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Notre Dame Football: A Different View on ‘A Blow for Honesty’

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A new viewpoint on Brian Kelly’s plan to be less forthright with the media this coming football season

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been writing for One Foot Down for almost a year now, and I’ve loved covering lots of different topics and discussing countless news stories with my fellow writers here. I think one thing I’ve discovered over that time is that although all of us here at OFD are incredibly obsessed Notre Dame sports fans, there really is a diversity to the writing staff in terms of viewpoint and approach to issues concerning ND, especially relating to the oft-explosive topic of the Fighting Irish football program.

One of my fellow editors published a piece yesterday about Brian Kelly’s recent statement that he plans on withholding specific information from the media due to backlash he has received. Jude articulated his views very well and I enjoyed the piece, but I also strongly disagreed with a lot of it.

So, I wanted to publish a response just to voice my viewpoint, if only because I’m sitting in a hotel room while traveling for work, but also just because I think it helps engender a good discussion in the comments if we’ve got a couple different thoughts out there.

One of the main issues I have with Brian Kelly is one very frequently cited by media all over as a knock on the veteran head coach - he rarely takes responsibility for his program, and instead chooses to publicly criticize players.

I almost added “when it seems unnecessary to do so” as a qualifier at the end of that sentence, but I purposefully excluded it due to the crux of my opinion on all of this: there is never, under any circumstances, a good reason for the head coach of a college football program to criticize a player’s on-field performance or character in a public manner.

When Brian Kelly said in a radio interview that he thought DeShone Kizer should have returned to school because he needed a lot more time to work on things on AND off the field, there was an immediate split in how fans viewed the interview in question.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kelly-haters like myself immediately pointed to the quote as another example of Kelly tossing his own players under the bus. Others saw nothing wrong with the quote, calling it “honest.”

Kizer’s draft stock fell over the final month leading up to the draft, and probably for a variety of reasons. But make no mistake, his college head coach saying he still had a lot to work on, both on and off the field, was definitely a factor in planting that seed of doubt in NFL GMs’ minds. After all, who wants to spend as valuable of a pick as a 1st round selection on a guy who still has a lot to work on and shouldn’t be in the draft, according to the guy who should know him best?

The issue I took with all of this was that it doesn’t matter if what Kelly said was honest or factual or possibly accurate at all. My issue is that he said something in a public interview that could potentially hurt DeShone Kizer’s potential earning power and his reputation as he enters his career.

Why did Kelly need to say that about Kizer? As my fellow OFD editor said at the time, why couldn’t he have handled it in a much more delicate manner so as to explain that he wishes DeShone came back to school, but that he has complete confidence in his ability to excel in the NFL? Why go to the extent to publicly question his focus or ability to play quarterback professionally?

We live in a world where we as fans and those in the media feel entitled to know all the information. I’ve always found this weird, if not incredibly maddening. For example, when the whole Manti Te’o catfishing incident occurred, I wanted to know as much as the next person what the hell was going on with “Lennay Kekua.”

But the way Te’o was treated, basically as a criminal or conman who owed all of us his side of the story, was despicable. Everyone felt they had the right to know what really happened with this “girlfriend” and the whole inspiring story Te’o fed the media during that Heisman-caliber 2012 season. This was a very personal, embarrassing, and confusing ordeal for the guy, and the media speculated and dragged his character through the mud, demanding the truth.

2013 NFL Combine Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The actual truth of the matter is that we as the general public have absolutely no right to any insider information about any of these players or coaches. Jude makes the point that Brian Kelly no longer giving honest details in press conferences could give us incomplete information with which to assign blame and make sense of the team’s performance.

My view: any and all miscues by players during the game are pretty evident and shouldn’t need explanation from BK, but if a player is under-performing and criticized for it by his coaches, why in the world should we be privy to that information? Why should Brian Kelly even share that with us?

Does that accomplish anything, other than throwing the player’s reputation under the bus, whether or not Kelly meant to do so? Take the NC State game last year, as Jude cited. Sure, the tweets from beat writers with Kelly’s quotes on the snapping were slightly out of context, but if you look at the whole quote, how does it not still place blame on center Sam Mustipher?

How does calling the snapping “atrocious” differ from knowing that Kelly actually said “The lack of our ability to manage snapping the football was atrocious as well”? Am I missing something, or does this still not place blame on the person who owns the snapping of the football — i.e., Mustipher — just with more words surrounding it to try to soften the obvious blame being placed?

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The context, in my opinion, actually makes the quote worse, because it gives us the following preceding statement as well: “Just extremely disappointed in the offensive execution.” Oh yeah, Brian? The offense that threw the ball 26 times in a hurricane, and dropped back with the intention of throwing several more times, but Kizer was smart enough not to keep tossing it around in the driving wind and rain? Was execution the issue, or maybe — I’m just spitballin’ here — was the issue the game plan set forth by you and your staff?

To me, this isn’t a coach being honest. It’s not players needing to be tougher about taking criticism. This is a coach making sure everyone in the general public knows about all the reasons his team isn’t succeeding, and the vast majority of those reasons are not him.

But that point aside (because I could rant about what I think of Brian Kelly’s ownership of this program all day - just ask the two-plus years’ worth of paychecks Brian VanGorder managed to cash against all the odds), my point is that Brian Kelly, who I think is already a smug politician who tosses out vague buzzwords and useless quotes as much as the next major-program college football coach, is actually making the right move, even if for the wrong reasons.

Discover BCS National Championship - Head Coaches Press Conference Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Sure, he’s doing it to avoid backlash from being misconstrued, but publicly criticizing 18-to-22-year-olds should never have been an issue anyone had with him in the first place. It accomplishes nothing (assuming the man is providing these criticisms as teaching moments in private as well) and only serves to make the kids’ failures public and to besmirch their reputations, as we saw with Kizer, Mustipher, etc.

I would MUCH rather see Brian Kelly always give the coach-speak of “as a team we just weren’t good enough, and that falls on us first and foremost as the coaching staff.” It may not be a meaty quote for all the reporters to base an entire article on, but it’s sure as hell better than the public’s weird need to see a kid or two blamed for a loss when it clearly hinged on so much more than that.

So, honestly, I am going to LOVE seeing the guy making millions of dollars and who apparently has years and years of coaching experience (please keep mentioning it, Brian, it helps us feel better about going 4-8 in year 7) actually keep the heat and pressure on himself during the most pivotal season of his career, instead of passing the buck to his underlings (assuming he actually follows through on this).

Oh, and if the beat writers and other media are upset because they won’t have as much specific information coming directly from Kelly’s mouth, maybe it will be nice to see who of them actually knows something about football and can write about the team without the quotes Kelly gives after being asked questions that begin with “talk about…” or “how important was it…”

Finally, Jude ends his article by saying, “My concern is that, absent the coach’s expert eyes, media members and fans will try to analyze the team’s weaknesses and assign blame without complete information.”

Maybe, just maybe, the media members and fans need to stop feeling the need to assign blame to specific players completely, and realize that the Notre Dame football team’s mediocrity absolutely falls on the shoulders of the man being paid handsomely to run the show; the man who has 30 years of coaching experience; the man who demands accountability, publicly, from everyone else except himself (at least, until it’s convenient to admit he plays some part in all of this).

Brian, only for the sake of the football program I know and love do I hope you somehow change everything about where you have this program headed and find success at ND. I have no faith in you to do so, but I’m definitely tired of being let down by the Fighting Irish. So thank you for deciding not to give forthright criticisms of the players to the public, and good luck next year, as I believe you’re going to need it.