State of the program: What do six arrests say about Brian Kelly’s Irish?

Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly smiles after defeating the USC Trojans 41-31 at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly smiles after defeating the USC Trojans 41-31 at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports /

With the news that six Notre Dame football players were arrested Friday night, the question is: Does Brian Kelly have control of his program?

Since he was hired in December 2009, Brian Kelly has led Notre Dame’s storied football team back into the national spotlight, with six straight winning seasons, a national championship berth and a New Years Six bowl game.

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At the beginning of this year, Kelly signed a six-year extension with the Irish, which would theoretically keep him in South Bend through 2021. If he stays the length of that contract, Kelly would become the longest serving Notre Dame coach since Knute Rockne.

And the future looks bright too. Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2017 is rated as one of the very best in the nation, and the program is already picking up some of the best players in the class of 2018.

All of this is to say that Kelly has done exactly what most Notre Dame fans hoped for when he was hired and more.


With the news that six Notre Dame players were arrested Friday, it’s time to confront the ugly side of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. Because for all the on-field successes he has had, there have been just as many embarrassing off-field incidents that have cast the program in a negative light.

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Academic scandals. Allegations of sexual assault. Run-ins with the law. It’s sad to say, but this latest incident Friday, while shocking in some ways, is just more of the same. Since the beginning of last season alone, two players were kicked off the team under suspicious circumstances and two more were declared academically ineligible.

So what, some fans might say? It’s not as though Notre Dame is as troubled as other big state schools like UNC or Georgia, where players seem to be constantly arrested, suspended or expelled for all sorts of violations. That’s a fair point. The Irish are, comparatively speaking, not all that bad.

That being said, Notre Dame is famous for doing things the “right” way. Fans take pride in how kids that come to South Bend can handle the heavy academic load of one the nation’s top colleges and represent Our Lady’s University well. Perhaps Brian Kelly’s most famous recruiting principle is his pursuit of RKGs, or “right kinda guys.”

The implication is that the recruits who come to Notre Dame aren’t just good football players, they’re good people too, with a positive attitude and a clean-nosed approach to life. Joe Schmidt is a poster child for this line of thinking, which has deep roots in the Notre Dame mystique and has led in the past to things like “Catholics vs. Convicts.”

If anyone openly challenges this idea, they are harshly reprimanded. Remember Allen Pinkett and his assertion that Notre Dame needed a few criminals to be a really good team? He was suspended for three games for that comment.

Meanwhile, no one seems to be asking whether these recent arrests indicate either a lack of control or concern on the part of Kelly. Instead, all people seem to be asking is how the team will move on from the incident, how much it will hurt the team’s national title hopes, how long we can expect the players involved to be suspended.

Maybe instead we should be asking if Kelly cares more about winning than getting the right kind of people for Notre Dame. I guarantee if Notre Dame had a losing season last year or entered this season unranked, instead of No. 10 in the AP poll, plenty of people would be citing Friday as proof that Kelly needs to go. But 10 wins in 2015 and CFP hopes in 2016 has made Kelly practically immune to off-field criticism.

Brian Kelly is a good football coach, and he has made Notre Dame football good on the field again. These are undeniable facts. But I would argue that in doing so, he has sacrificed some of what makes Notre Dame unique in college football.

That may matter to you, or it may not. As I said, it’s not as though Notre Dame’s track record is particularly heinous compared to the rest of the FBS. And if these incidents are the price of success, then some fans may be willing to accept them in order to see Notre Dame win.

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But that mindset sounds suspiciously like Pinkett’s comments five years ago to me. I’m not sure if I agree that success on the football field necessarily means sacrificing off-field character. And I am absolutely sure Notre Dame fans should consider if that’s really the system they want Kelly and the Irish to buy into.