The blue tongue of Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly
Just a pooch punt from the towering icon called “Touchdown Jesus” in athletic homage to Christ’s eternally upraised arms, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, with bulging carotid arteries and a limited vocabulary heavily skewed to four-letter words beginning in “f” and “s,” is the poster child for Catholic coaches gone wild.
And for hypocrisy at the highest levels of Catholic academia.
Anyone with a DVR, a cable subscription to ESPN and even a rudimentary level of ESP could have predicted what might happen when Notre Dame hired Kelly in December 2009 from the hinterlands of Cincinnati to resurrect a moribund football program whose last national championship was in 1988, before the dawn of the cell phone.
It wasn’t a question of if Kelly would implode. It was a question of when.
At $3 million a year, Kelly’s fiduciary responsibility at Notre Dame is to win games and justify Notre Dame’s $15 million a year deal with NBC, which somehow has found the university still marketable despite its miserable on-field fortunes over the last quarter-century.
But in a 23-20 loss to South Florida to open the 2011 season, Kelly served notice that his irrational sideline demeanor in Cincinnati, which often flew below the radar because of the limited audience, apparently is hard-wired into his personality.
In a series of sideline rants that would have made even George Carlin blush, Kelly spewed four-letter words at his quarterback who threw a red-zone interception. NBC’s cameras caught everything, as ABC used to say, “up close and personal.” No lip reading was necessary.
OK, so what’s the big deal? Aren’t these 18- to 22-year-old athletes big enough and tough enough to accept abusive language from a coach – foul-mouthed tirades they’ve probably heard since high school – and simply move on?
That’s not the fundamental question and totally misses the point, says Edmund Rice Christian Brother John Casey, a former secondary schools executive with the National Catholic Educational Association who now lives in New Orleans after having spent many years as principal of Rice High School in Central Harlem.
“We are an incarnational faith,” Brother John said. “How we act counts.”
A case in point. In his extensive research on how Catholic secondary schools live out their mission, Brother John discovered that coaches have enormous influence on teenagers – perhaps more than any other persons on the faculty. That’s because of the enormous blocks of time coaches have with students before, during and after practice.
“When they’re just sitting around, that’s when kids talk about their life and what’s going on,” Brother John said. “They rely on their coaches to give them some direction and some sense of where they should go, especially if you have someone who is successful and who you relate to.”
Whenever Brother John had to rein in a coach who had crossed the line with abusive language, he called him in immediately.
“You have to sit down with people and say, ‘We are trying to be authentic and transparent and be who we say we are. We’re a Catholic school, and we say we’re a faith community, and the experience of that language is inappropriate,’” Brother John said.
How would a coach react after having been called on the carpet?
“The good coach looks at the ground, shuffles his feet and says, ‘Yes, Brother, I understand,’” Brother John said. “They’re not stupid, but they get carried away, and they’ve lived in a society that permits an awful lot of that stuff.”
Why shouldn’t Kelly be given a pass because he’s dealing with young adults rather than teenagers?
“Look at Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints,” Brother John said. “Last year we had a faculty retreat, and we used Drew Brees as the model for the way in which he deals with people. He’s had a great deal of trouble in his life, and he doesn’t mouth off. I think colleges sometimes wrap themselves up in that mantle of, ‘Well, we’re in college and not in high school.’ No, good behavior has to be consistent all the way through, because if the pros can do it, then the high schools and colleges can do it, too.”
It’s too soon to see if Kelly has gotten the message. He issued a cryptic non-apology after the South Florida game, saying, “What I have to recognize is that I’m on TV all the time. (I need to) do a better job of understanding when that camera is on me. It seems like it’s on more than I’m used to. So I’ll have to do a better job of controlling my emotions.”
Not exactly, “mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” In other words, blame the red light, not my blue tongue.
“It’s terribly embarrassing (for Notre Dame), because part of it is integrity – are you what you say you are?” Brother John said. “He doesn’t have to tone it down. He has to change behavior, and that’s where somebody has to say it’s inappropriate. It’s not acceptable behind closed doors, either, because what you’re teaching your kids then is that you have two faces – your private life and your public life.”
A final embarrassing twist. Notre Dame’s Collaboration for Ethical Education offers a “sports as ministry” initiative for youth called “Play Like a Champion Today” (PLC). The fundamental idea is that coaching kids and teens is a “ministry.”
In the Spring 2011 newsletter, Dr. Clark Power, the program director, wrote a poignant column about getting a phone call from a mother whose son had dropped out of sports “after being belittled for an entire season by a coach, who continuously called into question his manhood.”
“Fortunately, this young man was doing well in therapy and regaining his sense of self-esteem and confidence,” Clark said. “Unfortunately, however, his peers were subjected to similar verbal onslaughts. Who knows how many more children this coach was continuing to hurt?”
At a PLC leadership conference, participants get Rudy-like visits to the Notre Dame locker room, dinner in the press box and even have guest speakers from the school.
As long as Kelly remains recalcitrant and unconvinced that he’s done anything wrong, he shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for an invitation to address the PLC. Anyway, we’ve seen him turn purple before.