Maybe it was a coincidence. But probably not.
Barely 24 hours after Brian Kelly watched his program jump the tracks with six ugly arrests that led to one suspension, one dismissal and four public pleas to the Office of Community Standards, Notre Dame’s head coach needed a feel good story. If that meant taking some shine off the unveiling of captains with questions about the program’s weekend of self-destruction, so be it.
On Saturday, Kelly played the part of disappointed dad and amateur investigator.
On Sunday afternoon he started to push the narrative elsewhere by telling Mike McGlinchey, James Onwualu, Torii Hunter Jr. and Isaac Rochell that they’d been elected/appointed captains.
On Wednesday night, Kelly’s first media availability since the weekend, the head coach told everybody else.
Look, Notre Dame wouldn’t have avoided Max Redfield’s career-ending mistake by naming captains last week. That’s not the point. Devin Butler didn’t get charged with two felonies because the Irish lacked public leaders earlier. Notre Dame has had a leadership gap on this roster from the moment last season ended and the coaching staff has worked overtime to fill it.
But as last weekend reminded Kelly and everybody else, college kids make bad decisions. There is no protection against human nature.
“Like any other father, I think my first (reaction) was disappointment, and that disappointment kind of moved on to embarrassment to the University, and then I was mad as hell,” he said. “Those are the three stages that I went through.”
The fourth stage was this narrative reset, trotting out four seniors to answer for one classmate who’s already been bounced and another who might be. This wasn’t the feel good story of Joe Schmidt or Mathias Farley breaking down with emotion.
These guys got straight down to business. Their first tests as captains were the first questions they were asked. Because the season sort of hangs on those four seniors getting the locker room steady without Max Redfield, possibly without Devin Butler and potentially down Ashton White, Dexter Williams, Te’von Coney and Kevin Stepherson for a game depending on the University’s call.
“We’re gonna make sure that we’ll uphold the standard that’s set here at the University of Notre Dame,” McGlinchey said. “It’s gonna be a big deal. Obviously there’s gonna be a lot of eyes on us. But we’re qualified. We have the right guys on our team and we’re confident that we can get the job done.
“Everything is gonna be OK.”
Kelly told the captains privately in his office, starting with Onwualu and working down the line. The four seniors embraced afterward, made FaceTime calls home, told everybody they could outside the program. Most cried. All called it one of their best moments.
“I can’t think of anything in my life that’s anything greater than this is,” Rochell said. “I’ve seen it in past years, being captain is a full-time job, and it’s not just a football job, it’s an off-the-field job. There’s more of an emphasis on it now. We always look out for each other on and off the field.”
Short of McGlinchey, these captains rank among Notre Dame’s more reserved. But if last weekend contains any positivity, it should be the new charge for them to speak up. Notre Dame needs it.
“To some extent we were obviously in a state of turmoil this past weekend,” McGlinchey said. “We gotta come back to even keel. It’s not about doing anything extra. It’s not about doing anything crazy to get the things back to the way they were. It’s about just going back to being the consistent people and the consistent men that we need to be.”
On the other side of it, the captains should find a roster more willing to follow than ever before. If what happened to White, Coney, Williams and Stepherson doesn’t scare the rest of Notre Dame’s young talent straight, nothing will. McGlinchey and Co. should find a desperately receptive audience when it’s time to speak up.
All Kelly can do now is hope his captains do. For Notre Dame to make an honest charge at the College Football Playoff, it needs the roster to self-police instead of just hope. It needs players to own this season instead of rent it. Because if Kelly has to drag this team the next three months he’s going to finish the season at the Russell Athletic Bowl at best.
“We had to self-correct a few things here over the last few days,” Kelly said. “Today, we kind of re-sailed with captains that are going to be great leaders.
“We’re a little bit of a work in progress right now. But we have the right people in the right position. Our time together over the last three days has been well spent and I like where we’re going and we’ll be ready to beat Texas.”
Notre Dame won’t have a full deck in Austin. And that’s on Notre Dame.
How the Irish play short may just hinge on how these four captains lead.
They’re off to a decent start.