Notre Dame’s Academic ‘Risks’ are Self-Inflicted

Brian Kelly has endured several academic scandals since agreeing to take the head coaching position at Notre Dame in December of 2010, and perhaps the cumulative impact of those scandals has led to increased candor, as Kelly did not hold back when the subject of academics was raised when speaking recently to the South Bend Tribune.

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at risk – all of them – really.  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,” Kelly said.

“So making sure that with the rigors that we put them in – playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 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.”

The risk of which Kelly speaks is well documented.  In 2013, starting quarterback Everett Golson would miss the entire season due to “poor academic judgment”, and wide receiver Davaris Daniels was also suspended for poor grades.  The 2013 incidents were merely tremors before the actual quake that would hit in 2014 when five of Notre Dame’s players – notoriously known as the “Frozen Five” – would miss the entire season, or a large portion of it, due to academic impropriety, leading to questions as to whether or not Notre Dame’s academic standards are unreasonably high.

Notre Dame’s standards are well known for being one of the most difficult in the country.  High school athletes must have at least four college prep courses and two years of foreign language completed to be admitted.  Additionally, recruits must be able to point to specific evidence from within their high school academic record that indicates the capability of meeting the stringent demands of academic life at Notre Dame.  But clearing the admittance hurdle is only the first step.

Notre Dame student-athletes are subjected to difficult math courses, such as calculus, as freshmen and must achieve – as well as maintain – a GPA of at least 2.0 by the end of their freshmen year.  To put this standard in context, many universities only require one year of foreign language to be admitted, and students do not need to achieve a 2.0 GPA until their junior year.

Understanding the extra hurdles Notre Dame student-athletes must overcome may help develop a clearer picture of why several academic mishaps have occurred over the past two seasons, and why Brian Kelly is telling the media he feels all of his players are at risk due to the standards that are currently in place.

But it shouldn’t, because Kelly’s claim is misleading, and misleading may be far too kind an adjective.

The truth is Notre Dame’s standards have changed very little since the 1970s, and the university has committed substantial resources to mitigate the burden of its higher academic criteria.  As the Wall Street Journal outlined over one year ago, Notre Dame has a staff of ten full-time counselors on hand to assist student-athletes.  Each football player is in regular contact with a tutor and is subject to continuous academic monitoring by the university’s provost office throughout their first year, and such mentorship only subsides once a player possesses a GPA of 2.5.

If every football player is at risk as Brian Kelly claims, the question becomes why the risk wasn’t addressed immediately in the wake of Everett Golson’s year-long suspension in 2013.  Losing an emerging star quarterback who helped lead his team to a national championship appearance his freshman year due to “poor academic judgment” would prompt most reasonable coaches to request an immediate comprehensive evaluation of the university’s monitoring mechanisms to determine what went wrong and how to avoid a similar incident in the future.  Yet this was not done – at least not to the public’s knowledge – and less than one year later an even larger academic scandal occurred, damaging Notre Dame’s reputation and providing recruiting fodder for opposing coaches to say Notre Dame is too difficult of a school to attend.

Kelly’s assertion that his players are at risk appears even more disingenuous when compared to Stanford, an institution with academic standards surpassing Notre Dame’s.  The Stanford Cardinal have compiled a 54-13 record over the past five seasons and have captured two conference championships along the way.  As difficult as it may be to win – and maintain winning – with higher academic standards, Stanford’s success blows an Ireland-sized hole in Kelly’s claim.  Stanford is proof it can be done, and they’ve been doing it without the disturbing rise in character-related issues that have been surfacing in South Bend in recent years.

How much of the risk Kelly is describing is due to Notre Dame’s recent gambles on players with demonstrated character red flags?  Prince Shembo’s – a 4-star linebacker recruited by Charlie Weis even after he was reportedly suspended his senior year of high school after throwing a desk at a teacher – career at Notre Dame was haunted by whispers of an alleged sexual battery that resulted in a Saint Mary’s College student taking her own life.  The cloud of suspicion hanging over Shembo carried over into the NFL when he was recently released by the Atlanta Falcons after being charged with animal cruelty upon allegedly kicking his then-girlfriend’s dog to death.

