He said it and they quoted it. Again and again and again.
When Brian Kelly recently said – to paraphrase -- that no football player at Notre Dame is immune to academic pitfalls, it spread like a match to dry grass, igniting the national media into a quotation copycat frenzy.
“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk – all of them – really,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly recently to the South Bend Tribune. “Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.”
Not exactly earth-shattering stuff. Perhaps a tad more specific than it needed to be. Yet hardly a groundbreaking revelation considering Notre Dame generally is considered one of the top educational institutions that actively participate in major college football.
One reference led to another and another and another. If ESPN reported, then so must CBS Sports and Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated and NFL.com and Yahoo and…
It was discussed on radio shows, Twitter accounts, blogs and anyone who deemed it necessary to spread the word. It was, on the surface, hardly newsworthy, but competitive balance required a reaction.
Kelly’s comment quickly was interpreted as a gaffe, a choice of words that could only lead to a significant strike against the recruiting effort.
All Kelly did was tell the truth, and it wasn’t as if the truth was the lighting of a powder keg, or a mass mailing to every recruit saying you’re not smart enough to attend Notre Dame. It was a general statement painted with a broad brush.
As it pertained to recruiting – the actual recruiting end of the business where school interacts with prospect -- it carried no weight compared to the impact of dozens of conversations between Notre Dame’s coaching staff and a recruit/his parents.
Every student-athlete at Notre Dame walks a slippery academic slope. If one is not vigilant and does not stay ahead of the game – even those enormously qualified to be there – he/she runs the risk of losing balance and sliding down that slope.
Kelly didn’t say that Notre Dame football players are inferior students. Most of them thrive in the Notre Dame academic environment. But when 2,000 spots are filled in the freshman class and 10 times that apply, many solid students are left by the wayside. Some play football at Notre Dame. Some are greater risks.
Football players – with their specialized talent – are given unique consideration. That does not mean they can’t thrive in the more rigorous academic environment. Some make it, some don’t, some thrive, some flunk out. The same thing happens to students that don’t play sports at Notre Dame, many of which arrive more qualified to handle the work.
But by making the statement that he did, Kelly tapped the beehive – football recruiting -- with a sharp stick. Critics lashed out. Notre Dame has enough difficulty recruiting without the head coach sending out a signal to four- and five-star prospects that they’re unprepared to handle the academic workload at Notre Dame.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Notre Dame’s current recruiting venture is not exactly humming right along. The Irish have lost several head-to-head confrontations recently, most notably with Michigan State, which has won 53 games the last five years, including at least 11 in four of them.
That’s why Notre Dame and many other schools have lost out for defensive ends Auston Robertson and Josh King, and defensive back Kenney Lyke to Michigan State, along with wide receiver Austin Mack to Ohio State, which just won the national title. (Some would say that the Irish lost out on Lyke and others due to a lack of recruiting diligence as opposed to Michigan State’s won-lost record, but that’s another story.)
If a public statement of truth by Kelly has a greater impact on a recruit than the one-on-one interaction between school and prospect, that prospect likely would choose another school anyway.
In a recent interview with Irish Illustrated, former Notre Dame tight end John Carlson said he would not have been accepted to the University were it not for his gridiron prowess. The level of academic competition in the admissions process versus thousands of well-qualified students would have made his application just another “good application.”
Yet Carlson thrived in the classroom at Notre Dame. He might not have been as qualified as many of the academically elite that applied because his focus veered toward his athletic side as a physically gifted 6-foot-6, 240-pound athlete.
Carlson, of course, is not the type of student-athlete Notre Dame has difficulty attracting. He comes from a family of educators. It’s the student-athletes who don’t readily project to a school like Notre Dame who must be coerced into thinking they can succeed if they go the extra mile, a mile they normally don’t have to traverse at a state school.
Kelly may have been making a bit of a public plea to give his football players a better chance to succeed at Notre Dame, such as dropping the academic workload from 15 to 12 credit hours during the football season as opposed to fast-tracking football players to graduate in three-and-a-half years.
What gained little traction was the second paragraph of Kelly’s public statement regarding Notre Dame night games, which he also referenced during the 2014 season.
Since Kelly began his first year at Notre Dame in 2010, night games have escalated, in fact, doubled. Twenty-nine of the 65 games Kelly has coached for Notre Dame – 44.6 percent -- have come at night, a vast majority of which have been on the road, which means late Saturday night travel on a regular basis. It takes a toll.
There have been as many Notre Dame night games in the last five seasons – 29 -- as there were in the 10 seasons before that (2000-09) combined.
“Making sure that with the rigors that we put (the players) in – playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at four o’clock in the morning, all of the demands that we place on them relative to the academics and going into an incredibly competitive academic classroom every day – we recognize this is a different group,” Kelly said. “We have to provide all the resources necessary for them to succeed and don’t force them into finding shortcuts.”
Additionally, while the Shamrock Series has been deemed a success as Notre Dame takes its show on the road, it’s also a forfeiture of a home game, which most major college football programs wouldn’t think of doing.
Because the Irish will play Boston College in Fenway Park and not Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 21, four of the last five games in 2015 will be away from home. After the Oct. 17 home game against USC, the Irish will play just one more home game the rest of the season.
The USC game is at night – one of two home night games – which NBC dictates every few years. Whatever TV wants, TV gets with no regard for the players.
It’s harder to win at Notre Dame than ever before, and it’s not going to get any easier. It’s important that Kelly and his staff make the great athletes who can cut it at Notre Dame recognize the opportunity they have to get a quality education while maximizing their athletic opportunities. Many times, however, the sale’s pitch is not enough.
Hoodwinking the unqualified or those who don’t fit at Notre Dame into coming there in the first place doesn’t solve the problem either.
Add striking a balance between honesty and prudence to the list of priorities for the head football coach at Notre Dame. It’s a list that never ends, particularly when it has anything to do with recruiting and particularly when the media/social media hayloft is set afire.