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Looser academic, disciplinary criteria show Irish ready to play ball

Irish coach Brian Kelly says ‘‘championship-caliber football team’’ is whhe’s after. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

Irish coach Brian Kelly says a ‘‘championship-caliber football team’’ is what he’s after. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

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Updated: September 8, 2011 12:34AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For better or worse, Notre Dame has decided to play college football.

It means the school is recruiting and signing some players whose academic credentials wouldn’t have allowed them to step foot on campus in the past.

In at least one case, it means the Irish are being more lenient about disciplinary matters.

It ultimately means they have a chance to do what they haven’t done in a long time: win consistently, compete regularly for a BCS bowl and, perhaps, sniff a national championship every so often.

Did they sell their souls? No, they decided to play the game. Is Notre Dame reduced a bit as an institution of higher learning? It is if you hold to the idea the school is supposed to be above this sort of thing.

But if you think the Irish have been living in a fog of nostalgia for years, you ask: What took them so long? The good fathers at Notre Dame finally have come to their senses. They’ve decided to play ball.

Accepting football players with lower test scores doesn’t make Notre Dame any less of an academic institution; it makes Notre Dame like a lot of other good schools that want to have good football programs. The Irish finally have realized the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Notre Dame hasn’t turned into Oklahoma or Alabama.

‘‘I’ve never had a policy conversation where the president, myself, admissions, we all sat down and said: ‘Coach, we’re going to open up the vault for you. Whatever you need, you got,’ ’’ coach Brian Kelly said Friday. ‘‘What they’ve said is: ‘Here is who we are at Notre Dame. Here [are] our expectations of you, relative to the young men you bring into this university. One, they better graduate. Two, they better represent us in a positive way.’

‘‘And other than that conversation, that’s how we’ve gone about recruiting to the University of Notre Dame.’’

Floyd a good example

The Irish might not be Oklahoma, but they aren’t Northwestern, either. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald might have national-title aspirations, but he won’t realize them with the school’s strict recruiting limitations. And there’s nothing wrong with being a winning program from year to year with an outside chance of getting a BCS bowl bid once in a while.

But that’s not acceptable at Notre Dame, where people expect a great football team, even if the results of the last 20 years repeatedly have smacked them in the back of the head and said, ‘‘Wake up! It’s no longer 1988!’’

This is what the Irish had to do if they wanted to be what they used to be. The monopoly Notre Dame had on elite players went away a long time ago. Every big-time program has games on national TV now. A lot of programs offer excellent opportunities to move on to the NFL.

Notre Dame finally is playing the game.

In a way, this is a logical offshoot of a decision the school made in 2004, when it fired coach Tyrone Willingham three years into a five-year contract. It always had given coaches five years to distinguish themselves. When the Irish canned Willingham, they took the first tentative steps in the direction of being the football school they pretended not to be.

No one at Notre Dame openly is saying there has been a shift in philosophy at the school, but words aren’t necessary. Last week, Kelly reinstated star wide receiver Michael Floyd. Floyd already had avoided a school suspension after an arrest March 20 for a DUI. It’s safe to say punishment from the school would have been swift and severe in past years. It’s safe to say that, at a minimum, Floyd would have missed games if this had happened in, say, 2000.

Things change, even in South Bend.

Looking to move on

It hasn’t been a good 12 months for Notre Dame. The school didn’t comport itself well in the case of the student who died when high winds blew over the video tower he was filming from during football practice last season, nor in the case of the young woman who committed suicide after telling university police a football player had touched her inappropriately.

Notre Dame, of course, would like to move on.

The Irish are ranked 18th in USA Today’s preseason coaches poll, and all that means is that there is work to be done as Kelly begins his second year leading the program. He knows where he wants to go.

‘‘I want to be in [Oklahoma coach] Bob Stoops’ position today, where he’s talking about being No. 1,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘That’s why we’re here. We want to get to the point where we’re part of the conversation as a championship-caliber football team. We’re not there yet.’’

Time will tell whether Notre Dame will become as loose as it was during the Lou Holtz era, during which the Irish, not coincidentally, last won a national title (1988).

You need great players to win. Great players aren’t always great students. The Irish finally have come to grips with that.

Notre Dame still isn’t like everybody else. But it has taken a few more steps in the direction of everybody else.

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