Notebook: Kelly's take on academics didn't dent Notre Dame recruiting

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Since uttering his subsequently heavily parsed and sometimes twisted statement on June 9 that included the hot-button words “at-risk,” Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly hasn’t suffered the unfavorable recruiting fate some predicted for him when he put his candor on the line in an interview with WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show.

In fact, it’s been quite the opposite.

In the 37 days that followed that interview, which gained national attention, the 2016 Irish recruiting class more than doubled in size, with Kelly picking up seven verbal commitments, as well as the top tight end prospect nationally in the 2017 class, Texan Brock Wright. Late Tuesday night, the Irish added yet another 2016 prospect in quarterback Ian Book.

The 2016 numbers are even more significant, given that that class currently doesn’t project to have room for more than 20 recruits and may cap at 18.

The genesis for my question to Kelly was Pete Thamel’s Sports Illustrated piece last spring on reinstated cornerback KeiVarae Russell. In it, Kelly, ND president Rev. John I. Jenkins, and athletic director Jack Swarbrick reportedly had “transformative conversations” in the offseason centering on at-risk student-athletes.

Swarbrick even co-chaired a task force that took a look at that issue in-depth. ND junior running back Greg Bryant's academic ineligibility, announced Tuesday, only heightens the relevance of Notre Dame taking a hard, honest and transparent look at the way it structures things for football players and the way it communicates.

As the academic dishonesty probe, that started last July, approached final resolution for the last two of the five players involved, I asked Kelly on June 9 for his thoughts on Notre Dame’s effort to move forward with lessons learned along the way.

The unabridged version, and the context that goes with that, was missing from some of the national reports and the incomplete debates spawned from them.

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk — all of them — really,” Kelly said. “Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.

“So making sure that with the rigors that we put them in — playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 o’clock in the morning, all of the demands that we place on them relative to the academics and going into an incredibly competitive academic classroom every day — we recognize this is a different group.

“And we have to provide all the resources necessary for them to succeed and don’t force them into finding shortcuts.

“I think we’ve clearly identified that we need to do better, and we’re not afraid to look at any shortcomings that we do have and fix them, and provide the resources necessary for our guys. Our university has looked at that, and we’re prepared to make sure that happens for our guys.”

Notre Dame will always have its high academic bar used against it in recruiting by some of its competitors, no matter what the coach says and no matter how the school itself frames its mission. That likely will never change.

But its high standards, and how that plays in the real world after football ends, can be a valuable asset in recruiting as well. And Kelly’s willingness to take on a tough issue head on, rather than shrinking from it with insincere and image-conscious backpedaling, seems to resonate with 17- and 18-year-olds wading through all the recruiting minutia.

For those pining that Kelly stick to the robotic, coach-speak script, it’s not likely to happen. It’s quite apparent he subscribes to the school of thought that “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing …

“And be nothing.”

Pretzel logic

The height of absurdity last month, in which Notre Dame’s independent status in football was strangely elevated into a stream of redundant, national headlines, actually wasn’t delivered by Mike MacIntrye.

Although it was close.

In fairness it’s unknown whether the University of Colorado head coach, with a 22-39 career head coaching record and a 1-17 league mark in his two seasons in the Pac-12, stepped onto the soap box himself to delineate what a college football playoff team should look like or if he was coaxed there.

“Each conference should play nine league games and have a title game. Notre Dame needs to get in a conference,” MacIntyre was quoted and tweeted as saying.

Which likely means Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will be prompted for some kind of response Thursday when he meets with the media, a day before the Irish open training camp in Culver, Ind.

The real inanity were the dots connected between MacIntyre, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel — who started the whole ND playoff criteria conversation — Cal’s Sonny Dykes and six ACC coaches that gave faux significance to the dissenting, and ultimately irrelevant voices.

It all made Watch List Mania almost palatable.

The most intriguing twist in the rush of ND/playoff rhetoric is that it may be just the opposite of self-serving for those coaches and their respective conferences.

Here’s why:

The first-ever, four-team college playoff, at the end of last season, did, in fact, comprise four teams with 13 games on their respective résumés.

But from 2006, the first year the FBS went from 11 to 12 regular-season games on a permanent basis through the final year of the BCS (2013), there were 32 total potential playoff teams, had college football been using that format at the time.

Using the BCS standings as a guide to determine the hypothetical, four-team playoff fields in those years, 16 of the 32 playoff teams would have played only 12 games — not 13 — heading into the four-team playoff, with at least one 12-game team in every playoff lineup.

That does include a 12-0 Notre Dame team in 2012 and several others who did not have a 13th game available to them via a conference championship game. But seven of those 16 did have a title game connected with their conference and didn’t make it into a league title game.

Those seven teams are 2013 Alabama, 2012 Florida, 2012 Oregon, 2011 Stanford, 2008 Texas, 2006 LSU and the 2011 national championship Alabama team.

So be careful what you wish for?

Another ironic curve on the topic resides with the six ACC coaches who followed Pinkel’s lead and pushed for ND’s requirement to be in a conference in order to land a spot in the four-team playoff.

If that conference happened to be the ACC, it could be argued, joining the conference on a full-time basis would actually soften, not strengthen, ND’s schedule.

In the nine years since the FBS went to 12 regular-season games on a permanent basis, ND’s average schedule rank in that span, per the Sagarin computer rankings, is 28.8, with a high of 18th nationally and a low of 50th.

The average for all six schools whose coaches who were in favor of pushing for the Irish to be required to join a conference were all lower.

Florida State, at 38.6, was the highest among them, but roughly an average of 10 spots lower than ND’s average strength of schedule. The others in descending order were Virginia Tech 41.8, Clemson 42.9, Pitt 44.4, Duke 44.9 and North Carolina State 47.7.

The ACC hurts itself in schedule strength with its addiction to FCS matchups. Of the 10 Power 5 schools that have played the most games vs. FCS teams since Division I split into I-A (FBS) and I-AA (FCS) in 1978, the ACC accounts for seven of those 10.

Wake Forest leads the way with 38 FCS matchups. Elon, in the Demon Deacons’ 2015 season opener, will push the total to 39.

Notre Dame is one of three schools, along with UCLA and USC, that hasn’t played a single FCS squad.

ehansen@sbtinfo.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly talks to his team following the Notre Dame's Blue-Gold spring football game on Saturday, April 18, 2015, at the LaBar Practice Complex on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

The most and fewest games by Power 5 BCS schools played against FCS teams since Division I split into I-A (FBS) and I-AA (FCS) in 1978:

MOST

1. Wake Forest 38; 2. Rutgers 36; 3. Louisville 35; 4. North Carolina State 34; 5. Kansas State 31; 6. Virginia Tech 30; 7. (tie) Clemson and Georgia Tech 29; 9. Iowa State 28; 10. Virginia 26.

LEAST

1. (tie) Notre Dame, USC and UCLA 0; 4. Ohio State 3; 5. (tie) Michigan, Stanford, Washington and Texas 4; 9. (tie) Michigan State and Colorado 5.