SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For decades, Notre Dame has tried to balance its standing as one of the country’s most prestigious universities with fielding a football team that could compete on a national level.
In the last year, those two dynamics have never been more at odds, with numerous academic suspensions rocking the school's athletic department.
But none may have as deep an impact as what happened Friday, when the school said it is investigating four football players among several students who may have been involved with academic fraud — a revelation that stunned the college football world and Notre Dame fans and alumni alike.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick confirmed the identities of the four players involved in the investigation: receiver DaVaris Daniels of Vernon Hills, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive lineman Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore. The school said there is no timetable to complete its investigation.
Fox Sports reported the players would be suspended for their involvement; however, Notre Dame said the players are not suspended because the investigation is ongoing. They will be held out of practice but remain enrolled in the school.
They face a wide array of punishments, with suspension or outright dismissal among the most severe. Daniels, Russell and Williams are expected to be starters on this year's team.
“No one has been dismissed from the university and no sanctions have been imposed and no judgment has been made yet,” said the Rev. John Jenkins, the school's president. “Integrity is at the heart of our mission as a university. Academic dishonesty strikes at that heart. As we investigate, we will redouble our efforts to reinforce the importance of honesty in all we do.”
Lately Notre Dame has had to do more reinforcing than it might prefer, with this investigation the latest incident in a string of academic transgressions involving high-profile athletes.
In May 2013, quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for the season after he was caught cheating on an exam. He was allowed to return to Notre Dame for the spring 2014 semester and is back as the starter entering his senior season.
Guard Jerian Grant of Notre Dame's basketball team missed the Irish's final 20 games last season after he was suspended for the spring semester for an academic violation. And Daniels was banished for the spring semester for a previous academic transgression.
In this latest case, there was evidence to suggest the students under investigation submitted homework and papers that were not their own. The evidence came to the attention of Notre Dame’s compliance office July 29, and the school began its investigation not long after.
Jenkins said Notre Dame notified the NCAA of its investigation, and Swarbrick said the school will follow information “wherever it leads us.”
Swarbrick and Jenkins reaffirmed their confidence in coach Brian Kelly, who they said has been cooperative during the process. They said there was no evidence to suggest anyone on Kelly’s coaching staff was involved.
“Like all of us, (Kelly) was devastated when he got the report,” Swarbrick said. “But he was also quick to want to understand the process, how he and his staff could be of assistance in the process and how it would work, so that was quickly the focus of the discussion.”
Jenkins said if the investigation determines the players were ineligible during previous years of competition, the school would vacate the victories. That puts the Irish's 2012 season in jeopardy of banishment from the school's record books because all four players in the probe participated that season.
Notre Dame went 12-1 that year and reached the BCS national championship game, in which it lost to Alabama, for the program’s most successful season since it won the 1988 national championship.
Swarbrick and Jenkins offered few details about the investigation. They did not say whether former players were involved or if they had been contacted. Jenkins stressed that “thoroughness” would be the guiding principle.
“At any university, you’re dealing with young people,” Jenkins said. “The vast majority of them make good decisions, but young people sometimes make bad decisions. Our job is to hold them accountable and to use those incidents as a way to educate them, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Just how far Notre Dame should bend its stringent admission standards to recruit top-tier athletes has been a constant topic for debate within the school and among fans for a long time — and one that is likely to resurface given the recent developments.
Jenkins said he viewed the transgressions as evidence Notre Dame's system of academic procedures works and did not indicate the school might look to alter its admission standards for athletes.
“We’re confident that the students we admit have the capacity to be successful here,” Jenkins said. “I am confident in our admissions office to make those decisions. We’ll continue to make those decisions, and again, this is not a student-athlete issue. Students sometimes make bad decisions.”