Notre Dame is being forced to vacate two years of football victories, including games from its 2012 national title runner-up season, due to NCAA violations committed by a former student athletic trainer, the NCAA said Tuesday.
The NCAA determined that a Notre Dame trainer committed academic misconduct for two football players and provided six other players with extra benefits. The student athletic trainer was employed by Notre Dame's athletic department from 2009-13, according to the NCAA.
As a result, the NCAA placed Notre Dame on one-year probation, gave a two-year show-cause order for the trainer to get hired again, and vacated all records for games in which the players participated during the 2012 and 2013 football seasons.
The Fighting Irish went 12-0 in 2012 regular season and lost 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. In 2013, Notre Dame went 9-4 and beat Rutgers at the Pinstripe Bowl.
According to the NCAA report, the only penalties Notre Dame contested were the vacation of team and head coaching records.
Notre Dame plans to appeal the penalty.
If Notre Dame vacates all 21 wins from 2012 and 2013, the Fighting Irish would fall from second in all-time wins to tied for fifth with Alabama. Currently, Michigan has the most all-time wins with 935, followed by Notre Dame (896), Texas (891), Nebraska (889), Ohio State (885) and Alabama (875).
It's not clear exactly which games would be vacated if Notre Dame doesn't win its appeal. Once a decision occurs that includes vacating games, the school then identifies the competitions that were affected by ineligible players.
"It was student-on-student cheating," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "The NCAA agreed on that finding. It was clearly excessive."
The NCAA decision stems from a case that became public when Notre Dame players KeiVarare Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy were suspended for academic violations before the 2014 season.
How the NCAA handles academic misconduct has been closely watched in recent years and even fought by North Carolina in a very high-profile case that's still ongoing.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, the chairman of the NCAA infractions committee, was the chief hearing officer for Notre Dame's case.
According to the NCAA, Notre Dame's case rose to academic misconduct because the trainer violated the university's academic honesty and integrity policies, resulting in Notre Dame erroneously certifying the eligibility of two players. The trainer "partially or wholly completed numerous academic assignments" for players in "numerous" courses, the NCAA said. She also provided six players with impermissible academic extra benefits across 18 courses.
The trainer "asserted that her intention was only to 'help' student-athletes in the institution's academic environment," the NCAA wrote. "The best help she could have given the student-athletes and herself was to ask a question of the athletics compliance staff before engaging in behavior that would jeopardize the welfare of the institution and the eligibility of student-athletes."
According to the NCAA, one Notre Dame player committed academic misconduct in eight courses over two years and played while ineligible in all 13 games of the 2012 season. Another player participated in all 13 games during the 2013 season while ineligible, according to the NCAA.
During Notre Dame's penalty process with the NCAA Committee on Infractions, the university went to great lengths to unsuccessfully try to keep its 2012 and 2013 records. One argument Notre Dame made was that a school's honor code policy could be influenced to consider NCAA penalties due to academic misconduct.
Notre Dame said it could have permanently expelled the players to avoid any retroactive effect on their grades and eligibility. Instead, Notre Dame temporarily dismissed the players and "changed their grades and credits to ensure they could not graduate from Notre Dame or any other institution without demonstrating a certain level of academic proficiencies," the NCAA wrote.
By vacating records because to the school retroactively made players ineligible, Notre Dame said the NCAA is sending a "disturbing message" to schools. The NCAA said a school is obligated to report misconduct regardless of penalty consequences and doing so "does not mean that the NCAA somehow encroaches on purely academic determinations made by a member institution."
In another unsuccessful argument, Notre Dame said the vacation penalty is discretionary and shouldn't be applied in the case. The NCAA said "although the current bylaw does not particularly identify academic violations as an express example, that does not mean the consideration is now inappropriate."
Also to avoid vacated records, Notre Dame argued that past academic misconduct cases don't support the penalty because this case didn't involve serious misconduct by the school. The NCAA cited past examples where similar instances of vacated records occurred due to academics: Louisiana-Lafayette in 2016, SMU in 2015, Syracuse in 2015, North Carolina in 2012 and East Carolina in 2011.
According to the NCAA, Notre Dame conceded that East Carolina was "probably the closest to our case." East Carolina had team and coaching records vacated when an athlete employed by the athletic department as a tutor committed academic fraud with four other athletes.
Notre Dame tried to distinguish its case from East Carolina by arguing there was a difference between an East Carolina student tutor and a Notre Dame student trainer committing academic misconduct. The NCAA disagreed and said both were employed by the athletic department at the time they committed violations.
Finally, Notre Dame argued to keep its records based on policy considerations. Vacating records disincentives schools from proactively and firmly addressing academic misconduct by athletes and might lead to "athletically-driven changes to academic policy," according to Notre Dame. The NCAA infractions committee panel didn't agree with that argument, either.
The NCAA findings also showed Notre Dame has reported 76 NCAA violations over the past five years, including 23 involving the football program. Because Notre Dame is a private university, this information rarely becomes public. Universities are encouraged by the NCAA to report violations and most of them end up being classified as secondary in nature.