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Haugh: Brian Kelly taints image and crushes credibility at same time

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leaves the field after a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game at Sun Life Stadium on Monday, January 7, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leaves the field after a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game at Sun Life Stadium on Monday, January 7, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

(MCT) — Memo to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: You lost.

Alabama made your team look like Division II Grand Valley State in comparison during the BCS championship game Monday night that wasn’t your finest hour or three of coaching. You panicked offensively after falling behind early, not that it would have stopped Alabama running backs from leaving cleat marks on Notre Dame defenders. Your fine young men were reduced to looking like boys.

Yet you still had a wonderful, return-to-relevance season at Notre Dame despite losing by 28. Why kill the buzz entirely less than 24 hours later?

The appropriate reaction to such a humbling loss for a coach obsessed with winning a national title entails devoting all his energy into playing in the same game next January when this experience will benefit Notre Dame.

The proper reflex for a coach in Kelly’s situation involves fixation, not flirtation.

The socially accepted response to getting pummeled by four touchdowns on national television doesn’t include a date with a potential new employer the morning after — especially days after calling Notre Dame your “dream job.”

Did failing to wake up the echoes in Miami make Kelly wake up with his mind on Philadelphia? What changed to make an interview with the Eagles so soon after a letdown worth the credibility risk?

Under the circumstances, you don’t say hello to an NFL team unless you could be swayed into saying goodbye to Notre Dame. You say thanks but no thanks, I love my job and belong in college. You say privately what you said publicly, unless it was all empty rhetoric.

Now Kelly’s words before the big game look sillier than anything Brent Musburger said during it. His timing stinks worse than his defense did. He lost the right to complain about any blue-chip recruit who decommits to Notre Dame, the way Manti Te’o’s heir apparent at linebacker, Alex Anzalone, reportedly did Thursday. He unnecessarily gave negative-recruiters more ammunition to suggest if it’s not the Eagles this year it will be the Lions next year. He put his interests ahead of Notre Dame’s — and for what?

He has a thriving program balancing football and academics arguably better than any in America. The only other guy who fits more naturally on campus wears a green suit to football games. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick already assured Kelly another contract extension and raise to his $3 million salary. He already easily is Notre Dame’s most adored coach since Lou Holtz, but apparently generational wealth and unconditional love isn’t enough.

Everybody understands a professional wanting to maximize earning potential. Nobody begrudges a coach’s ambition as long as he is forthright about it. But when the issue of NFL interest came up last weekend, Kelly danced better than the stars on ABC’s hit show. He parsed the language like the political operative he used to be. When Kelly said, “leaving was not an option,” he can insist it wasn’t because technically that was true that day.

But Kelly knew better. At least two NFL teams last week, including the Bears, asked intermediaries to gauge Kelly’s interest. One NFL assistant coach said he was aware Kelly recently reached out to an NFL head coach to see how pro jobs differ from college. Around the league, the word was out no matter what Kelly said at the podium.

At least Oregon coach Chip Kelly openly acknowledged NFL interest, considered his options quickly, and left little ambiguity for his employer or recruits. In doing so, Kelly avoided appearing as duplicitous as Notre Dame’s Kelly appears. If Brian Kelly would just own it the way Chip did, most people would understand and perhaps respect his dilemma.

The least-surprised people about Kelly’s Philly fling probably live in Cincinnati. On Dec. 5, 2009, after Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in the Big East championship game, former Bearcats receiver Mardy Gilyard was asked about Kelly’s rumored departure for Notre Dame.

“It’s like when your mom tells you the sky is blue, you know it’s blue without having to look outside,” Gilyard said. “With Coach Kelly telling us he’s not leaving, we know he’s not going anywhere.”

Five days later, the sky fell on the Cincinnati program. Notre Dame hired Kelly, whom the Chicago Tribune reported had met with Irish representatives days before the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game.

It was easier then to defend Kelly walking a semantics tightrope. The Notre Dame job represented the pinnacle for him (at the time) and he had taken Cincinnati as far as anybody reasonably could expect.

Kelly has yet to do that in South Bend. After three impressive years of building, Notre Dame remains a work in progress. Covertly interviewing with the Eagles only makes you question how committed Kelly is to finishing the job.

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