Irish football players are academically at-risk — Just like everybody else’s

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Brian Kelly made waves this week by saying something that’s been common knowledge across college football for decades: The majority of Notre Dame football players wouldn’t be Notre Dame students if not for football.

That’s a surprise?

Apparently so. Or at least it counts as news in June, when headlines are hard to come by. So Kelly’s candor and honesty with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen—who had the comments buried at the bottom of his column—drew national attention when he said the following:

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk — all of them — really,” Kelly told Hansen. “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. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.”

Kelly’s comments could come from just about any college football coach in America.

That’s the reality of the situation not just in South Bend, but at any academic institution that has an admissions board. Because there is a widening gap between the academic profiles of student-athletes—especially those playing football and basketball—and the young adults that they’re joining in the class room.

At Notre Dame, the coaching staff has long embraced that divide. We’ve heard “make a 40-year decision” enough times to almost become immune to it, but when a recruit comes to campus with his parents, it takes hold in a much more tangible manner.

A Notre Dame degree—just like ones from Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and plenty of other upper-echelon academic institutions—holds considerable currency, especially when it comes to life after football. Add to that a first-rate football experience, something Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick are still building entering the head coach’s sixth season, and you have a very persuasive pitch to a talent pool that may be more refined than State School X, but certainly is large enough to win football games.

Yet for all the virtues that come with attending Notre Dame, the university sounds equally committed to help eliminate the high-profile academic misfires. Since the football team’s run to the BCS title game in 2012, the two largest stories that Kelly’s football team has produced are off-field academic blunders: Quarterback Everett Golson’s season-long suspension in 2013 and the Frozen Five debacle, gutting the 2014 team of five frontline contributors in the days before the opener.

We’ve discussed some of the steps that are now taking place on campus. Task forces and focus groups, with AD Jack Swarbrick taking the lead on conversations, will likely change the very basics of how student-athletes spend their time at Notre Dame.

And while there’ll be accusations of dumbing-down curriculum or watering down the degree, the reality of the situation is that the university owes it to their student-athletes to help make the task of competing in the classroom and on the field of play more feasible. Just ask the head coach who has had a front row seat for the past five years.

“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,” Kelly said.

“And we have to provide all the resources necessary for them to succeed and don’t force them into finding shortcuts.”

That could mean eliminating some things that have long been considered staples of student-athlete life on campus. Like a 15-credit fall course load, when football players have the opportunity to take six credits each summer, putting them on track for a ridiculous 3.5-year graduation path.

Or some minor adjustments to the First Year of Studies—a culture shock for student-athletes who didn’t exit high school with a stack of AP Credits and as part of National Honor Society. If you’re looking for a reason why the Irish football team has had a transfer every season for 30 years running, don’t look much farther than the first-year curriculum.

We’ve seen changes—for the better—over the past few years when it comes to some of the draconian student-life policies that plagued the school in the past. And it’s far better that the university is reexamining some of their academic assumptions now before another high-profile toe-stubbing takes place.

“I think we’ve clearly identified that we need to do better, and we’re not afraid to look at any shortcomings that we do have and fix them, and provide the resources necessary for our guys,” Kelly said. “Our university has looked at that, and we’re prepared to make sure that happens for our guys.”

For as much grief as Notre Dame has taken for academic suspensions (not just on the football team—they’ve hit other sports, too), it’s far better than the alternative. Just ask folks at North Carolina, who are now dealing with decades of academic misconduct that should embarrass anybody with a diploma from Chapel Hill.

It usually takes mistakes to bring on change. And Notre Dame has found an unlikely ambassador for those changes in Kelly, a coach many assume had one foot out the door after tiring of off-field challenges that other coaches don’t have to deal with.

(Compare that to the public attitude of former head coach Charlie Weis, an alum who loved Notre Dame. While it took until he was fired to voice his frustrations with the student-life challenges, he simplified the academic issues by just wanting to “find kids who could read and write.”)

Only in the dog days of the offseason can Kelly’s comments come across as something newsworthy. But credit the head coach—and just as importantly his bosses—with being honest with the elephant in the room all across college football.