Aaron Lynch was one of the crown jewels of Brian Kelly’s recruiting efforts since his arrival in South Bend, though there were well-documented questions about Lynch’s maturity upon signing his letter of intent to play football at Notre Dame.  Lynch was one of the top defensive end recruits in the nation in 2011 and represented the kind of defensive line talent Notre Dame has struggled to convince to come to South Bend.  Lynch’s freshman season lived up to the hype after earning freshman All-American honors, but unofficial reports of team infighting and Lynch’s penchant for rushing the quarterback instead of following defensive plays as called began to leak.  Lynch would eventually transfer from Notre Dame and admit to the accuracy of reports.

“I was a team player there [at Notre Dame], but at the same time, I was getting a lot of looks and that got to my head in a way,” Lynch told the media upon his transfer to South Florida.  “I was really just all about me.”

A similar red flag occurred during the recruitment of highly coveted wide receiver prospect, Davonte’ Neal.  Neal opted to make his verbal commitment during a ceremony at his former elementary school.  Students and teachers were gathered for an all-school assembly to celebrate the occasion, but the event would never take place.   After waiting for Neal to arrive for thirty minutes, the principal returned the students back to their classrooms after Neal failed to show for his own commitment ceremony.  Neal would catch one pass for a loss of five yards his freshman season at Notre Dame before transferring to the University of Arizona.

Notre Dame is a demanding institution that requires more academically from its student-athletes and more of its coaching staff by asking it to win on a consistent basis despite higher standards.  But the reality is those standards have changed very little in several decades, and if any risk now exists for Notre Dame’s football players, its creation is self-inflicted.

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 wife and those around him.  Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.


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  1. Here is the other thing the author failed to point out. Stanford, Northwestern and other highly regarding academic institutions mainly play regional games. On the other hand, ND plays a national schedule and goes North, South, East and West on a weekly basis. Like BK stated that could definitely wear on young student athletes.

  2. I may be reading too much into BK’s quote, but, given the massive time/energy demands that high level college football requires, even if your a Merit Scholar, it’s very hard to fulfill ND’s academic requirements. Northwestern footballers made the case to the NLRB that they were employees, rather than students, and should be capable of forming a union. The significance of that ruling is far more important than most fans realize, NU players were trying to fulfill the student part of the student-athlete equation, and couldn’t do it, not with the near 60 hour work weeks during the season, the commitment they needed to give during the off season, so much so, that it is ridiculous to believe that they could maintain grades and stay on track for a degree, unless they could at least bargain for their own time back. ND isn’t any much different than NU, no matter what some of you might think. And if it can happen there, then there is more than a passing chance that in can happen at ND. BK speaks to the reality of what it means to be a coach and player in the business of CFB…..

  3. “Notre Dame’s standards are well known for being one of the most difficult in the country. High school athletes must have at least four college prep courses and two years of foreign language completed to be admitted. Additionally, recruits must be able to point to specific evidence from within their high school academic record that indicates the capability of meeting the stringent demands of academic life at Notre Dame. But clearing the admittance hurdle is only the first step.

    Notre Dame student-athletes are subjected to difficult math courses, such as calculus, as freshmen and must achieve – as well as maintain – a GPA of at least 2.0 by the end of their freshmen year. To put this standard in context, many universities only require one year of foreign language to be admitted, and students do not need to achieve a 2.0 GPA until their junior year.”

    A 2.0 GPA is low and easy to achieve. A quad prep high school course requirement in nothing nor two years of foreign language. I do not feel I personally would apply the pre foreign language courses in high school to the football team however. Calculus? YES SIR

  4. This is just bad writing. Honestly, the best evidence of academic failure would be if you attended the school of journalism at Notre Dame. I’m assuming you did not attend any journalism school.

