By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) The discomfort coming from South Bend is palpable and understandably so. Notre Dame’s football team isn’t supposed to be 4-8 ever and especially not in Brian Kelly’s seventh season at the helm. But that’s where they are, also beset by academic fraud revelations and ongoing issues with player behavior both on and off the field.
Kelly still has his job, but important people are voicing all kinds of displeasure about both the substance and style of a coach under contract through the 2021 season.
A dissatisfied bloc of trustees and boosters has become increasingly vocal as problems with the program have mounted, sources close to the situation told 670 The Score. That bloc is beginning to wield more power in attempts to bend the hard-headed Kelly if not yet oust him. While attention has been paid to athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Kelly’s future appears to be more in the hands of those above him than the nominal boss himself.
Words like “defiant” and “arrogant” keep coming up when Kelly is the topic, as these influential officials have long been put off by both Kelly’s day-to-day behavior and his often-apoplectic sideline demeanor, particularly as it relates to the public treatment of star quarterback DeShone Kizer, who had been responsible for carrying the team while enduring relentless harangues from his coach.
Kelly doubled down with reporters last month by claiming he wasn’t going to change who he is, which has been consistent with his private stance to those asking him to polish up his act. It continues to be a specific source of conflict.
Players getting into trouble on and around campus has caused some trustees to urge more stringent controls and vetting of Kelly’s recruits, an age-old conundrum at Notre Dame just taking on its latest new life. There are still enough true believers at that school, many who feel they are part of a higher standard and calling to compete for national championships with only the finest young men representing them. It’s a ridiculous and impossible pipe dream, of course, but any tacit arrangement Kelly may have had to do whatever was needed to win is now facing untenable curbs that may be exacerbating tension.
It’s unlikely that such efforts to make Kelly into somebody else — a person who accepts proper accountability for failures or missteps of any kind and sets a positive leadership example for the young men he coaches and all those watching him during games and in front of the media — are going to succeed. But that hasn’t stopped this group of school leaders from wanting to try before having to go back to the wilderness of another coaching vacancy and the ensuing search and hiring process.
What’s also clear is that money would be no impediment to them, despite the ignominy of having finally finished paying off Charlie Weis’ contract just more than a year ago. Kelly is due $20 million more after signing a six-year extension last January, and though it sounds like a prohibitive amount for Notre Dame to swallow again, it’s mere pocket change for the school.
Still, another strong incoming recruiting class might tantalize enough to hold this unhappy group at bay at least another season, forcing them to continue their behind-the-scenes battle to keep Kelly from creating embarrassment for them in either headlines or outcomes.
For the tenuous time being, at least, he remains the devil they know.