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The travels of Brian Kelly represent all that’s wrong in college football

By John Burbridge

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Where I come from (Indiana), basketball is like religion.

But the part of Indiana where I come from (due north almost wading into Lake Michigan), Notre Dame football is most divine.

The campus has a landmark referred to as “Touchdown Jesus”.

It’s where movies are made about walk-ons (Rudy) … it’s where movie stars play George Gipp and later get nicknamed “The Gipper” on their way to becoming two-term U.S. presidents … it’s where five-star Sun Belt prospects are willing to migrate to in spite of the lake-effect snow.

It’s hard not to be a Fighting Irish fan if you’re into college football and reside within their coverage area — which, you can say, is the entire country when taking in account the national television contract signed with NBC in 1991 extending to if not beyond 2025.

College football fans display more abject loyalty to their chosen teams than NFL fans … at least that’s what I see. Take for instance former New England Patriot fans who have jumped ship to Tampa Bay due to the movement of one — or two — players.

Sometimes it’s the advancement of a beloved assistant coach that causes such transitions among pro football fans, i.e. the sudden apparition of Philadelphia Eagles fans in the Chicagoland area after the departure of defensive guru Buddy Ryan.

But college football seems to encourage if not demand greater fealty to the cause as well as the resident mascot. They may have gotten the Washington “Football Team” to change its name … or rid itself of the former one, but good luck getting Illinois to discard “Fighting Illini” (or ND to discard “Fighting Irish” for that matter).

As a lifelong “fan” of the Fighting Irish, I have to admit my fealty to the team has been challenged. The complication comes from realizing that my oft celebration of the school’s integrity while contrasting it to the usual bad actors in college sports may have been shortsighted.

The hiring of Brian Kelly wasn’t my first notion of this, rather cut-and-dried verification.

Back in December of 2009, Notre Dame hired Kelly to replace Charlie Weis. That season, Kelly had coached Cincinnati to a 12-0 record.

Unranked at the start of the season, the Bearcats managed to break into the Top 25 after their season-opening win and climbed all the way to No. 4 ahead of their Sugar Bowl meeting against Florida.

This was before the top-four-team championship playoff bracket was implemented in college football. So even had the Bearcats defeated the Gators, they still would have needed plenty of help and some generous poll votes to attain a mythical national title.

That turned out to be a moot point with the Gators soundly defeating the Bearcats 51-24 with the latter team’s coach nowhere in sight as he had since fled the team for South Bend — Notre Dame had made it clear to Kelly that he was now exclusively Gold and Blue employed, his former student-athletes be damned.

So I guess with Kelly recently leaving ND for Louisiana State University about the same time in the season — the hiatus between the regular season and the bowl games — you can mark it up as “What comes around, goes around”.

Like with the 2009 Bearcats, the 2021 Fighting Irish had a remote chance at a national championship. With an 11-1 record with a lone loss to — of all teams — Cincinnati, ND is currently ranked No. 5, just outside the top-four for a playoff berth.

Notre Dame will finish the season as well as start the New Year against No. 9-ranked Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1.

After Kelly signed on with LSU, Notre Dame was still a playoff contender, but — again like Cincinnati — needed some help, like Iowa upsetting No. 2-ranked Michigan in the Big 10 Championship, which didn’t happen

Kelly’s contract with LSU — 10 years, $95 million — was with bonuses at the time the richest awarded by a public university.

Good for him, and good for Marcus Freeman, who signed on to replace Kelly while becoming the 30th head coach in ND football history.

Nonetheless, there is something terribly wrong within a sporting if not educational institution that allows head coaches to bolt from teams midseason, especially when the teams are still in the hunt for a national championship.

Coaching hires should be tendered after the season is officially over in cases where the sought-after coach’s team is still active.

It’s a shame that the efforts and sacrifices from Notre Dame’s players (still unpaid, by the way) and assistant coaches — as well as the efforts and sacrifices from Cincinnati’s players and assistant coaches before them — have helped accrue vast wealth for a man who unapologetically abandoned them.

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