots of an ongoing academic fraud investigation to past defections and imperfections.

More immediately, he has to make sure that the impending roster changes, however enduring, and all the outside noise that comes with them don’t conspire to create a lost season. The Irish, ranked 17th in the coaches poll, open with Rice on Aug. 30.

“Something other than the game of football and Rice is going to be what the players are going to be asked about, constantly, and, yes, that’s going to be a distraction,” said former Irish captain and All-American offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, now a college football analyst with CBS Sports.

“Now will that distraction be big enough to cause problems in week one and throughout the season? Probably not. But it will be something that they’ll have to deal with. But that’s the nature of the beast of being at Notre Dame.”

In the meantime there is officially no timetable for a conclusion to the probe, no specifics about how far-reaching it may end up in terms of the number of players involved and how far back on the calendar the investigation may dig. There was a concession that a number of non-student-athletes were involved.

The boilerplate answer to those questions and many more posed to ND president Rev. John I. Jenkins at an impromptu press conference held at the Morris Inn, just down the hall from a wedding reception, was: “I’m not prepared to answer that. The investigation is still underway.”

What we do know definitively is that star cornerback KeiVarae Russell, fellow starters defensive end Ishaq Williams and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, and seldom-used backup linebacker Kendall Moore are in limbo and not finished at Notre Dame, as some early web reports suggested. However, a dismissal for one or all is still in the range of ultimate possibilities.

For now, they’re all being held out of practice and competition until a conclusion is reached in their cases, though Jenkins, and the press conference’s only other voice — ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick — said they were not terming their status as suspensions.

“Let me emphasize something,” Jenkins said. “At this juncture, no one has been judged responsible for academic dishonesty, no one has been dismissed for the university and no sanctions have been imposed or no judgment has been made yet.”

Not so outside the existing Notre Dame campus cocoon.

Shock seemed to be the universal reaction from several former Notre Dame football players, including Taylor, when contacted by the South Bend Tribune.

“Before the shock wore off, I started getting peppered and beat up and bullied with texts from my buddies from other schools and other conferences,” he said. “And everybody’s kind of having some fun at Notre Dame’s expense.

“The reality is Notre Dame holds itself to a higher standard. So that’s going to come with more scrutiny if anything comes into question. I think it’s very important for anybody to avoid passing judgment until more is known and a decision and a conclusion to this set of circumstances comes to a close.

“I’m concerned for my university. I’m concerned for those players. I’m concerned for the team. But until I can know more, I’m going to try to stay optimistic until further notice.”

Rumors about the fate of the four players and what led to that spilled onto social media and ND football-related message boards Friday morning, but Notre Dame had been incubating with the story for more than a couple of weeks.

“At the end of the summer session, suspicions arose on the part of a member of our academic staff that students had submitted papers and homework that was written for them by others,” Jenkins said. “This was referred to the compliance office on athletics on July 29. The office of general counsel than initiated an investigation, and that investigation is ongoing.

“The university has decided that if the investigation determines that the student-athletes would have been ineligible for past competitions, Notre Dame will voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated in.”

Swarbrick pointed out, though, that generally the NCAA stays out of academic misconduct issues and lets schools clean up their own messes — unless they have broad tentacles that include, say, coaching staff members being complicit.

Perhaps the most perplexing tidbit to come from the press conference was Jenkins assertion that Kelly wasn’t pulled into the loop until Thursday. And given Kelly’s largely perpetually chipper mood since training camp kicked off Aug. 4 and the effusive praise he’s heaped on Russell in particular, would seem to back that assertion.

“Like all of us, he was devastated,” Swarbrick said of Kelly’s reaction. “But he was also quick to want to understand the process, how he and his staff could be of assistance in the process and how it would work. That was quickly the focus of the discussion.”

In the myopic view, the most damaging piece to this is Russell disappearing from the lineup. Though ND is stocked with more talent and experience at corner than at any time in more than a decade, Russell may have been playing the best football of any player at any position at this juncture.

He’s also one of the linchpins in the way new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder wants to play defense. His ability to press opposing receivers — and the Irish will face six of the top seven in the nation per Phil Steele’s national preview magazine — allows VanGorder to take more risks in his front seven.

Cole Luke, a high-ceiling sophomore, likely steps in for Russell until or if he returns.

Of broader concern is how Kelly is perceived in the long term by both recruits and the academic side of campus. The members of the 2015 class seemed indifferent to the news, at least as it pertains to their commitments. As for the campus brass, on Friday night there was open and exuberant support, but behind closed doors do the script and the smiles match?

Former Irish coaching icon Lou Holtz’s final seasons were reportedly marked by increased tension between the academic forces on campus and the coach. Long-time recruiting analyst Tom Lemming is one of many close to the program who felt the admissions bar took a significant boost when persistent roster attrition became an issue with Holtz’s bosses.

Kelly has seen 10 players leave the program out of the 2010-13 recruiting classes unrelated to injury, going pro early or seeking an opportunity for more playing time elsewhere as a fifth-year senior. Some of those defections can be directly related to academics. Some cannot.

Early in Kelly’s tenure, popular speculation was that the bar had dropped to make winning easier for him. Vice president for undergraduate enrollment Don Bishop, who arrived roughly a year after Kelly, chuckled at the notion at the time.

"I'm a big believer in when anecdotes are being thrown around you go back and look at the data," Bishop said in a 2011 South Bend Tribune interview. "Since you can't look at graduation data yet for these recent classes, we look at the admissions data, and they're right on track with previous years.

"There's not more at the bottom, and actually they had a few more at the top."

Bishop said typically there are about five to seven prospects in each football class that are "lights out" and roughly five that are on the fence.

"Those are the ones you really watch," Bishop said. "And if they don't make it, you let the coaches know the bar's going up. That hasn't had to happen here.”

And it may not happen. Even if the players are found guilty of academic fraud, does that necessarily suggest they couldn’t do the work as opposed to being unmotivated to doing it.

Until the investigation closes, perception trumps reality – in this, in Kelly’s future, in the details about how deep and how heavy this all gets. The spotlight shines bright on Notre Dame for unflattering reasons.

“For every misstep, we have hundreds of stories of people who come here and succeed and take full advantage of the opportunity,” Swarbrick said. “So we know it works. We’re bringing young men and women in our other sports who can succeed at Notre Dame and so we have great confidence in that.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. the University's President, left, talks about the academic scandal Friday Aug. 15, 2014 in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame says it is investigating "suspected academic dishonesty" involving several students, including four members of the football team who are being held out of practice. At right is Notre Dame Vice President/Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
From left to right, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, linebacker Kendall Moore, and defensive end Ishaq Williams are at the center of an alleged academic fraud case at Notre Dame.