Lesar: NCAA piles on Notre Dame for academic violations

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – As if this football season wasn’t bad enough …

Flag the NCAA 15 yards for piling on.

Notre Dame officials have known for a while that the other shoe was going to drop in the academic fraud case of many moons ago.

Tuesday, that shoe turned out to be a boot in the backside. And the Fighting Irish have chosen not to take it.

The battle over 21 asterisks will soon wage.

With Notre Dame promising to file an appeal with the NCAA, the harshest punishment to come from the academic cheating scandal that involved a student athletic trainer and several football players would be vacating 12 wins in 2012, and nine in ’13.

The sting from the black eye to the university may last longer.

By the way, where does head coach Brian Kelly fit into the equation? What’s his culpability in the big picture of the issue?

“Zero. None. Absolutely none,” Kelly said in a confident tone.

Of course, maybe that’s not left up to him to decide. The people who matter within the university may not be as completely convinced. Only a few know for sure.

When the academic fraud bombshell originally dropped in mid-August, 2014, Notre Dame president the Rev. John I. Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick manned the point for the announcement, and immediate damage control. After that, through much of the 2014 season, it was up to Kelly to be a spokesman for the process. At times, it was obvious he didn’t embrace that role.

Same goes for Tuesday. If, as Kelly said, the punishment doesn’t involve him one iota, why was he stuck being the university’s mouthpiece? That stage really belonged to Swarbrick, who was out of town.

A born and bred politician, Kelly is normally smooth and calculated on his remarks when the issue is sensitive. For the most part, he was calm and deliberate in mapping out the university’s case. For the most part …

“I was always hopeful that we wouldn't be at this day, but here's what I can tell you: We did the right thing,” said Kelly, emotion jutting through his delivery as calm briefly went out the window.

“I'm proud of our support staff, our academic support staff. I'm proud of the people that represented us here at Notre Dame during this time. And if doing the right thing means that you've got to put an asterisk next to these games, that's fine with me. We still beat Oklahoma. We still beat Wake Forest. We still beat all those teams. So you can put an asterisk next to it. If that makes you feel better, then that's fine with me.”

Really? Didn’t sound like it was fine with him.

Still, the culpability issue can’t be swept away. As Kelly said, this was student-on-student cheating — a situation that’s hard to monitor.

But, one premise Kelly has held dear over the seven-year developmental stage of his program has been “culture.” Remember the “Culture Beats Scheme” mantra that looked really nice on a T-shirt?

Well, if the proper culture is in place throughout the program, academic fraud doesn’t happen. Accountability makes sure there’s no room for it. As the CEO of Notre Dame Football, Inc., this happened on Kelly’s watch. No matter how many times he tries to wash his hands, he still needs to shoulder at least a part of the stench.

Enough to send him packing? Probably 4-7 with a potential blowout at Southern Cal staring him in the face would have more to do with a “thumbs down” than 21 asterisks.

But, they won’t help the situation any.

Aside from the pocket change ($5,000 fine) and a year’s probation (don’t mess up again or you’re in real trouble), Irish record books will absorb the hit.

Oh well. Big deal.

This season just keeps getting worse.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, and athletic director Jack Swarbrick walk off the field following the the 49-14 loss to USC on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, at the L.A. Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN