By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Let’s begin here with two simple words in response to a very simple question.
Brian Kelly’s assessment of his own culpability in this case: “Zero. None."
Brian Kelly’s assessment of his own culpability in this case: “Zero. None."— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) November 22, 2016
That case mentioned above is the NCAA deciding that Notre Dame needs to vacate its wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons due to academic misconduct. Such a penalty really doesn’t seem to fit the crime, but this is the NCAA after all, and their priorities and determinations over what’s a sin, what isn’t and how much of a sin something can be have never made sense. And vacating wins as penalty so as to magically say those games never happened has always been laughably stupid.
Still, the way Kelly would tell it apparently, we are supposed to believe this was a dastardly plot by an athletic trainer that evaded the ethical eyes of the head coach. Ain’t his fault. I’ll get back to that in a sec.
Notre Dame parted ways with George O’Leary 15 years ago after he had the football head coaching job for a mere five days. The reason was O’Leary had lied about his own collegiate playing career and a master’s degree that wasn’t.
”I understand that these inaccuracies represent a very human failing,” then-athletic director Kevin White said. “Nonetheless, they constitute a breach of trust that makes it impossible for us to go forward with our relationship. I intend to restart our search for a new head football coach immediately.”
O’Leary’s dishonesty was bad and dumb and definitely would’ve had you and I canned from our non-coaching gigs, and despite his lies not really translating to an ability to win football games, Notre Dame probably made the right call then.
The Irish hired Tyrone Willingham after that. An otherwise good man, his eventual 21-15 record cost him his job prior to his team’s appearance in a 2004 bowl game. Then there was Charlie Weis, who was a grumpy person and worse college football tactician.
Willingham currently serves on the College Football Playoff selection committee. That’s a bit ironic, because his former Fighting Irish employer hasn’t had a playoff appearance since the system’s inception. Who is most at fault for that? Well, this is college football, where it’s supposed to be win or get lost.
Back to Kelly. He has coached the most seasons of any Irish head coach since Lou Holtz, who’s also the last Notre Dame coach to win a national title. Including the legendary Knute Rockne, only five coaches since the football program started in 1887 have had longer tenures than Kelly.
Meanwhile, Kelly finds himself riding out a season that has gotten more embarrassing seemingly every week, the latest being a home loss to Virginia Tech last Saturday after being shut out 13-0 in the fourth quarter to lose 34-31. His team now sits at 4-7, four of those losses to teams that currently have losing records, and needs an unlikely win against USC this week to maybe be considered for a bowl that Kelly doesn’t even want to play in.
Brian Kelly: "I’m not real supportive of a 5-7 football team in bowl games.” Said decision would be up to the admin.
Brian Kelly: "I’m not real supportive of a 5-7 football team in bowl games.” Said decision would be up to the admin.— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) November 20, 2016
If the 2012 and ‘13 wins are vacated, Kelly would be 38-30 with the Irish, giving him a lower winning percentage than the awful eras of Weis or Willingham. He’d also then be just 3-17 against ranked opponents in his time in South Bend. If Notre Dame considers itself a premier program, it’s difficult to come up with a rationale for why missing a bowl game entirely after a 3-3 record in bowls (only two of which were of the New Year’s Day or later variety) allows a coach to keep his job in a profession where it’s all about what have you done for me lately. But that’s just the wins and losses aspect.
Since Kelly took over the Fighting Irish football program, a student videographer was made to film practice in dangerous weather conditions in 2010, and the young man died. Kelly never took any ownership of that. Actually, the school made it a “we” thing in order to deflect from Kelly, as school president Rev. John I. Jenkins even said at the time:
“Coach Kelly was hired not only because of his football expertise, but because we believed his character and values accord with the highest standards of Notre Dame. All we have seen since he came to Notre Dame, and everything we have learned in our investigation to date, have confirmed that belief. For those reasons I am confident that Coach Kelly has a bright future leading our football program.”
Mind you, this was two months after the school was aware that Lizzy Seeberg, a student at nearby St. Mary’s College, had killed herself 10 days after reporting that Notre Dame football player Prince Shembo — who would later murder an ex-girlfriend’s dog — had raped her. In those 10 days, Seeberg was bullied and intimidated by other Irish football players and Shembo’s lawyer until she was dead.
Kelly took the whole thing so seriously that he cracked wise with reporters on a conference call about the Chicago Tribune dedicating so much time and resources to the story. And it sure is nice when you know your campus police department will have yours and football’s best interests at heart over victims of sexual assault, especially when the Indiana Supreme Court recently ruled the university’s cops don’t have to release crime reports about student athletes to the public.
Still, Kelly kept his job despite two persons’ blood puddling all the way to his feet. Not to mention the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax. So galling as it might be to hear him say “Zero. None” when questioned of his responsibility in his players fudging schoolwork, you can’t call it surprising considering the school has fostered a culture that allows Kelly such brashness.
Roger Sherman at SB Nation compiled a handy list of all the times Kelly has tossed his players under the bus (and denied doing so) rather than own any football failure. That immunity to culpability would also include him expressing some public insubordination toward his athletic director Jack Swarbrick after Swarbrick gave Kelly a vote of confidence.
“Well I was disappointed actually,” Kelly said last month. “But anytime that your athletic director has to come out and say that, as a head coach you’re disappointed that any kind of comments like that have to be made. So I didn’t ask him, that was his decision, but I clearly understand what he was doing. He was probably sick and tired of being sick and tired, too. But for me it’s disappointing, certainly, that you have to make those comments.”
That’s a guy responding to his boss saying he wants the guy’s back. That despite, in this season alone, six of Kelly’s players being arrested in two separate incidents (and four of them suiting up for the team’s first game anyway) and Kelly firing his defensive coordinator midseason. And now there’s the NCAA punishment for being less than the academic champion Notre Dame football purports itself to be.
So what’s keeping Kelly in South Bend? Maybe it’s recruiting, and the 2017 Notre Dame class currently ranks sixth in the country, per Rivals.com. But Kelly has four recruiting classes in his time there that were outside the top 10 and one tied for 10th with Louisiana-Monroe. And all that has translated to one appearance in a national championship game that featured the second-largest margin of losing in that game this century.
Kelly isn’t Alabama’s Nick Saban. If you want to be a surly ass, if not a borderline mob boss, your record at least needs to back that up. College football is an institution that’s inherently morally bankrupt, but that dearth of humanity only washes when one is winning. Kelly’s team is trash this season, and he’s had multiple underachieving seasons to go with severe ethical failings under his nose and damn near no decent response to any of it by him the entire time.
At the end of the day, Brian Kelly seems to be a really bad human being, which in the context of college football is nothing new or necessarily a liability. But the dude has engineered an X’s and O’s trainwreck in the process while remaining grossly smug.
Meanwhile, Charlie Strong — whose Texas Longhorns beat Notre Dame this season in the only entertaining game of Notre Dame’s season and who by all accounts is a great guy who positively impacts his players’ lives off the field — has players protesting the probability of him losing his job. Chicago Sky player Imani Boyette, whose husband currently plays for Strong and was in tears talking about his coach Monday, tweeted an impassioned defense of Strong this week that included the following:
It's frustrating bc I have seen the change in my husband under this man. I have seen the change in academics, standards, etc.
It's frustrating bc I have seen the change in my husband under this man. I have seen the change in academics, standards, etc.— Imani McGee-Stafford (@imanitrishawn_) November 21, 2016
Coach Strong taught these men how to b black in a hostile environment, how to value women & how to carry yourself w respect on/off the field
Coach Strong taught these men how to b black in a hostile environment, how to value women & how to carry yourself w respect on/off the field— Imani McGee-Stafford (@imanitrishawn_) November 21, 2016
Strong’s players then showed up to and gave him a standing ovation at his weekly press conference Monday. Think of any sort of emotional response like that for Kelly, known most for screaming himself purple at refs and his own players.
The University of Notre Dame has shown little willingness to slap Kelly’s wrist about anything for game losses to people dying because of his program. But what about everything that is the Fighting Irish tenure of Brian Kelly is worth Brian Kelly? What merits keeping him at a program that supposedly preaches some sense of higher standard?
Could it be “Zero. None”?
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.