What does vacate mean, anyway?
That’s the question I’d ask myself if I’m Notre Dame and Brian Kelly. Because the NCAA made their ruling. And nobody paid attention to the fact that the Irish football program was left alone.
No scholarships were taken. No wrongdoing assigned—not to Kelly, nor any of his assistants, or the team within the athletic department that actually rooted out the problem.
In terms of penalties, the stiffest the NCAA levied on the program was a $5,000 fine—practically the going rate of three-nights in a 2-star hotel on a home football weekend, or the minimum buy-in for the latest and greatest season tickets in the remodeled house that Jack built.
So what’s really the big deal?
Because being lumped in with the two decades of institutional dishonesty in Chapel Hill isn’t sitting quite right for the proud folk under the golden dome. Neither is the all-too-easy connection between Catholics and convicts, the Irish now apparently lumped in with Nevin Shapiro and that pyramid of cash he was shoving into the pockets of players and administrators alike.
Because the biggest fight we’ve seen from the football program this year came in the form of a 420-word statement attributed to Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins. And while those six paragraphs cut to the core of why Notre Dame doesn’t believe the punishment levied on them is fair, there’s a better chance that the NCAA will eat its own words before anybody actually changes their opinion on this one.
Because we’ve already seen people connect the dots. Vile, disgusting ones—revealing much more about the people capable of bringing up the tragedies of Lizzy Seeberg and Declan Sullivan as they find a corollary in a half-dozen college kids who took a few academic shortcuts.
Maybe that’s what has Kelly so ready for a fight. Even after watching his coaching reputation swirl down the drain as the losses pile up this season, Notre Dame’s football coach played the role of indignant innocent bystander on Tuesday, even if it played right into the hands of those who hold the most contempt for him.
So fight what you want to. But it’s not going to change opinions. Not the ones that are running wild, certain that this is finally the proof that Notre Dame’s really is just like everyone else.
But even if the university’s appeal is denied, it won’t erase the memories—of that magical 2012 season. And also that next one, ruined by the first academic scandal of the Kelly era.
Remember that year? A 2013 team poised for greatness but derailed when a university and football program tossed its star quarterback for a semester for utilizing his peripheral vision on an accounting exam?
That was Notre Dame putting its honor code and integrity before winning football games. Something they did a year later when they held five football players from team activities as they dug through 95,000 documents in search of the truth, leading us to the current mess we’re in.
So maybe Kelly is right. Even if you hated to hear him stick up for himself amidst a football season most find indefensible.
But run the guy out of town for losing football games. Not for standing up for his program, who just survived a two-year investigation and came out just five grand lighter, an invoice that likely came with “For Appearances” in the memo line.
So as the NCAA kicks the can down the street for North Carolina, Florida State, Ole Miss and Baylor, the smoking gun of it’s 21-page document revealed that a former Notre Dame student athletic trainer typed out school work on behalf of a student-athlete.
Maybe that’s why the wins are so important. To Kelly. To Jenkins, who finally said something about the investigation, a bizarre lack of leadership shown by an org chart that’s rarely shied away from big moments.
The games matter. They were history. Highs. Lows. Good moments and bad. All part of the record Notre Dame’s trying to protect as sports’ biggest bureaucratic laughingstock takes dead aim at Notre Dame for doing, at least in the NCAA’s eyes, just about everything right.