Analysis: Looking beyond the splash of the NCAA's sanctioning of Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly sounded like an old vinyl disc sped up to 78 RPMs, his face flush with defiance, his image up for public referendum. Again.

Reading between the lines of Tuesday’s NCAA bombshell of a press release and directly out of its voluminous policies, it’s not a stretch to assume that if Notre Dame had simply dismissed five active football players in August of 2014 — instead of giving them due process — that the new stain on the football program may never have come to pass.

Or at least been mitigated from what the university considers a final heavy-handed, haymaker from the NCAA in the two-year-old academic dishonesty aspersion.

Instead, the Division I Committee on Infractions panel on Tuesday morning hit the Notre Dame football program with a litany of penalties, including a vacating of the 21 victories from the 2012 and 2013 seasons, imposing a one-year probation period that expires Nov. 21, 2017, and levying a $5,000 fine.

The probation doesn’t include common tentacles such as a bowl ban or scholarship limitations, provided Notre Dame doesn’t commit an egregious violation in the next 365 days.

The rewriting of Notre Dame’s history — No. 2 in all-time winning percentage and FBS wins before Tuesday — is the point being appealed vehemently by the university.

“We very much appreciate the hard work of the NCAA enforcement staff and the members of the Committee on Infractions for their review of our case,” ND president Rev. John I. Jenkins said via prepared statement, “but we believe the penalty they have imposed is not justified.”

“Excessive,” was Kelly’s terminology of the giant distraction that landed in his lap five days before his 4-7 Irish take on 17 1/2-point favorite and 12th-ranked USC (8-3) in the regular-season Saturday in Los Angeles.

Excessive, he said, because no coaches, no professors, no academic support staff — no one from the university other than a part-time trainer, who is no longer at the university, was found to be involved.

And that if recently amended NCAA rule not defining that part-time trainer as an institutional staff member were applied, Tuesday’s Kelly press conference is solely about the upcoming USC game and not NCAA fallout.

Instead the most storied rivalry on ND’s schedule, and its de facto bowl game this season, became very back burner, and Kelly was left to pick up the pieces all by himself, because athletic director Jack Swarbrick was out of town.

“You know, it had always been discussed,” Kelly said Tuesday when asked if the NCAA’s response of altering ND’s all-time win total surprised him. “When you hear about vacating wins, you think of lack of institutional control.

“You hear of clearly abuse within the university relative to extra benefits, things of that nature. And when these don't even come close to that — although you hear those things — you just never think it would happen.

“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. 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.”

As muddled as Kelly’s history at ND now looks, at least until the appeals process plays out, he is adamant that nothing’s changed about his future.

Swarbrick gave Kelly a vote of confidence last month as far as the 2017 portion of his existing contract through 2021 goes. And the seventh-year head coach saw no reason for a booster shot.

“Obviously, this has been something that's been going on for a few years,” Kelly said. “The announcement that comes out today has nothing to do with lack or additional support for Brian Kelly.

“Any negative criticism that's out there about me right now is because we're 4-7. It has nothing to do with the public announcement that came out here today.”

So does he believe he’ll be the head coach come Sept. 2, when the Irish host Temple in the finally completely renovated Notre Dame Stadium?

“I have no reason to believe that I'm not,” he said. “I think you guys are confusing this statement with the win-loss record. A win-loss record is always under scrutiny at Notre Dame, and it should be. That's part of it.

“But this matter here has been a long-standing matter that the university has handled, handled in a positive way relative to how we handled it internally. Everybody has felt that. Every support staff member has represented Notre Dame in a positive way.

“Today's statement should be a validation that my collateral responsibilities at Notre Dame, as the head coach, are outstanding. However, he's got to win more football games. And so that hasn't changed.

“We're still 4-7. So if you want me to answer you the question on 4-7, I think every football coach that's 4-7 has got to win more football games.”

Some of the new information unearthed in the NCAA’s report:

• The probe indeed went beyond the initial “Frozen Five” active players who were originally indefinitely suspended — 2014 projected starters KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and DaVaris Daniels as well as Eilar Hardy and Kendall Moore, and that four players who were no longer on the roster in August of 2014, when the story first broke, were also involved.

• One player committed academic misconduct in a total of eight courses between the spring of 2011 and the fall of 2012.

• Kelly testified at an expedited penalty hearing in Indianapolis on Sept. 23, the day before the Irish were upset by Duke, 38-35, at Notre Dame Stadium and two days before he fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (who incidentally took an analyst job Tuesday with Irish 2017 opponent Georgia).

Not in the report and not what Kelly’s detractors will want to hear is that Kelly and Swarbrick long before Tuesday had spearheaded some proactive moves — including forming a university task force — designed to take a hard look why the academic misconduct happened in the first place and reduce the likelihood that it could reprise itself in the future.

“Our interaction with our players relative to academic specialists, we've addressed,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We've added support staff. We've added the necessary resources for our players to be represented as it relates to the work that they have to do academically.

“That's my responsibility, that if we bring them here to Notre Dame that they have the resources necessary to succeed.

“But let's not kid ourselves. Eighty percent of colleges go through cheating. There's cheating that goes on in college. Eighty percent of colleges. That doesn't condone it, but we know what the culture is.

“It's my job to support the student-athletes that I have here with the resources necessary on a day-to-day basis. We believe that we do that, and we do it in the best interests by providing those resources.”

And the university felt it was the right thing to do to open the sore and leave it open, knowing that choosing not to investigate it and simply expelling the students would likely mean minimal NCAA scrutiny and penalties. Instead, it could have imposed its own standards and consequences.

Per a university source, the university chose the investigative option, because:

• It wanted to give the student-athletes an opportunity to exonerate themselves, and you could infer by Hardy’s reinstatement late in the 2014 season that he, at least, was successful in doing so.

• That it wanted to find out just exactly what occurred. And by finding out, grades and GPAs had to be lowered and class credits removed, thus resulting in ineligible players.

• It wanted to make sure that there was no North Carolina parallel, that the cheating was not systemic but rather independent and isolated.

None of this will necessarily help Kelly, who can thank the train wrecks and Texas this week and Baylor ongoing for his image not being more of a nationally debated topic.

“All I can say is, ‘Just read the statement,’ ” he said of the university’s response to the NCAA’s findings and how it connects to the perception of his as the program’s leader. “(If) perception will rule the world, I can't worry about that.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly calls his players to come to the sideline for the Alma Mater following the 17-10 loss to Stanford, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)