    Your subject is “Is Kelly appropriately addressing the academic challenges associated with being a student athlete at Notre Dame?”
    Lynch and Neal have nothing to do with that. Nothing. Bad writing.

    You make several assertions that are also baseless based on your reporting:

    1. That Stanford is more difficult than Notre Dame for athletes. Based on what? Overall graduation rates as it relates to athletic / football graduation rates? Journalism requires you to quantify or quote a source before claiming an “Ireland-sized hole”.

    2. That standards haven’t changed since the 1970s. Again, you have to support that with something. A stat? A quote? Basically, you need an opinion other than yours.

    This article is clickbait and a hit piece, designed to get the polarized opinions expressed here. You haven’t done any reporting and your opinion is based on a selective interpretation of material we all already had access to. Do us all a favor and stop pretending to be a journalist and sink to the lowly level of a board contributor like the rest of us, for that is where you belong.

  5. This article is surprisingly ill-informed, less surprisingly laden with contempt.

    Notre Dame had 2 full time academic tutors dedicated to the football program at the time of
    the ‘Frozen 5’. Alabama has 14. Duke has both more tutors and a history of allowing them
    alot more latitude than Notre Dame.
    Stanford students can DROP A CLASS UNTIL THE LAST DAY THE CLASS MEETS and receive
    an ‘incomplete’. This information is available online BTW. Everybody wins.
    Stanford also advises athletes which specific easy classes to pick. So many athletes attend
    these courses that they inaccurately are known as ‘ATHLETES ONLY’ CLASSES.
    Stanford previously tried but to their credit has withdrawn online courses for athletes.

    During season 4 classes instead of 5 will do wonders. Add in Summer session and grad
    rate will not suffer at all. Kudos to Kelly for getting this moving, and for getting us back
    into the conversation on the field. All that’s left for Coach now is to go earn his statue.


  6. The ‘analysis’ contained within this article is stupendously flawed and utterly ridiculous. Here’s the bottom line: The University of Notre Dame cannot compete with SEC schools unless it is competing for the same players. Period. How many national titles does Stanford have in the modern era? Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. None. The record they’ve managed to compile in the last decade is only impressive when looking at the win/loss number without any context. IN context, they managed to compile that number in what was, at the time, a rather weak conference. So please spare me the Stanford comparisons. There isn’t anyone that seriously believes that Stanford could take the field today against Alabama today and expect to walk away with a victory. Yet, this is what Brian Kelly is expected to do – compete with and beat the Alabamas of the world. Except you expect him to do it with 2-star academes instead of 5-star athletes. Ain’t gonna happen.

    The way I see it is Notre Dame has two choices: relax the standards for student athletes in light of their rather hefty athletic obligations, or join the Ivy Leagues for football. Anything in-between is a recipe for the same mediocrity we’ve watched on the field for 25+ years.

  7. Take a chill pill G money. You do realize you don’t have to read the article and the “author” does this in his spare time. This isn’t the Wall Street Journal.

  8. So called “article” is nothing more than a rehash of already well-reported incidents and alleged incidents, with Mr. Jannssen’s opinion attached. A real journalist would have, you know, found out whether Kelly asked for changes after the Golson suspension, rather than simply — and lamely — writing, “This was never done – at least not to public knowledge.” What a joke! Also, some reporting as to the administrative issues Kelly faces (just because the coach wants to make change at ND doesn’t mean it will happen) would have been nice. Instead, Mr. Jannssen apparently just wanted to do a hit piece on Kelly, but he’s too incompetent to even know how to ho about it. Amateur hour, Mr. Jannssen. Is this what passes for “journalism” these days? Smh

