August 18, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Commentary: Notre Dame's off-field problems eventually fall on Brian Kelly

For the second straight season, academic dishonesty threatens to make it harder for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's team to beat Michigan and USC and everybody else on the Irish schedule. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

South Bend, Ind. — Upon entering Notre Dame Stadium for football practice Saturday, neither the zip of quarterback Everett Golson’s passes nor the zeal of the university professors on hand for Faculty Day — ah, the irony — grabbed a visitor’s attention quite like the brand-new FieldTurf.

The fake stuff practically sparkles; a plush, green patch of real estate that looks as pristine as the old, hallowed ground ever did and offers a constant 100-yard rectangular reminder that nothing is as real as it appears when it comes to Notre Dame football.

Stunningly, for the second straight season, academic dishonesty threatens to make it harder for coach Brian Kelly’s team to beat Michigan and USC and everybody else on the Irish schedule. Not a weak offensive line or a suspect secondary. Not the lack of playmakers or a pass rush. Not bad calls or luck.

Cheating — and not the way the Patriots were accused of doing it.

Last year, getting caught sidelined Golson, the 2012 starter who was suspended for cheating on an exam. On Friday, Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins announced the university was investigating four current players for submitting work that wasn’t their own — receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive lineman Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore.

On one hand, commend Notre Dame’s hierarchy for being so vigilant in policing its football program for cheaters who likely exist on campuses and in locker rooms everywhere. On the other, after five players impugn the university’s academic reputation and others such as William Mahone and Prince Shembo reflect a pattern of troubling off-the-field behavior since Kelly’s arrival in 2010, it becomes fair to wonder if Kelly keeps recruiting kids prone to poor judgment.

Defending a record that warrants scrutiny, the coach who came to a practice last week riding a stallion understandably sounded Saturday like a man knocked off his high horse.

“I think we’ve brought in the right young men,” said Kelly, the former Grand Valley State and Central Michigan coach. “We have to do a better job providing them the resources. Look, this is never a one-sided issue. We have to internally look at providing our student-athletes all the resources necessary that if, in fact, they took shortcuts that they don’t.”

Can Notre Dame compete for a national title without compromising its integrity? It has been the age-old question since Lou Holtz left town in 1996. Evidence continues to mount under Kelly that the answer is no.

Asked about the connection between his tenure and a sequence of high-profile incidents that revealed questionable decision-making — from Shembo’s alleged sexual battery of Saint Mary’s College student Lizzy Seeberg that preceded her suicide, to the death of student videographer Declan Sullivan in 2010, to Michael Floyd playing after his third alcohol-related incident in 2011 to this — Kelly deferred. He’s engrossed with the Rice game plan.

“This isn’t the time to have a debate on what my leadership, or lack thereof, is,” Kelly said.

Yet at a school that likes to proclaim Notre Dame genuinely is about more than what happens on fall Saturdays, it represents a better time than after a failed fourth-and-1 next month. If patience isn’t wearing thin with Kelly for non-football issues impairing football success, just wait until the cornerback replacing Russell gets beaten for a touchdown.

When Jenkins addressed the possibility of vacating victories, it suggested university officials fear this scandal goes beyond four players and the past academic year. In Indianapolis, the ears of NCAA investigators perked up. Vacating victories is a hollow response to academic fraud. Firing people is not.

Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick expressed confidence in Kelly on Friday, but Jenkins also said this probe wasn’t an “athlete issue.” Sure, that’s why the university streamed the news conference on the Internet and local TV stations pre-empted regular programming to carry it live. No matter the spin, Notre Dame’s board of trustees, never shy about football, must be concerned with the continuation of headlines that have nothing to do with winning the school’s first national championship since 1988.

Blame players or parents. Blame the tutors or the academic advisers. Blame whomever. Ultimately, even Kelly knows who bears the biggest responsibility when a program lets its culture become permissive enough players are being investigated for academic impropriety so soon after losing their quarterback for the same reason.

The head coach, that’s who. That’s the burden that comes with an exorbitant salary.

“Well, you have to create an environment for your players on a day-to-day basis that they know you can’t cut corners and that they’re going to be held accountable,” Kelly said. “If you let players do whatever they want and they feel like they’re not accountable, then I don’t think you should be a head coach.”

A Kelly critic couldn’t have stated it better.

Players who don’t learn those lessons of accountability face consequences. Coaches who can’t establish a setting conducive with instilling them, over time, should be too — even at Notre Dame. Especially there.