During one of several embarrassments in a 4-8 season full of them, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly defended his style by referring to himself in the third person.
"I'm being Brian Kelly, so if people have a problem with that, then they're not going to be friends or fans of Notre Dame football," Kelly said in mid-October. "I'm just going to be who I am."
Therein lies Notre Dame's biggest problem moving forward: Kelly being Kelly.
More than any other factor, Kelly's hubris stands in the way of Notre Dame restoring its football program to exemplary status from one damaged by academic scandal, an underachieving roster and a coach incapable of looking in the mirror. Everybody knows Notre Dame needs to hire a dynamic defensive coordinator and retool the offense, likely with a new quarterback. But self-improvement poses Kelly's greatest challenge.
In 2017, being Brian Kelly must mean treating players with more respect, accepting responsibility for everything that happens in his program _ not just the good stuff _ and feeling fortunate to still have his job. And in today's volatile college football climate, he truly is.
Kelly keeping that job has less to do with his deserving to stay for an eighth season than athletic director Jack Swarbrick's needing to save face for his own job security. The argument to dismiss Kelly is defensible: Notre Dame has won only half of its last 30 games, encountered trouble with the NCAA and endured off-the-field arrests unbecoming any program. But understanding the idiosyncrasies of a place as immersed in internal politics as Notre Dame means realizing how remote the possibility of Kelly getting fired ever was.
Remember, only 10 months ago Swarbrick effusively praised Kelly after extending his contract through the 2021 season. Kelly makes $4 million per season, but keeping him to save the university's money seems less a concern than preserving Swarbrick's reputation.
In reality, Kelly's signature on a new deal Jan. 29 all but guaranteed Swarbrick would not be firing him later in the calendar year. Even if Kelly's long-term future has been discussed among several high-ranking officials and board of trustees members concerned about his sideline conduct, as two sources said. Indeed, some board members have made their disgust known, but a coaching coup after Swarbrick's recent vote of confidence and Kelly's 3 a.m. statement Sunday denying interest in other jobs would reveal a dysfunctional operation.
To compel Kelly to change, Notre Dame needs to make his return conditional in terms of victories (nine or more) and behavior (stop embarrassing the university). Demand more professionalism. Use the words "or else."
The height of Kelly's absurdity came last week after the NCAA forced Notre Dame to vacate 21 victories from the 2012 and '13 seasons after an investigation showed a student trainer did schoolwork for several players. Asked about his culpability, Kelly demonstrated the mixture of arrogance and defiance that rubs even people on his own campus the wrong way.
"Zero. None," Kelly answered.
Sorry, but a college coach cannot invoke academic integrity when touting his program's graduation rate and then absolve himself when cheating occurs under his nose. Not without exposing himself as a hypocrite.
Even if the NCAA went overboard punishing Notre Dame _ a plausible position _ Kelly could have sounded less defensive by reminding everybody what his bosses vowed the day the investigation began. In a statement Aug. 15, 2014, that quoted Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, the university said, "If (the investigation) determines that the student-athletes would have been ineligible during past competition, Notre Dame will voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated."
That's exactly what happened _ but Notre Dame will appeal anyway.
Notre Dame's failures on the field have no such appellate process. The Big Ten having four Midwestern, cold-weather teams in the top 10 dispels the myth that Notre Dame can't compete for a national title in a sport ruled by the speed-driven Southeastern Conference.
The Irish had one of America's best quarterbacks in DeShone Kizer and still lost to Navy, North Carolina State and Duke. Talent never should be a problem for Notre Dame, yet every Saturday you see mismatches galore. Their fourth-quarter collapses were due to either poor coaching or poor conditioning, probably a combination.
After seven seasons, identifying the trademark of a Kelly-coached team remains elusive. Something happens at Notre Dame between recruiting highly rated classes and developing those players. Now everything must be examined, particularly whether Kelly's in-your-face approach prevents Notre Dame players from reaching their potential.
In his newly found free time, Kelly needs to ask tough questions and recruit some humility before chasing the next blue-chipper. Did publicly calling center Sam Mustipher "atrocious" make him snap better? Does sounding so unwilling to be blamed for anything create a culture of finger pointers? Is there a connection between Kelly routinely losing his composure during games and Notre Dame players lacking discipline?
In the final, disgraceful 45-27 defeat to USC on Saturday, for example, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery kicked a Trojans running back in the head. Inexcusably, Tillery also stomped on the foot of a USC offensive lineman, for which he was flagged.
"Accountability is built within any program," Kelly said.
Brian Kelly can start by holding Brian Kelly more accountable.