Earlier this week, my boss Jason McIntyre wrote a piece saying that, with Brian Kelly reportedly putting feelers outside Notre Dame, several NFL spots with openings were plausible and that the Bengals make sense. McIntyre noted that Kelly succeeded in Cincinnati at the collegiate level and led Notre Dame to a national title game, and propagated the belief that he could return the Bengals’ offense to top-10 levels.
My personal opinion is that Kelly has done nothing in college to distinguish himself as capable of succeeding in the NFL from a competence perspective. Beyond that, his gloomy disposition and propensity to deflect accountability when things aren’t going well make it so if I were in charge I wouldn’t give him a college job of any stature either. Here’s why:
1) Notre Dame has underperformed for four years in a row.
Everybody always says that Notre Dame is handicapped with who they can bring in because of their academic standards and whatnot. While it’s true that Notre Dame can’t expect to compete with the Alabama’s and Texas’s of the world, it’s not like they’re the dog under the table praying for table scraps.
Here is their Rivals recruiting rankings — which are statistically significant predictors of football success — as well as where Notre Dame started and finished in the AP Polls (via College Poll Archive) under Brian Kelly:
Yes, the Irish made it to the national championship game in 2012, but they got shellacked by Alabama in it, and their last four years have not performed in accordance with the talent of their players or preseason expectations. The team has failed to cover the spread more often than not. How is that not attributable to bad coaching?
Why should anyone expect Kelly to guide the Bengals offense into the top 10 when Notre Dame’s turnover issues on offense have persisted through multiple quarterbacks? Notre Dame’s turnover margin per game has been negative each of the past three seasons.
This year, the team totally fell apart, when those in that third-ranked recruiting class who have not gone pro were seniors (or redshirt juniors). They lost to Duke, at home. In games not versus Notre Dame, Duke went 3-8 this year. Against NC State in October, supposed offensive guru Brian Kelly had DeShone Kizer throwing 26 times in a hurricane. Kizer completed nine passes for 54 yards.
2) Brian Kelly blamed everyone but himself.
When have you ever heard Brian Kelly say a variation of “My bad”? This past October, SB Nation assembled an extensive history of Kelly blaming others.
There were occasions of blaming upperclassman players recruited by Charlie Weis for defeats in his early years, Everett Golson for interceptions, a social media manager for liking a tweet advocating the firing of the defensive coordinator, and his assistant for getting shoved by him on the sidelines:
“I had to control the sideline,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen. He got a little too close and I backed him up out of the way to make sure we didn’t get a 15-yard penalty.”
3) Sports are supposed to be fun. Rooting for a guy like Kelly ruins it.
Kelly is always yelling at people on the sidelines. There’s the aforementioned unrelenting public blaming of those beneath him. There have been multiple academic scandals, ranging from the 2012 and 2013 incidents that came to light last month and caused Notre Dame to have to vacate wins (none of this was Brian Kelly’s fault, says Brian Kelly), to Everett Golson’s expulsion for cheating.
Much more significantly, the specter of tragedy that hangs over his tenure at Notre Dame. While much time has passed since these incidents, Kelly’s handling of them would not make me want to employ him.
In 2010, the first season Brian Kelly was at Notre Dame, two premature deaths hung over the football program. The first was Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old student at a nearby college who committed suicide nine days after telling Notre Dame police that she was sexually assaulted by a member of their football team, and the second was Declan Sullivan, a team gopher who fell off a 40-foot aerial lift when his responsibility was to record football practice from above in 50+ MPH wind.
In November 2010, the Chicago Tribune wrote about Seeberg:
More than two months later, Notre Dame refuses to publicly acknowledge the case, and what actions university officials have taken to investigate her allegation remain largely unknown. Campus authorities did not tell the St. Joseph County Police Department investigating Seeberg’s death about her report of a sexual attack, county officials said. Nor did they refer the case to the county’s special victims unit, which was established to handle sex offenses, according to prosecutors.
Per Deadspin, “Brian Kelly made a joke in a conference call with reporters about the Tribune‘s ability to afford having dedicated so many resources to the story.” Seeberg’s father in 2014 accused the university of conducting a “superficial investigation.” Notre Dame settled an investigation from the Department of Education in 2012.
The player who was accused, Prince Shembo, denied the allegations, and his attorney denied that the school’s investigation was a sham. Shembo said that he didn’t talk publicly about the alleged incident for four years because Brian Kelly ordered his silence. In 2015, as a member of the Falcons, Shembo was arrested for beating his girlfriend’s small dog to death. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor.
While Kelly could plausibly shield himself with institutional ineptitude in the Seeberg case — he’s not a law enforcement officer, and this of course does not make it right but Notre Dame is hardly alone as a power football program that has mishandled sexual assault allegations — he directly presided over the decision to hold football practice in elements that led to Declan Sullivan’s death. And does Brian Kelly strike you as a macro-manager?
In a remarkable testament to their faith, Sullivan’s family, as described by the New York Times, has resisted directing individual blame and fought off the urge to be angry. While they’re more than aware this tragedy was preventable, they kept cheering for Notre Dame.
The academic scandals, the relentless deflection of blame, and the two tragedies that took place while Brian Kelly presided over the Notre Dame football program should be enough to keep decision-makers from wanting to employ him. When you couple in the fact that we’re on the horizon of a full graduating class now leaving with underwhelming results, any suggestion that he’s qualified for a job at a higher level feels absurd.