Greg Bryant’s Suspension and Notre Dame’s Identity

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Running back Greg Bryant is nixed for Notre Dame’s 2015 season, Irish Illustrated first reported Tuesday. Bryant’s academic ineligibility is the latest in a string of high-profile classroom issues for the Fighting Irish, further demonstrating the tenuous relationship that exists between big-time football and top-level academics.

Notre Dame is regarded as one of the premier academic universities in the country. It also has a longstanding tradition as one of college football’s most high-profile programs. Head coach Brian Kelly is caught between the two sides, overseeing a team that’s expected to contend with the pinnacle of the sport while seeing to it that players like Greg Bryant meet the university’s standards.

Kelly has some leeway, and he admitted as much to ND Insider in June, sparking a minor controversy:

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at risk. All of them, really. Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now, with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.”

Greg Bryant’s suspension comes two years removed from Everett Golson’s dismissal from the university for academic fraud (Golson returned after a stint in community college), and one year after defensive end Ishaq Williams, defensive back KeiVarae Russell, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and linebacker Kendall Moore and safety Eilar Hardy were all suspended for “academic dishonesty.”

The Irish’s bevy of classroom problems lends credence to Kelly’s candid assessment of the balance Notre Dame is trying to strike between football and academics, and how as their coach, he has an obligation help players navigate the challenges.

How difficult is competing at the top tier while meeting the academic standards of one of America’s top institutions?

“I don’t know enough [about Notre Dame’s situation] to speak on it,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said at last week’s Pac-12 media days breakout session. “Our process speaks for itself…Our football players, our athletes, go through the same admission process as everyone who goes through our school.”

Not only does Stanford’s process speak for itself, but so does the Cardinal’s record in the last half-decade. Stanford has been a regular in the Top 10 in that time, appearing in two Rose Bowls, an Orange Bowl and a Fiesta Bowl.

Shaw said in the past that Stanford’s academics help he and his staff cast a national net on the recruiting trail, as the promise of a Stanford education is a recruiting pitch few programs can offer.

Notre Dame recruits nationally, as well. Greg Bryant, for example, came to South Bend from Florida, one of a remarkable 22 states represented on the Irish’s roster. Notre Dame has the added allure of its tradition and mystique, something cultivated over winning 11 consensus national championships and seven Heisman Trophies.

Stanford’s an elite level football program now, and has had its moments historically — from the 1940 Wow Boys to playing in the Rose Bowl behind Heisman winner Jim Plunkett in the early ’70s — but Cardinal football has gone through ups and downs that the Notre Dame fan and booster base would simply not stand for.

Look at how fast the school parted ways with coach Tyrone Willingham last decade at the first sign of struggle. Willingham flourished in his time at Stanford, but never replicated that success at Notre Dame.

Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason is enduring similar hardship at Vanderbilt, another school celebrated for its academics but trying to win in the football-mad SEC.

Willingham and Mason struggling away from The Farm at other prestigious academic institutions suggests their isn’t a formula for striking the balance between high-quality football and elite-level academics.