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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Transitioning Notre Dame needs to move before realignment stops


Michael Floyd is one of the Irish's best players and just happens to be a Charlie Weis recruit. (Getty Images)  
Michael Floyd is one of the Irish's best players and just happens to be a Charlie Weis recruit. (Getty Images)  

There is absolutely one thing a college coach cannot do. Lose? Bad, but a distant second.

Rip your players in public, personally, and you risk losing your team. More than that, you risk losing the fans, the administration, everyone. Start with the fact that players are not professionals. Ninety-nine percent of them will not play in the pros.

Sure, they get that free education, but in exchange they work unpaid athletic "jobs." So a coach might think his guys are bums, but he can't ever get personal and say it publicly.

Brian Kelly got personal and said it publicly.

Last week Notre Dame's coach was quoted about making a distinction between the players he recruited and those from the Charlie Weis era.

"You can see the players that I recruited here," Kelly told reporters Thursday. "You know who they are. We've had one class of recruiting kids that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along. But it's a process. It can't happen overnight. They're getting there. We're making good progress."

The message was subtle but clear enough to blow up Twitter when Irish players read it. Most notably, linebacker Manti Teo, who angrily tweeted, "Playin for my bros and that's it!!!"

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By the end of a blowout of Navy on Saturday, Kelly had apologized to the players and addressed the matter obtusely with media. You probably missed it because there are more compelling stories in the sport at the moment than Notre Dame football. Kelly, though, cannot un-ring the bell. The message, if you don't get it yet: As soon as Kelly clears out Weis' players, he can make some real progress.

One problem with that: Weis' players are working as hard as everyone else, taking the same hits, putting in the same long hours. Those players include men of character and talent like Teo, a fantastic linebacker with a pro future, and game-changing receiver Michael Floyd.

Kelly should know better. He tends to make colorful statements now and then. That's part of his charm. But at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati they didn't resonate. At Notre Dame, everything is taken at face value.

Kelly's context was a bit more tame. He was trying to explain how he does things differently than Weis. It came out like this: "A lot of guys that are here, we're retraining."


No matter the context, Kelly's words threatened to tear apart a program that is already at a crossroads. You wonder if there is an apology that can fix the intimation that a portion of the players Kelly inherited is to blame for his middling 13-8 start at Notre Dame.

What makes the program so special is also what can be so maddening. There is seldom room for context for a coach surrounded by upwards of 40 media after each practice. Kelly doesn't always have the luxury of going off the record to explain a point.

In that sense, though, things are no different than they are at Southern California, Michigan or Texas. These are franchises, not just programs. That's why you see so many coaches revert to the "one voice" philosophy where assistants aren't allowed to speak.

At Notre Dame, there are forces that have to be dealt with every day. Weis tried for five years to get the school to institute a training table. Officials finally gave in, for Kelly.

All that said, the coach should have thought before he ripped.

A BCS bowl has evaporated for a fifth consecutive season. That's kind of the problem hanging over the whole program. Those Charlie Weis years (that included two BCS bowls) are starting to look good in comparison. Overall, there have been only three for Notre Dame in the 13-year history of the BCS. That's one more than Boise State, which has been playing FBS football all the way back to 1996.

Kelly spoke from the frustration that identifies what Notre Dame football is at the moment: mediocre.

Connecticut and Notre Dame each finished 8-5 last season. UConn went to the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame went to the Sun Bowl. Yes, I'm here to tell you again that the Irish need to be in a conference. It might be 100 years before it happens, but with realignment swirling, the school already is going to have to make a decision soon on what to do with basketball and its nonrevenue sports.

Missouri could officially move to the SEC this week. The Big East is expected to finalize a major expansion any day. But a reconstituted Big East might not be "worthy" of Notre Dame. Think of Mike Brey taking his troops across the country for a mid-February conference game in ... Boise.

That's a lot less glamorous than snowy central New York in mid-February. Brey should be missing Syracuse already.

That's less of an issue than what the BCS has done to Notre Dame football. It has defined it, labeled it. You're either a BCS program or you're not. At the moment, ND is in the BCS because of its brand, not its football. Knute Rockne is doing more for the Irish right now than Dayne Crist.

Sooner or later, the administration will have to realize it. For whatever reasons, Notre Dame is not competing for championships. Neither is anyone else in college football when you consider the SEC has a chokehold on the sport that doesn't figure to end anytime soon.

That might be the best reason to join a conference. College football is a monopoly at the moment and Notre Dame is being shut out. The ACC already is on record that it doesn't want just basketball and the nonrevenue sports. But that could change. With the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the ACC is what the Big East used to be.

I wrote last week that the Big 12 would be a logical option. ND could bring along the NBC contract and its plans to start its own network. The Big 12 already has accommodated the Longhorn Network. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick and Texas AD DeLoss Dodds are close.

The Big Ten has been eerily quiet, which might mean nothing. It might mean the only way the league expands is if it gets Notre Dame.

Frustration grows each day around the program when the Irish aren't winning. But at least now we know where the program stands. Notre Dame won't be better until the Weis players are out of the there.

Or at least retrained.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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