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@example.com or follow him on Twitter.