  9. @ Jerry

    It won’t be the first time a coach has decided he’s had enough (Lou leaving after the Randy Moss exclusion), or ND not getting the coach they want (Urban not having as much control of the football program as he’d be given anywhere else). I’m sure there were probably other reasons for Lou leaving and Urban not coming, but the “gotcha” academic barriers put on the athletic program has remained a key obstruction in ND being able to compete with the top-tier programs, and Kelly speaking out about how “all” of his players are at-risk at ND is probably sadly not an exaggeration. ND doesn’t need to abolish high standards, but some understanding of the difficulty to truly STUDENT-athletes with their too quick to exclude administration is long overdue. I’ve never been a huge Kelly fan, but his attempt to frame this reality recently is a welcome breath of fresh air.

  10. Looks like we’re about split here. Half the posters want to win games in the sport called football, and the other half wants the honor roll. These past 25 years prove it can’t be both.

  11. Scott, do not dismiss Jeff’s point so quickly. You did glaringly omit references to Stanford’s academic standards for football players. While you might argue it is common knowledge that Stanford has higher admissions standards than Notre Dame for its general student body, it is untrue that it is common knowledge that Stanford has higher admissions standards for football players than Notre Dame. , and it is untrue that it is common knowledge that Stanford has higher GPA standards for players once admitted than Notre Dame.

    Your assumption might be backed up by facts–but you failed to provide any to your readers. Poor journalism. It is also poor taste to ridicule those questioning your (thus far) unsupported position.

  12. This is just an anti-ND hit piece. The three athletes it mentions had no academic problems. Moreover, Aaron Lynch admitted he was immature and wanted to be closer to home, sat out a year, played a year at South Florida, went to the NFL with his class, and is doing extremely well with the 49ers. Donte Neal, whatever his rudeness in high school, transferred home to Arizona to be with his nearly-born daughter, sat out a year, and now is starting for that team. Those 2 didn’t turn out to be big “risks.”

  13. This may not be popular to say, but it’s the elephant in the room. I don’t watch ND on Saturdays (and haven’t since 1995), buy apparel, get on this site or pay for game tickets because of academics. My spirit isn’t crushed after a player gets a B or C in a class. While I wish all the players the best luck in life, I don’t hang my hat on what they do in business or art or politics in their 40’s and 50’s.

    I watch, support and spend money on Notre Dame for their football program. Specifically, what transpires between the sidelines from late August to (hopefully) January. And there are millions of fans, across the country and world, who do the same as I.

    I’m not saying let’s turn ND into a school that graduates players who can’t read. But A’s, B’s, or C’s don’t fill that stadium on Saturdays. Nor has it made ND one of the most profitable “brands” in college football. Winning football games (and championships) is what built the brand.

    When the college football playoff system starts picking the Top 4 based on academics, my tune might change. Until then, W’s are all that matter.

  14. My Freshman year at ND, 1969-1970, we all had to take Calculus, taught primarily by long-suffering grad students who had to put up with many students like me who, after one year of the course, still don’t know what it is or its application to life. The next year, they dropped the requirement, offering a different high-level math course for those whose hemisphere of their brain did not comprehend or absorb Calculus. I know not when they decided to require it again, but it was not required the three years after my freshman year while I attended. My fellow classmates were often reminded how much they owed us for eliminating that requirement for them. I passed by visiting the grad student-teacher during his office hours at least once a week and, bless young Mr. Koehler’s soul, he’d spend a half hour or so agonizing over his inability to get me to understand it. Calculus isn’t for everybody, football player or not. That does not mean one cannot be worthy of an ND degree!
    re: Bryant’s 4 game suspension- if history bears out- (K. Russell is dismissed from ND for two semesters because he got his paper proofread), so if Bryant was suspended for four games but still can participate with the team this Summer, it might have been tantamount to he didn’t double space a paper he turned in.
    What remains unclear -was his suspension decided upon by the coaching staff or the university?
    We might never know what he did. We can assume the other teams on ND’s schedule would have been less inclined to maximize a punishment for one of their athletes. ND administration chooses to keep the playing field uneven, and adds to the difficulty to compete with the top-tier football programs.
    That, my friends, is what Brian Kelly has very clearly brought to the table.
    It’s about time somebody involved in the football program has.
    The Harpo Marx characterization by Swarbick during the “frozen five” fiasco remains near the top of the most embarrassing segments of that entire episode.

