Lesar: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly used his mulligan; on the clock for 2017 already

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

LOS ANGELES — Like it or not, all indications are Brian Kelly will be back next season as Notre Dame’s head football coach.

After Saturday’s 45-27 loss to No. 12 Southern Cal, Kelly minced no words about his intentions.

Does he want to be back?

“Absolutely,” he said.

Even after being designated as the university spokesman for the fallout of the 2014 academic fraud situation earlier this week?

“I’ve got thick skin,” Kelly said. “I knew what the situation was relative to the academic investigation. In 2014, I felt like I was the point person. I felt like I had been there, done that.”

Look at the bright side, Saturday’s loss was at least a deviation from the script. It wasn’t a loss that came down to the last possession. This time, it was a couple special teams letdowns and a pick-six that paved the way for another step back.

Heck, if some wrongdoing comes out of the 2016 season, the Irish would only have to vacate four wins.

A drop in the bucket compared to 21 over the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

The sinister conspiracy theorists were tossing out their rumors of Kelly’s departure, based on his plan to stay on the West Coast just through Tuesday. Usually, he’s blanketing California trying to dredge up talent all week, returning in time for bowl practice.

Ain’t no bowl this year. It’s a time to turn inward.

“I’ll be back,” Kelly said. “I don’t believe I’m coming back early, because I’m getting fired. (Athletic director) Jack (Swarbrick) and I always meet at the end of the year. I want to do some exit interviews with our players.”

What are these guys gonna say on the way out?

• Special teams stink. Changes need to be made at the top.

• This program has to get beyond its fragile nature. Seven last-possession losses prove the Irish never learned how to finish.

• Accountability needs to be stressed.

In the wake of another difficult defeat, the one play that stands out hardly made an impact on the outcome.

It was just disturbing because it revealed — at least for a brief moment — a lack of class for the player and the program.

Late in the fourth quarter, as Southern Cal scored its final touchdown, Irish defensive tackle Jerry Tillery stomped on the ankle of Trojan offensive tackle Zach Banner while he was on the ground. Tillery was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and a sideline talk from Kelly who, afterward, said he really didn’t see what Tillery did.

“Accountability is built within any program,” Kelly said. “Jerry has to be accountable for his actions every single day. Jerry’s a good kid. If he made a mistake, we’ll hold him accountable for that mistake. Jerry’s a very smart kid.”

Linebacker James Onwualu did see what Tillery did and got in his face soon afterward.

“He’s obviously frustrated,” Onwualu said. “It shows how much (he cares). But that’s not the action we should display in a game like this. Although it’s our rival, we’ve gotta keep our heads level. Jerry cares a ton about this team. He just didn’t show it in the right way in that action.”

No he didn’t. A national television audience showed a player who’s going to be a key part of the Irish defense next season take a cheap shot. Some may argue it was a couple.

Also in the fourth quarter, and undetected by the officiating crew, Tillery appeared to come in contact with the helmet of USC's Aca'Cedric Ware with his foot while Ware was down on the turf with an apparent head injury.

That’s something Kelly needs to clean up during his down time this offseason.

There was a point during his postgame meeting with the media in which Kelly was asked if he was offended by his coaching being questioned.

“When you’ve been in this business a long time, you think you’ve got a track record of what you’ve done,” he said. “But, you’re also at a high-profile institution where the expectations are really high. You’re going to have to answer questions like this.

“One side of me says, ‘This is my (26th) year, I know what I’m doing.’ On the other side of it, you can’t be surprised when you go 4-8. You’re going to get those questions asked as well.”

Sorry, this is a business of high risk and high reward. Kelly gets paid seven figures to run a clean ship and win football games. When the balance is off, questions are fair game.

After overachieving last season, 4-8 can be considered Kelly’s mulligan.

He’s on the clock for 2017 already. There won’t be any wiggle room. He’s played that card already.

Absolutely.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly rubs his face as he walks off the field following Notre Dame's 45-27 loss to Southern Cal, Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)