David Haugh's In the Wake of the News
10:27 PM CST, January 12, 2013
One of the texts Friday came from a Notre Dame colleague of coach Brian Kelly.
"What the (heck) is he thinking? Thought he knew this place better,'' it read.
Another message from a longtime athletic administrator with experience hiring and firing BCS-level coaches summed up the sentiments many felt about Kelly's flirtation with the Eagles three days after calling Notre Dame his dream job and saying that leaving "wasn't an option.''
"He fumbled this one badly,'' the administrator wrote of Kelly. "Being disingenuous at Notre Dame doesn't work.''
Indeed, disingenuous was a word that came up often the past week describing Kelly and his contradictions. I also heard longtime Notre Dame employees use other words that would draw them 10 Hail Marys in a confessional. Kelly ended the suspense Saturday night by making the smart decision to stay at Notre Dame — but he might return to a very different campus atmosphere.
There is reputation damage to control and trust to repair, and not just on the recruiting trail. More than just fans and media feel confused about why Kelly would consider leaving at all, let alone handle it as clumsily as he did. Kelly alienated much of the fan base he aroused with a 12-1 season. To many good people on and off Kelly's campus, this felt less like a man trying to get ahead professionally and more like a personal betrayal. Nobody associated with Notre Dame appreciates one of their own wondering if somewhere else might be better, especially when it comes to football.
Say what you will about Notre Dame football but it remains a destination job offering all the power, money and impact any coach could want. No, it isn't the NFL. It's safer, and coaches can have more direct impact on the outcome of games and lives. Notre Dame hired Kelly because of his past as a winner but also because school officials believed he valued everything they did, because he considered working there the pinnacle of his profession. Now they know better. Now they know, as Kelly admitted in a statement, "like every kid who has ever put on a pair of football cleats, I have had thoughts about being a part of the NFL.''
Not exactly like Lou Holtz saying he wants to be buried on campus on a hillside overlooking Our Lady on the Golden Dome.
Ambitious coaches can explore career options without alienating so many people who support them. Ask Oregon's Chip Kelly how. Just be forthright. Abandon ambiguity. Don't be hard to find. In situations like Kelly just created, silence is deadly to credibility. The longer Kelly danced with the Eagles the more questions he created about his character.
If Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was as confident as he sounded in a prepared statement that Kelly was staying all along, why not say so earlier before the image of his coach — and thus his football program — was harmed? The truth is Kelly left many people at Notre Dame and beyond waiting and wondering like the rest of us. He had every right to do so. Just as we now have every right to doubt everything Kelly says from this day forward no matter how sincere he sounds.
"This decision was motivated purely by my love for Notre Dame and the entire Fighting Irish community, the young men I have the great fortune to coach, and my desire to continue to build the best football program in the country,'' Kelly said in a statement.
The good news Notre Dame football fans: The coach who turned your program around well enough to play for a national title for the first time in 24 years will be back on the sidelines in 2013.
The bad news: The Lions might fire their coach after next season and many of those thoughts Kelly acknowledged having about the NFL probably popped into his head when he was coaching in the state of Michigan.
At least everybody should be prepared next time.
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