“Nobody does it like Notre Dame. The excellence in academics and in the athletic arena is second to none.” – Brian Kelly at his introductory news conference, December 11, 2009
Notre Dame’s coach was ebullient as he walked into an interview in Notre Dame’s indoor practice facility last Friday. He gushed about returning quarterback Everett Golson and a potentially explosive offense. He spoke with pride of the program’s consistency over his five-year tenure and with confidence that the Irish would soon win a national championship.
Asked if it was reasonable to expect Notre Dame to compete regularly for the new four-team playoff, Kelly replied: “Absolutely.”
Kelly apparently was not yet aware of the impending bombshell that would deal his 2014 team a devastating blow. Just two weeks before the season, the university has shelved top receiver DaVaris Daniels, standout cornerback KeiVarae Russell, starting defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore amidst an ongoing investigation into academic misconduct.
A source told FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman they’re being dismissed. The school said in a statement it found evidence that students “submitted papers and homework that had been written for them by others,” and that an academic staff member in the athletics department informed compliance on July 29.
At a news conference Friday evening, president John I. Jenkins said there was “no evidence” Kelly or his staff members knew of the improprieties. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said Kelly was “devastated” by the news.
But Kelly’s problems now go far beyond who will start at cornerback or defensive end this season. Coming just a year after Golson’s own season-long suspension for cheating on a test, a university that’s long prided itself on marrying academic and athletic success can no longer maintain that mirage. The Kelly quote from the top of this column now rings hollow.
Five wayward players on a team of 100-plus don’t necessarily represent the whole football program, much less an entire athletic department. Swarbrick emphasized Friday the “hundreds” of success stories involving other Irish athletes.
But first of all, the investigation is still unfolding and could prove much uglier. A source told the South Bend Tribune on Friday that “the scale of alleged fraud is comparable to the highly-publicized case at North Carolina." This is not Golson cheating on a test. This is a deeper, more widespread situation that requires a prolonged investigation. The school felt compelled to notify the NCAA and has already acknowledged the possibility of having to vacate wins from previous seasons.
Furthermore, there are hundreds of success stories at every university in the country. Notre Dame has long held itself up as unique in college athletics. Now, in the face of criticism Friday, Jenkins trotted out the familiar excuse that “sometimes young people make bad decisions.”
Just like at every university in the country.
Without even knowing yet all that will come out, it’s a safe bet the scandal will stain Notre Dame’s haughty self-image. It will disappoint the university’s many loyal alums, who take understandable pride in their school’s lofty academic reputation.
Within the football world, though, the most relevant question may be this: If Notre Dame can no longer tout academic excellence, what then can it sell in 2014?
Sure, there’s Rudy, Touchdown Jesus and the Grotto, but today’s blue-chip recruit was not even born when the aforementioned movie came out. He’s seen more of the day-old SEC Network than Lou Holtz-era highlights. The Notre Dame aura will always appeal to a certain crowd, but it’s not enough.
Of course, that same recruit presumably saw Kelly’s team play for the BCS title two years ago. That might carry more weight. But Notre Dame’s yet to prove it can reach those heights on a regular basis. Or win the game if it gets there.
And the Irish can’t sell playing in the mighty SEC or the venerable Big Ten. “Come be a partial ACC member” does not make for enticing Twitter messages.
Notre Dame’s calling card has long been academics. Come play football at a high level AND get your degree at a national top 20 university and a football program with a 97 percent graduation rate. Now, its biggest strength is also a source of embarrassment.
Notre Dame’s pristine academics image was already a bit of a façade. Recruiters for other schools have long been bewildered by just how low the program’s admissions bar appears to be compared with other prestigious private-school teams like Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt. The school that for decades refused to play in bowl games and still refrains from using the term “redshirt” continues to portray an idealized version of itself as a bastion of athletic virtue while more closely resembling a traditional football factory.
The truth is, almost everybody does it like Notre Dame. And now we’re about to find out the unflattering details.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.