SOUTH BEND, Ind. – After nearly an hour at the podium, Brian Kelly walked up the steps of Isban Auditorium in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, his Notre Dame media day duties complete.
Behind him, director of football media relations Michael Bertsch was politely firing a pre-emptive shot at reporters, dissuading them from asking Fighting Irish players and assistant coaches questions about the potential academic scandal that threatens to derail this Notre Dame football season before it starts. Bertsch announced that players and coaches would not answer questions about the "ongoing investigation."
Walking up the steps, Kelly almost breezily echoed the words – seemingly to himself, but out loud: "Ongoing investigation."
The light tone was misleading. Are there two words college coaches like less than "ongoing investigation"? Probably only these two: "You're fired."
If the ongoing investigation ends badly enough, Kelly conceivably could hear those words as well. Of course, that's miles down the road, and certainly nobody in a position of power is saying any such thing at Notre Dame. The school fought hard to keep Kelly from the NFL in January 2013, and he has been its most successful football coach since Lou Holtz. You'd think the administration would dearly love to avoid hiring a fifth coach this century, in yet another reboot intended to recapture the elusive glory days of championships past.
But Notre Dame truly is a place that values its academic reputation above its athletic achievements, so this is a serious deal. DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore are being withheld from practice and games while the school looks into potential academic cheating. The starting quarterback, Everett Golson, missed all last season after being caught cheating on a test. Many of the alums who have a Notre Dame degree on the wall would rather lose to USC 20 years in a row than have the elite academic reputation of their alma mater sullied.
So there will be some anxious days for Kelly and his staff as the ongoing investigation on-goes.
Notre Dame's vigor in pursuing these allegations deserves credit, because there are plenty of athletic factories that wouldn't. The idea of underprepared, overwhelmed or entitled athletes cheating their way to passing grades is neither new nor rare. It happens.
A quick story: When I was a freshman at the University of Missouri, I sat down to take my very first college final in an economics class. It was a big auditorium class, and there were four versions of the final exam interspersed on the desks: A, B, C and D. Immediately after sitting down, a wide receiver on the team who was from my high school sat next to me and urgently whispered, "What test do you have?"
"B," I answered, not knowing why he cared.
Next thing I knew, he and two teammates (both starters on a team that was bound for the Holiday Bowl) had scurried around the room and secured three copies of the "B" exam. Then they sat on either side of me and copied every multiple-choice answer I filled in with my No. 2 pencil. I had rarely seen them in class all semester, so it was no surprise they knew none of the material. But it was an unnerving experience on several levels.
When we left the auditorium, the answer key was posted on the wall. I checked the answers, did the math and figured that "we" had all gotten As. That afternoon, the receiver from my high school dropped off a six-pack at my dorm room as a thank-you. I found out that beer doesn't taste very good to guilty taste buds.
That was 1983. I'm sure similar scenes have played out many times before and since. A small percentage of times, the athletes are caught.
If they are, the consequences can be profound but public. No football program is more public than Notre Dame's, and no football program evokes more schadenfreude when it falls from its lofty idealistic perch.
"No one likes Notre Dame," said safety Matthias Farley, "outside Notre Dame."
So it's not fun to be a Fighting Irish football player who is a suspected cheater. Ask Golson.
The Irish players stuck to the no-comment game plan Tuesday regarding the "ongoing investigation," but Golson provided some insight into what Daniels, Russell, Williams and Moore might be going through. The words he used: "embarrassed" and "humiliated."
Golson was in California working with quarterback guru George Whitfield when he watched the 2013 Irish open the season by laboring past Temple – that was hard. Then he watched the Irish lose to Michigan – that was harder.
"The Michigan game kind of tore me up a little bit," he said. "It was humiliating, but you have to feel that."
Humiliation became motivation. Golson made it back to Notre Dame, regained his starting status and is in good standing academically. He said he has spoken to his four under-investigation teammates, but declined to offer specifics of what he told them.
Farley said the message is unity.
"No one has different feelings about anything," he said. "We love 'em the same."
And then he declined comment, silenced by the "ongoing investigation" that will linger over this storied program for an undetermined amount of time.