Analysis: Brian Kelly bringing the heat to the CFP is good for Notre Dame and college football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly could have announced Friday that he was starting a houseplant at quarterback in perhaps the biggest football sequel in Notre Dame history, and it would have been buried under an avalanche of caustic soundbites.

Justifiably so.

It’s not every day that a college football coach tells the College Football Playoff selection committee what its priorities should be — namely looking out for the players’ families — but it’s bound to happen more often. And it should.

What the 11th-year Irish head coach turning into a human volcano Friday on a Zoom call with the media means in the context of a still very intriguing and impactful ACC Championship Game, Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., is as muddled as who hid Kelly’s decaf Friday morning.

But a feisty Brian Kelly, in measured and occasional doses, is generally a good thing. For the No. 2 Irish (10-0). For the future of Notre Dame football beyond Saturday’s matchup at Bank of America Stadium against CFP No. 3 Clemson (9-1). And Friday very good for college football in general.

“They’ve got to figure out how to make sure that whatever sites they play at, that the parents are going to be watching their sons play,” said Kelly, noting that’s not currently possible at the Rose Bowl semifinal site given COVID-19 restrictions in Los Angeles County. “That’s what they’ve got to figure out.

“So maybe they need to spend a little less time on who the top four teams are and figure out how to get parents into these games, because it is an absolute shame and a sham if parents can’t be watching their kids play.

“My kids have been on campus here since June. OK? They haven’t seen their families much at all. They’ve had to fight through COVID. Some of them have had COVID. They can’t be around their families for Christmas. I’m going to have them here for Christmas.

“I’m going to bring in families that aren’t theirs during Christmas. And you’re going to tell me, we’re going to have a playoff and maybe one site can have families and the other can’t. Please. Somebody’s got to wake up in that room and figure this out.”

That was enough to get Kelly trending on Twitter late Friday morning and keep him there throughout the afternoon, at times competing with — strangely enough — the Aunt Bea character from the erstwhile Andy Griffith Show.

It’s hard to imagine that a ticked-off version of Frances Bavier (the actress who played Aunt Bea) being as wildly entertaining as the feisty version of Kelly, who foreshadowed his eventual playoff site rants right from the request from the ACC’s Kevin Best for Kelly to provide an opening statement.

“Let’s go. Let’s go play. Enough statements,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say. We made it through (COVID-19) testing. We had to test six times to get to this game, so enough talk. Let’s go play.”

Later there was this exchange:

Reporter: “Some depth chart stuff — I believe Kyren Williams and Robert Hainsey both sort of indicated Josh Lugg was starting at center.”

Kelly: “Well then why are you asking me?”

Reporter: “I just figured you could confirm it.”

Kelly: “If Kyren Williams told you, then I would write it down.”

Reporter: “OK.”

Kelly provided some other notable football tidbits before and interspersed with his returning to hammer the folks who have not yet guaranteed a spot in the playoff to the Irish — or anyone else, for that matter.

Notably, outgoing defensive coordinator Clark Lea will remain in his role with the Irish until Notre Dame’s postseason ends.

“I guess you guys haven’t been paying attention now.,” Kelly said of the new Vanderbilt head coach. “He’s going to go down and do a press conference on Sunday, and that’s it.

“As I said, when we have assistant coaches who go for head coaching positions and we’re in postseason play, they are going to be committed to Notre Dame in finishing off at Notre Dame or they’re not part of that process.

“So he will be here throughout the entire run that we have, leading into a national championship. He will be here. I don’t know if I can make that any clearer.”

It’s also clear that freshman Drew Pyne is the backup to grad senior Ian Book, Notre Dame’s actual starter at quarterback Saturday against Clemson. Sophomore Brendon Clark (knee), the No. 2 option for most of the season, could play in an emergency, Kelly said.

And among the things on the team to-do list before they hopped on their charter flight to Charlotte on Friday was Mass with team chaplain Father Nate Wills.

“Which is approximately 18 minutes and 45 seconds,” Kelly said. “We call it ‘the Catholic carwash.’ No disrespect out there, please.”

Kelly still found time Friday to close out the early signing period by poaching two recruits — safety Khari Gee out of LSU’s class and running back Audric Estime from Michigan State’s — to add to an already Top 10-ranked class nationally with its 25th and 26th recruits.

And there may yet be more at February’s late signing day.

A sweep Saturday of Clemson — a double-digit favorite despite the 47-40, double-overtime loss to the Irish six weeks ago in South Bend — would cap one of Kelly’s best weeks since coming to Notre Dame 11 Decembers ago and make it impossible for the CFP committee to omit the Irish from the playoff field when it’s revealed Sunday at noon on ESPN.

“If they decide to keep us out because coach is running his big trap about what he thinks, I probably should get in line with all the other coaches who run their mouth when they shouldn’t be,” Kelly said.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team has less wiggle room than ND if the Tigers were to lose an ACC Championship Game for the first time in the last six, agreed with Kelly’s stance but soft-played it a bit more.

“There are plenty of venues where you can have fans,” Swinney said. “Punt.”

“I’m not sure we’ll play in the playoffs if parents can’t be there, to be honest with you,” Kelly said. “Why would we play if you can’t have the families at the game?”

You could strike up a degree of Kelly’s irascibility Friday to pandemic fatigue, but not the message. Him taking a stand is what his players want.

It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the future. The near future.

Before we even get to the other side of the pandemic, there’s going to be legal ways for players to make money on name, image and likeness. There’s going to be transferring with no lawyers and no waiting.

There’s going to be players collectively leveraging their new power in a new college athletics model that’s going to make some fans uncomfortable.

Brian Kelly wasn’t uncomfortable, though, on Friday. He was merely and splendiferously ahead of the curve.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly played hardball with the College Football Playoff powers-that-be on Friday on behalf of his players.