Feb 13, 2014, 3:37 PM EDT
Earlier this week, freshman basketball player Demetrius Jackson didn’t play against Clemson, causing Irish basketball fans heart palpitations. The highest profile basketball recruit in recent memory has started his Irish career slowly, and Jackson’s mysterious absence had many believing that the future star and coach Mike Brey were on the road to a messy break-up.
But Brey reported after the game that Jackson was taking some time away from basketball to get his academics in order. The South Bend native was just the latest in a run of high profile student-athletes to have their obligations as students get in the way of their starring roles athletes.
Before Jackson it was senior guard and leading scorer Jerian Grant. Notre Dame’s hockey program lost its top defenseman Robbie Russo. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is spending the semester at home, with his academic affairs out of order. And nobody has forgotten Everett Golson, an academic blow from which the 2013 football season never recovered.
Five high profile athletes — arguably among the most important on campus — have been toppled over by the always delicate balance of being a student-athlete at Notre Dame over the past 12 months. Whether acknowledged or not, it’s created a ripple effect across college sports.
Right now, it’s been seen mostly on the recruiting trail. The departure of Golson and Daniels was fodder for opponents, very visible data-points used by some to present the narrative that Notre Dame struggles to protect its own.
In good times, Notre Dame’s academic rigors are used as a beacon for what’s right about college sports. During the Irish’s run to the BCS title game, Notre Dame had the No. 1 ranked football team and the No. 1 rated graduation rate, a double-double likely never before pulled off. That this fact was only a fractional piece of media coverage heading into the Irish’s game with Alabama tells you something.
Of course, those wondering if things are crumbling beneath the Golden Dome are also missing the big picture. Notre Dame’s academic support system, the very same one that rightfully received kudos for the work of its small, but dedicated staff, remains unchanged.
That 18-to-21 year olds falter in the classroom and make short-sighted decisions is an evergreen problem. It’s a universal coaching point that can never be overstressed to every kid in the dorms, not just the ones in monogram jackets. In times like this, while tomatoes fly in from the cheap seats, those working are best to just keep their heads down and stay the course.
So if you are looking for an address from the athletic department or a change in the process, it isn’t likely. But in essence, Brian Kelly took on the topic on Signing Day, reaffirming his commitment to the virtues of a four-year degree from Notre Dame, one of the most valuable undergraduate diplomas in the country.
It wasn’t exactly President Andrew Shepherd, but it wasn’t too far off:
“When we’re on the road recruiting, we were talking about 8,000 students here at Notre Dame. We were talking about a faith‑based education. We were talking about a competitive academic environment. We were talking about community and living, residential life. We were talking about all those things, and at the same time being able to talk about winning a National Championship. So both of those things are important, as well as a 40‑year decision, not a four‑year decision.
“When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a National Championship. If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don’t want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a National Championship, and be the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft. That’s what I want, if that’s what they want.
“So that was our charge going out is looking for guys that wanted a degree from Notre Dame, help Notre Dame win a National Championship, and then if they wanted to go to the NFL, that they would play on one of the greatest platforms in college football. They’d play at Notre Dame. They’d be on NBC. They’d be on national television. They’d be under one of the great opportunities to be seen on a day‑to‑day basis.
“So when you look at the list of guys, we vetted them out just like they vetted us out. So recruiting is a two‑way street. A lot of times our fans ask why didn’t they recruit this guy or they recruited this guy; it’s a two‑way street when it comes to the recruiting process. So we are really, really pleased with the work that our coaches have done, our recruiting staff.”
For those thinking that the struggles of Jackson, Grant, Russo, Daniels and Golson are fractures in the system, Notre Dame would likely argue that it’s proof that the foundation still stands strong.
That all of these athletes have pledged to come back and compete again with their teammates and represent their university, deserves appreciation, the road less traveled compared to a transfer or scramble for higher ground.
One of the biggest worries about Brian Kelly heading to Notre Dame was that he might not be able to deal with the culture of the university and the concerns that an outsider might not be willing to embrace Notre Dame’s charge of being different. While some bumps in the road have been painful, it’s pretty clear that Kelly’s resolve, and the pledges of the student-athletes facing adversity, represents the opposite.
No coach ever won a recruiting battle by telling an athlete it’d be easy.
Now more than ever, it seems Notre Dame accepts and embraces it.