  15. I have no problem with the academic requirements. Other schools have had success despite high academic standards. There’s no reason ND shouldn’t be expected to do the same. As for BK, I think he has the tools to succeed. He’s had some ups and downs in his 5 years. I don’t think being an “ND Man” is a requirement for success at ND. If it was, Gerry Faust would’ve won multiple Nat’l Championships. He was a heckuva nice man who loved ND but the job was too much for him to handle.

  16. I’m so very proud of ND’s high academic requirements. It is the hallmark of the school, behind it’s religious and moral compass. The fact that ND’s athletic teams have been, and I pray, will continue to be winners, in and out of the classroom, are in large part what makes ND so special. Now to Kelly; he is NOT an ND man. You need not be an ND grad to be an ND man, but you must understand and believe in it with all you are. (see Ara, Lou, Dan among others). Kelly will continue to have academic missteps because he is willing to sacrifice ND’s essence for his success. So along with many other signs, like coaching staff turnover, Kelly will not win, or be held in high regard by his teams/athletes. Have not heard many interviews in his 6 seasons, with x ND players or coaches that sing his praises as a man or a football coach. This was a great article above.

  17. Self-inflicted? Yes. But that does not mean things need to change. This is not the 1970’s. To compete on a level playing field with Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State, and others, something adjustments must be made. To compare the situation to Stanford is laughable. Notre Dame is not trying to win the Pac 12. They are after National Championships. How many of those have Stanford won? How many championship games have Stanford played in? Kelly was being honest and saying some of the same things Lou Holtz was saying. If you are contented to be better in football than Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Yale, then fine. Don’t complain when you don’t win National Championship. Be contented to win 9 or 10 games and a second tier bowl (i.e. Music City). But if National Championships are the goal, you better take note to what Brian Kelly is saying. He is doing a great job of recruiting against the big boys even with one arm tied behind his back. But don’t expect the one-armed man to come out on top in a two arms race.

  18. And your proof is? I went to Cornell, and while Cornell is one of the easier Ivy league schools to get into, it is known for being one of the hardest to get through once your there. They Weed people out and have no problem failing studenta out of school. The students there are also hyper competitive. And I will attest to that. My dad and sister went to Notre dame, and from what I can glean it has a similar reputation. That is my point. And for the record, I think it’s a good thing its so rigorous, makes you a better person.

  19. Stanford’s little blip on the radar is finished. Get over it. There was no way Shaw was ever going to be able to keep it going like JH had it. As for Kelly, you cant expect him to sit there and smile while the administration suspends 5 players at a time with little to no proof of any wrongdoing, all the while taking taking 4-5 months to decide how to proceed. Maybe BK should seek less talented recruits, as the author implies. At least we know those 2 stars will do their homework.

  20. @Jeff:

    I know Notre Dame fans don’t want to hear it, but Stanford’s standards are tougher than Notre Dame’s.

  21. Your Stanford argument doesn’t hold water. How hard a school is to get into haa no bearing on how hard it is to stay in.

  22. Very interesting article. I will always say if kids do not want to succeed in the classroom as much as on the field, they have no business attending Notre Dame. While I am sure there are more standards to get into ND then what the article points out, the message of what ND is about (turning uncertain youth into mature accomplished adults) will bring kids in. It is disheartening that other universities take what ever kids they can get and no longer force them to get an education. It is even more troubling how the kids, and more importantly their parents, do not recognize that most schools care very little about them and their growth. They just care about how the kid can help ticket sales and championships. However if we begin to act like other universities, the message of what makes ND special will be lost.

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