Analysis: Notre Dame's latest chapter with NCAA infractions has a rather tepid ending

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Three college football programs, including Notre Dame, are now on probation for recruiting violations believed to be in connection with former Seattle area prospect and four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Sav’ell Smalls.

A recruit with whom the Irish never made much headway.

The Seattle Kennedy Catholic standout eventually signed with Washington. Texas A&M and Florida were reportedly the other two schools penalized, with those penalties and findings being previously announced.

Notre Dame was cited for a second violation, like the first considered relatively minor, involving a prospective student-athlete at Pickerington (Ohio) Central High School.

The NCAA announced the penalties and the details on Thursday.

The Irish fan base, for the most part, shrugged.

Even the back story is relatively benign, especially when compared to ND’s last encounter with NCAA infractions, in a case that surfaced in the summer of 2014 and dragged into early 2018 with appeals.

The aftertaste lingers still from the self-reported academic fraud findings that ultimately included a penalty of vacating 22 games (21 wins and a loss) from the school record book.

Perhaps the biggest revelation in Thursday’s report is that the assistant coach who committed the improper contact with Smalls was terminated by Notre Dame in January of 2020.

Based on chronicled visits to the high school and the departure date from the coaching staff, the assistant coach in question is believed to be former Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght.

He met with Smalls at Seattle Garfield High on a date that syncs up with the NCAA report. Smalls later transferred to and finished his high school career at Kennedy Catholic.

Notre Dame didn’t frame Lyght’s departure as a firing at the time, however.

“I’d like to thank Todd for his years of service to his alma mater,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “He has been a valuable part of our staff and his impact as both a player and coach here at Notre Dame will be lasting.

“As he leaves the university to pursue future endeavors, I’m grateful for everything Todd contributed, and we wish him, (his wife) Stefanie and their family nothing but the best.”

Mike Mickens was hired in February of 2020 to replace Lyght.

According to the NCAA release, the university, former assistant football coach and NCAA enforcement staff agreed that the former assistant coach had impermissible contact with a prospect when he met privately with the prospect (Smalls) at his high school before July 1 after the completion of his junior year of high school.

During that meeting, the former assistant coach expressed the school’s interest in recruiting the prospect. The former assistant football coach also had exchanged impermissible text messages with another prospect on 10 occasions.

Lyght visited Smalls’ school on the day the NCAA claimed the infraction occurred: Jan. 15, 2019. He also visited his school on Nov. 27, 2018.

Notre Dame wasn’t recruiting Smalls that hard, and Smalls didn’t include Notre Dame in his top 12 school list on Feb. 10, 2019 or top six school list on Aug. 18, 2019. Notre Dame offered him a scholarship on May 25, 2017.

This past season Smalls, as a freshman, played in all four games Washington (3-1) was able to squeeze in around COVID-19 outbreaks and a delayed and abbreviated Pac-12 schedule. He made seven tackles.

According to an NCAA release, Notre Dame’s case was processed through “the negotiated resolution process.”

That was in lieu of a formal hearing or summary disposition, “because the university, the involved coaches and the enforcement staff agreed on the violations and the penalties.”

Those penalties are:

• One year of probation.

• A $5,000 fine.

• A six-month show-cause order for the former assistant football coach, including a one-game suspension at any employing member school.

• Reduced football official visits for the 2020-21 academic year by one.

• Reduced football unofficial visits by 14 days for the 2020-21 academic year.

• A seven-day off-campus recruiting ban for the entire football staff during the 2020-21 academic year.

• The university ended the recruitment of the prospect.

• The university will not recruit any prospects from the high school in Seattle from the 2019-20 through 2021-22 academic years.

• If an opportunity to serve a penalty will not be available due to circumstances related to COVID-19, the penalty must be served at the next available opportunity.

“Any violation of NCAA rules is unacceptable and Notre Dame Athletics takes full responsibility for its actions in this regard,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a statement.

“While we made clear to the NCAA our view that the agreed-upon penalties exceeded the nature of the infractions, we accept the final outcome of the case. In addition, the assistant coach involved is no longer employed by the university.”

There are functional challenges posed by the penalties, but certainly no more so than a protracted NCAA dead period for all FBS schools of no face-to-face contact on and off college campuses, that started last March and will last at least until April 15.

The case also included a Level III recruiting violation involving Kelly. Per the NCAA report, Kelly was recognized by a prospect as the coach was escorted through the school cafeteria on a visit to Pickerington Central during the fall 2019 evaluation period.

Initially, the coach declined a request to pose for a photo with the prospect, but eventually Kelly relented, thus resulting in the violation.

The case involving Smalls was a Level II violation. On the NCAA’s scale of seriousness, violations range from Level I (serious) to Level IV (incidental).

Image-conscious Notre Dame would love to distance itself from any kind of NCAA activity to the point that even an enforcement officer having a flight layover in South Bend is beyond the school’s comfort zone.

In reality, the NCAA will likely be the party that emerges from Thursday with the more besmirched reputation.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks to officials during a timeout during the 2021 College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.