Notre Dame Football ‘Probation’ Is Just A Rap On The Knuckles

The key words themselves are quite jarring.

“Notre Dame” and “probation” in the same sentence? What in the name of Knute Rockne is going on in South Bend? 

Upon closer inspection, however, it’s clear that Brian Kelly’s highly ranked football program should be able to withstand this NCAA knuckle-rapping with little lasting fallout. 

Even its relationship with former All-America cornerback and former assistant coach Todd Lyght, named in reports as the primary overstepper in the recruitment of current University of Washington linebacker Sav’ell Smalls, should emerge unscathed. 

This isn’t a story about McDonald’s
bags filled with cash meant for recruits. That’s the sort of Happy Meal giving indigestion to school officials at the University of Tennessee, where football on Rocky Top continues its downward spiral. 

Instead, Thursday’s news was more about the procedural side of the NCAA’s voluminous and arcane rulebook: 

  • Ten ill-timed text messages to a recruit Lyght had pegged for the wrong recruiting class.
  • An impermissible off-campus meeting Lyght had with Smalls at Seattle’s Garfield High School in January 2019.
  • A verboten selfie Kelly took with a recruit during a visit to a high school cafeteria in Pickerington, Ohio in October 2019. That’s where four-star wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr., a 2021 Notre Dame signee, played his high school ball. 

None of this is meant to diminish Notre Dame’s mistakes. Kelly and his coaches should know better. Further missteps during the one-year probation could trigger additional penalties. 

However, on the four-level spectrum devised by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, these are Level II and Level III violations. Penalties include one less official visit, 14 fewer days for unofficial visits and a seven-day off-campus recruiting ban for the coaching staff. 

Oh,  and Notre Dame also must pay a $5,000 fine. For a football program with an estimated $112 million in annual revenue, including $21 million in TV rights fees alone, that figure is laughable. 

“Any violation of NCAA rules is unacceptable and Notre Dame Athletics takes full responsibility for its actions in this regard,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a statement. “While we made clear to the NCAA our view that the agreed-upon penalties exceeded the nature of the infractions, we accept the final outcome of the case.” 

Lyght, Swarbrick also pointed out, is no longer employed at Notre Dame, having resigned days after coaching in the Camping World Bowl at the end of the 2019 season. The NCAA gave Lyght a six-month show-cause penalty through July 20.  

At the time of Lyght’s departure after five seasons on his staff, Kelly publicly wished him well: “I’d like to thank Todd for his years of service to his alma mater. He has been a valuable part of our staff and his impact as both a player and coach here at Notre Dame will be lasting. … I’m grateful for everything Todd contributed.” 

This week’s PR ding aside, that tribute remains just as applicable.

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