Should there ever be a question as to what impact Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has had on the football program, 2014 would be the year to dust for fingerprints. Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick have completely restructured Notre Dame’s operation in nearly every way. The Fighting Irish have spent the offseason signing an exclusive apparel deal with Under Armour, announcing plans for a future stadium renovation, replacing Notre Dame Stadium’s grass surface with synthetic FieldTurf and creating a new Irish Invasion football camp to match the recruiting success the University of Florida has experienced with its Friday Night Lights camp. Given Brian Kelly’s recent statements to the media, Notre Dame’s 21st Century makeover is far from over.
The latest wrinkle in Brian Kelly’s playbook involves keeping an open mind to the NCAA’s graduate transfer exception, which allows student-athletes to transfer without being forced to sit out one year as long as the student-athlete has graduated from the original institution and is selecting a graduate program not offered by the original institution. The graduate transfer exception should be appealing to Notre Dame given how it operates.
“The grad student exception is the best rule in the books because it is the only one that offers a positive incentive for athletes,” writes Sports Illustrated columnist Andy Staples. That positive incentive is rewarding student-athletes who graduate, and school-minded athletes are the very definition of Brian Kelly’s “right kind of guys.”
To date the transfer exception has mostly involved Notre Dame and its high graduation rate outsourcing its student-athletes. Former Rivals 5-star quarterback Dayne Crist graduated from Notre Dame and utilized the transfer exception to move on to the University of Kansas, where he reunited with former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. In the past several months Notre Dame’s football squad has lost Andrew Hendrix, Alex Welch and Lo Wood to the transfer exception, with all following former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin to Miami University in Ohio. Despite the string of defections, the rule is a perfect opportunity for Notre Dame.
Former Rivals 4-star cornerback Cody Riggs considered signing with Notre Dame his senior year of high school but instead committed to the in-state Florida Gators given the coaching uncertainty surrounding South Bend after the dismissal of Charlie Weis. Riggs would become a leader in Florida’s secondary, playing in 40 games and starting 26 at both cornerback and safety. The experienced Riggs recently graduated from the University of Florida and will use the NCAA’s graduate transfer exception to enroll this June at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are receiving a dynamic athlete that will provide instant leadership to Notre Dame’s secondary but, more importantly, Riggs will receive a Master’s in Business Administration from Notre Dame’s top-ranked Mendoza College of Business.
Cody Riggs’ transfer provides a perfect example of how powerful the NCAA’s graduate transfer exception could be for Notre Dame if harnessed properly. With such a precedent, will Notre Dame see more like Cody Riggs in the future?
“I always have an interest in adding transfers if they fit academically,” Kelly told the media recently. “I would only do it after your program is on good, solid ground, you know what I mean? That you’re not going to upset the locker room. That your locker room is in a good position. Our locker room is in a very good position where you can bring in a guy and not feel like, you know, he’s going to upset what’s already developed in your locker room. The first couple years I would not have gone that route, but where we are right now, we can bring in a guy for a year and do that.”
A willingness to test the NCAA’s graduate transfer exemption serves as the latest effort by Brian Kelly to evaluate all possible avenues to improve Notre Dame’s program while simultaneously maintaining its high level of academic achievement. And given Kelly’s expanding list of successes, Notre Dame fans may even be warming to the notion of change.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.