Notre Dame football to vacate 21 wins after NCAA denies appeal

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame's football program earned its 900th all-time victory on Sept. 30 with a 52-17 home win over Miami (Ohio).

If the Irish win their next 15 games, they can get back to No. 900 ... by the beginning of the 2019 season.

Notre Dame's appeal of an NCAA decision to vacate all 21 victories from the 2012 and 2013 seasons has been denied by the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee, the NCAA announced on Tuesday.

"We are deeply disappointed by and strongly disagree with the denial of the University’s appeal ..." Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins wrote in a letter responding to the NCAA's decision. "Our concerns go beyond the particulars of our case and the record of two football seasons to the academic autonomy of our institutions, the integrity of college athletics and the ability of the NCAA to achieve its fundamental purpose."

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and athletics director Jack Swarbrick declined to comment further on the university's denied appeal.

The NCAA's decision, which was originally announced in Nov. 2016, came as a response to news that a former ND student athletic trainer violated NCAA ethical conduct rules when she committed academic misconduct for two football players and provided six other football players with impermissible academic extra benefits. One additional Irish football player committed academic misconduct on his own.

All the infractions were self-reported by the university.

Five former Irish football players — Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore, Eilar Hardy, Davaris Daniels and KeiVarae Russell — were suspended prior to the 2014 season for academic misconduct. Of those five, Hardy returned to the team for the 2014 season and Russell was reinstated and played in 2015.

The other four players implicated in the NCAA report, who were no longer enrolled at Notre Dame when the violations were discovered, are unknown.

The NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions panel also ordered one year of probation — which has already been served — as well as a two-year show-cause order and disassociation for the former trainer, and a $5,000 fine for the university.

Notre Dame will be forced to erase 21 wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons, most notably the undefeated 12-0 regular season in 2012. The reflected changes drop Notre Dame's all-time winning percentage from .729 to .727 and the all-time win total from 906 to 885.

The aforementioned .727 all-time winning percentage remains second nationally, behind only Michigan (.729). Notre Dame's national standing in total wins drops from second to sixth, behind Michigan (943), Texas (898), Ohio State (898), Nebraska (893) and Alabama (891).

The NCAA has never in its history vacated the records of an institution that had no involvement in the underlying academic misconduct. But how involved, if at all, was Notre Dame?

"The appeals committee confirmed that at the time of the violations, the athletic training student was considered a university employee under NCAA rules," NCAA spokesperson Emily James wrote in a release on Tuesday.

The university argued, and continues to argue, that the student trainer was not truly an "institutional representative" of Notre Dame.

"In every other case in the record — meticulously detailed in the University’s arguments — the institutional representative of the university was employed as an administrator, coach, or person who served in an academic role," Jenkins wrote. "The Committee simply failed to provide any rationale why it viewed the student-worker as an institutional representative in our case.

"This is more disturbing given that, in 2016, the member institutions of the NCAA amended the academic misconduct rules to make clear that students who serve in roles identical to that of the student in our case would not be considered institutional representatives.

"If the Committee members chose to depart both from precedent and the position adopted by the NCAA membership, it was incumbent on them to offer an explanation. They did not."

Notre Dame also argued in its appeal that the university should not be excessively punished because three players participated in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, then were ruled retroactively ineligible following a four-month University Honor Committee investigation in 2014.

The university is essentially being punished, Jenkins and Co. claim, for strenuously pursuing its own investigation and applying of its honor code.

"To impose a severe penalty for this retroactive ineligibility establishes a dangerous precedent and turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head," Jenkins wrote.

"At best, the NCAA’s decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code; at worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here."

In Tuesday's release explaining the NCAA's decision, James wrote, "In this case, the university acknowledged the academic misconduct impacted the eligibility of student-athletes and resulted in student-athletes competing while ineligible. The appeals committee found the panel has the authority under NCAA rules to prescribe penalties for academic misconduct violations."

The members of the Infractions Appeals Committee who heard Notre Dame's case were Ellen Ferris, associate commissioner for governance and compliance at the American Athletic Conference; Jack Friedenthal, professor emeritus at George Washington; attorney W. Anthony Jenkins; Patti Ohlendorf, vice president for legal affairs at Texas; and Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams.

Notre Dame was not subjected to a bowl ban or scholarship reduction, two common penalties that stem from NCAA violations.

Still, when the initial NCAA decision was reached in Nov. 2016, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly made his stance on the result exceedingly clear. 

“When you hear about vacating wins, you think of lack of institutional control," Kelly said. “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.”

Notre Dame will pursue all-time victory No. 886 when it hosts Michigan in its 2018 season opener on Sept. 1.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stands next to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly during the singing of the alma mater following the 20-19 loss to Georgia in an NCAA college football game Saturday, September 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN