Don't punish Notre Dame players for Brian Kelly's business decision

·Columnist
·5-min read

First, Brian Kelly decided he didn’t want to coach Notre Dame any longer, even though the team still has a viable chance of being selected to the College Football Playoff this weekend.

That must have stung the Fighting Irish players.

Then, it turns out, Kelly’s decision to bail before the playoff field is selected could play a role in keeping Notre Dame out of the tournament.

That would be a vicious double knee-capping, even in a sport long defined by merciless, callous and often comically corrupt behavior.

So here is a basic plea to the 13 members of the college football selection committee: Just because the protocols task you with “considering … relevant factors … such as unavailability of key players and coaches that may … or likely will affect [a team’s] postseason performance” ... that doesn’t mean you should.

So don’t. Don’t punish Notre Dame's players who did nothing wrong. Don’t downgrade a team because its coach quit. Don’t assume that losing Kelly, who took over at LSU on Monday, is somehow a detriment.

Mainly, don’t fall for this foolishness and be as short-sighted and as logically unsound as whomever came up with this criteria in the first place.

Notre Dame is ranked No. 6 in the penultimate playoff rankings. At 11-1, its regular season is over. The Irish can still climb into the top four, however, if just two of the following results happen this weekend:

None of those results are far-fetched. Georgia is even expected to do its part. And then the Irish need only one more of the above. Their postseason chances aren’t great, but considering the wild nature of this sport, they sure aren’t nothing either.

So if Notre Dame gets into real consideration for one of the four playoff spots, then analyze the Irish the exact same way you would if Kelly were still around. If the Irish merit inclusion, put them in. If not, don't. Anything else is unfair to the players and completely devoid of reason.

Kelly’s career choice, and timing of said career choice, should not be a factor in picking a playoff field.

“It’s a piece of information that the management group has said the committee is able to use,” said playoff chairman Gary Barta, the athletic director at Iowa.

Well, the management group had no idea what it was doing when it came up with this. It’s part of the overall problem with this current playoff. It was set up by a bunch of feet-dragging, bought-off-by-the-bowl-industry commissioners nearly a decade ago. It’s why one of the semifinals will take place on New Year’s Eve afternoon. The whole thing is a cluster.

They didn’t want to create a playoff so they created a lousy one. That includes allowing committee members to project what they think may happen based on ... who knows what?

No one knows if Notre Dame will play better, worse or exactly the same without Kelly as the coach. No one. That is because it is unknowable. It is a completely undetermined variable.

You could believe that losing the winningest coach in Notre Dame history would hurt Notre Dame’s performance. Or you could believe that the Irish players will play even better due to the motivation of being an underdog and saying no one believed in them … even their own damn coach.

You could say that whomever takes over for Kelly — say popular defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman — might get them to play looser and better. Maybe he’s the next Dabo Swinney or Ryan Day or Lincoln Riley, former assistants who proved to be excellent once they were elevated to head coach.

Or you could argue both sides and acknowledge that while Kelly is, no doubt, an incredible coach, he can also be a grating personality. Freed from having him around, the players might excel. Happens all the time in sports where midseason coaching changes happen.

Any of the above might be true. Or false. That’s the point. Positive or negative, it’s just a guess. So why stipulate guessing into the process?

Winnowing a sport with 130 teams into a four-slot playoff is complicated enough when it involves comparing disparate schedules, advanced analytics, strength of victory and so on. Adding in the ability to play tarot card reader and pretending to know what the inner workings and motivations of a bunch of jilted players and abandoned assistant coaches are folly.

In 1989, Michigan fired its men's basketball coach, Bill Frieder, on the eve of the NCAA tournament when news broke that he was going to take over at Arizona State after the season — “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan,” then athletic director Bo Schembechler declared. Assistant Steve Fisher was promoted and promptly led a fired-up Wolverine team to the national title.

And Fisher, through his work at Michigan and later in building a great program at San Diego State, proved to be a far superior coach to Frieder, who never got much done at ASU.

Could this happen for Notre Dame? The odds may not be great and Kelly certainly doubts it's possible, but this is sports and that’s what makes it great.

A galvanized team with a common villain to inspire it is by definition a dangerous club. This is the stuff of a Disney movie.

If the Irish are in consideration, don’t let Kelly’s defection cheat the players a second time just because whomever set up these protocols never thought things through.

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