Analysis: What doesn't add up in Notre Dame's recalculated win total is the NCAA itself
SOUTH BEND — In the land of asterisks and hypotheticals, the Notre Dame football program still has a chance on Sept. 1 to rearrange history. Sort of.
Thanks to the NCAA, in ND’s new reality the 2018 season-opening game with Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium is the beginning of an era of Irish football becoming a perpetual math problem.
At least its moral compass didn’t come off anywhere near as disjointed Tuesday.
In fact, it could be argued that Notre Dame and its football program are better off than they were 42 months ago, when the first details of allegations of academic fraud were self-reported to the NCAA and the rest of a gawking college football world.
Better off in that Notre Dame did the opposite of sitting on its hands waiting for a favorable outcome from the NCAA. Instead athletic director Jack Swarbrick spearheaded a task force years ago, designed to take a hard look at why the academic misconduct happened in the first place and to reduce the likelihood that it could reprise itself in the future.
“Our interaction with our players relative to academic specialists, we've addressed,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said 15 months ago, when the appeal was first filed. “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.”
Better off in that Notre Dame stayed true to who it was throughout a process that was as protracted as it was perplexing. And sadly the NCAA stayed true too — as an organization that has become so consistently inconsistent that some kind of reform/uprising/secession seems more imminent by the day.
Perhaps Associated Press national college sports columnist Ralph Russo put it best in a tweet on Twitter Tuesday evening: “The NCAA has made Notre Dame sympathetic. … That's something.”
Better off … all except in the victory column, with the NCAA on Tuesday announcing it was denying an appeal for the Irish to hold onto 21 victories recorded during its 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game and the eight it recorded in the season that followed.
Had the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee reversed the original ruling, the Notre Dame-Michigan game on Sept. 1 would have been a chance for the Irish to retake the FBS’ all-time lead in winning percentage from the Wolverines, .728987 to .728582.
Instead, moving forward, there will be official milestones and virtual ones.
And make no mistake, while vacated victories may be a shoulder shrug at some schools, historical context is woven into the very fabric of Irish fandom. And attacking history is hitting below the waistline.
The NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions panel originally handed down the win-erasing punishment on Nov. 22, 2016 — along with one year of probation (already served during the appeal), a $5,000 fine and a two-year show-cause order and disassociation for the former student assistant trainer who was a central figure in both the original ruling and the thwarted appeal.
The other central figures are former Irish players DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore and KeiVarae Russell as well as four unnamed former players who had moved on from the school before those five were sequestered away from the team in August of 2014 until the conclusion of ND’s internal probe roughly two months later.
Per the NCAA’s Tuesday response, the part-time assistant 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 Irish football player was deemed to have committed academic misconduct on his own.
“Student-to-student cheating is not normally within the NCAA’s jurisdiction,” Notre Dame president Rev. I. Jenkins wrote in a detailed and eloquent response to Tuesday’s ruling. “But the NCAA concluded that the student’s role as a part-time assistant trainer made her a ‘representative of the institution’ and justified a vacation of team records penalty in this case.
“There is no precedent in previous NCAA cases for the decision to add a discretionary penalty of vacation of team records in a case of student-to-student cheating involving a part-time student worker who had no role in academic advising.
“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.
“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.”
The coincidental juxtaposition of Notre Dame playing North Carolina in men’s basketball the night before the ruling became public puts the NCAA in even less flattering light. In an October 2016 ruling, the NCAA acknowledged UNC created fake classes that helped many scholarship athletes remain academically eligible and even graduate.
Yet the NCAA ruled that “while student-athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body. Additionally, the record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student-athletes.”
The most twisted piece of irony in all of this — and Jenkins acknowledges as much in his letter — is that had Notre Dame abandoned its honor code and simply expelled the five students when it learned of the allegations, GPAs would never had been recalculated and the 21 victories would never have come into question.
Why then did Notre Dame take the road that it did?
A university source told the Tribune in November of 2016 that 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.
Unlike the 2016 ruling, when Kelly was coaching a 4-7 football team and five days away from loss No. 8, the ninth-year Irish coach comes off this time as someone unlikely to coax a change in loyalties.
If you were compiling a litany of reasons while the Kelly Era should be truncated sooner than later, Tuesday’s ruling provided you another item for your collection.
And if you were looking at last year’s 10-3 run as the possible onset of a Notre Dame football renaissance, than you’ve likely moved on to the Brandon Wimbush/Ian Book dynamic in spring practice.
Those who expect Notre Dame to be perfect, to operate in a “Leave It to Beaver” World, miss the redemptive part of the school’s mission, where second chances — and the mistakes that come with them — are part of the real world.
In this instance, the process and not the outcome is what matters most. Not the new migraine-inducing math. Not the asterisks. And certainly not an NCAA that is more out of touch than ever.