Notre Dame's Brian Kelly rips Rose Bowl, CFP brass for lack of flexibility — 'I’m not sure we’ll play'

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly threatened to boycott the College Football Playoff if Notre Dame can’t play in a venue that allows the players’ families to attend.

In a rare show of candor for a college football coach, Kelly blasted the notion that teams should play in an empty stadium without their families there, which is projected to be the case with the Rose Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1.

“I’m not sure we’ll play in the playoffs if parents can’t be there, to be honest with you,” Kelly said. “Why would we play if you can’t have the families at the game?”

Kelly poured kerosene on the simmering controversy, calling it “a shame,” “a sham” and “ridiculous” that they'd play in an empty stadium. The athletic directors at the three schools most likely to be in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 game in the CFP — Ohio State, Clemson and Notre Dame — all spoke publicly to Yahoo Sports on Thursday about their desire to have the game at a venue where the players’ families could attend.

As of now, because of local restrictions, there’d be zero fans allowed in the Rose Bowl. The game is attempting to get the California governor’s office to reverse that ruling, but it’s unlikely considering how serious the COVID-19 outbreak is in Southern California. ICU bed capacity is at zero percent in Southern California.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly reacts during the first half of his team's game against North Carolina on Nov. 27, 2020. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly reacts during the first half of his team's game against North Carolina on Nov. 27, 2020. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Kelly’s comments enflamed the controversy, as he took a question about Notre Dame’s and Clemson’s playoff viability and pivoted to use the news conference as a bully pulpit. He accused the Rose Bowl, without naming it, of using its history to keep its game and not caring about the wishes of the players.

“We’re worshipping the ashes of tradition,” Kelly said. “That can be the only reason.”

Kelly added: “Why can’t it be the Rose Bowl in Las Vegas?” Kelly asked. “Can it be the Rose Bowl in another town? I get it. Where’s the flexibility for the student-athlete is all I’m saying. The one thing these kids have been is incredibly flexible. And then on the other side we can’t be flexible. It’s hard to imagine.”

Kelly brought up a juxtaposition that’s sure to make the College Football Playoff management committee uncomfortable, saying that playing the game in the Rose Bowl with no fans essentially is a declaration that the players are professionals.

“You’re going to tell me we’re going to have a playoff and maybe one site can have families and the other can’t,” Kelly said. “Please. Somebody has to wake up in that room and figure it out. Or you might as well just call this the professional league. Nothing speaks to this is just about having a playoff and we don’t care about the student-athletes [more than this].”

When asked for comment, CFP executive director Bill Hancock said, “We are continuing to monitor the circumstances in California and want the state to allow the players’ families to attend the game.” The Rose Bowl did not respond to a request for comment.

No. 2 Notre Dame plays No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game on Saturday. One of those teams is likely headed to the Rose Bowl. Kelly said he’s so passionate about the issue because the players have brought it up to him. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney also criticized the idea, saying the idea of flying across the country to the Rose Bowl "makes zero sense."

Kelly amped up the rhetoric.

“We’ll talk it over with our team,” Kelly said. “The players drive this. I don’t drive it. I’m echoing their concerns. I’m not the guy out there making it up. It’s not about my family, you know what I mean, it’s about their family. I’m a voice for the team. They’re concerned.”

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