Notre Dame football: Kelly plays dangerous game by misleading press

Sep 24, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly walks into the stadium before the game against the Duke Blue Devils at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly walks into the stadium before the game against the Duke Blue Devils at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports /

Brian Kelly explained Sunday why he never criticized Brian VanGorder to the media. But his attempts to avoid media scrutiny could backfire on Notre Dame.

In his Sunday teleconference, Brian Kelly was asked, quite fairly, why he had fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder just a day after saying he was pleased by the performance of his coaching staff in Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke.

Related Story: Irish Coffee Podcast: Have the Irish hit a new low?

Kelly’s response is below in full, but in case you don’t want to read it through and parse through the coachspeak, allow me to summarize: Kelly probably knew he was going to fire VanGorder when he spoke to the media on Saturday. He just didn’t think the media should know.

"“That’s not the appropriate time to get into talking about your coaches and where you feel they fit on that continuum of how well they are doing. I’m going to defend them. I’m going to defend my coaches in those kind of public settings. As I got a chance to further evaluate our football team and our current situation, I felt that it was in our best interests to make the move that I did.”"

I’ll start by acknowledging that Kelly has a good point, or at least a good rationalization, for why he didn’t inform the media of his exact plans, doubts and concerns regarding his coaching staff. As an employee and associate, VanGorder deserved to hear that he was fired from Kelly himself and not from media reports.

Furthermore, Kelly displayed a great deal of loyalty to VanGorder in refusing to hang him out to dry after early losses to Texas and Michigan State. Loyalty is a great attribute, and Kelly deserves to be commended for that.


Kelly lied to the media. There’s no way around that. After Texas, he told the press to “relax a little bit” about the defense. “I think our defense is going to be fine,” he said. After Michigan State, he said VanGorder was “absolutely” the right man for the job and that the idea of firing him was “not even part of the conversation.” After Duke, he said, “We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective.”

Then on Sunday, he said he had been evaluating VanGorder carefully since Texas.

“That got my attention,” Kelly said about the season-opening loss, in which the Irish surrendered 37 points in regulation.

These two sets of statements directly contradict each other.

So what, you might ask. It’s not the head coach’s job to tell the press each and every move he is considering. His job is to win. He doesn’t owe the media anything.

And that’s true. Kelly is at perfect liberty to lie to the press whenever he wants. But in doing so, he is setting a dangerous precedent. From now on, whatever Kelly says should be taken, not with a grain of salt (that’s the norm for any college football coach), but with a strong, healthy dose of skepticism.

Kelly didn’t just decline to discuss performance evaluations of his own staff to the media. He insisted those evaluations were positive when that was not the case. He went above and beyond what was asked to insist upon VanGorder’s job security, only to then reverse course and dump him. Either Kelly set a world record for biggest 180 in head coaching history, or he knew VanGorder was heading towards dismissal.

Because of this, Kelly has opened up the program to rampant speculation. If the media and the fans cannot trust what he says, then they will have to draw their own conclusions, to speculate as to what Kelly might be saying behind closed doors. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, it’s been a staple of sports media since the dawn of time.

But what’s different now is that Kelly has no standing to tell the media to “relax,” as he did after Texas. A program that is not forthcoming about issues the fans are concerned about cannot expect people not to speculate. That would be inconsistent and hypocritical. What’s more, Notre Dame fans know this. They’re nobody’s fool. They realize that now, if they can’t trust Kelly, the market is wide open for theories and opinions to fill the gap.

Next: Brian VanGorder is gone. Now what for Notre Dame?

Kelly is under pressure himself now too. He seemingly tied himself to VanGorder with his earlier statements and is now trying to go it alone. As the fanbase grumbles and seeks out explanations for Notre Dame’s terrible start, Kelly’s inconsistent statements leave him open to speculation and make him a prime target for the fans’ next firing campaign.