Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly threatens to opt out of CFP if players’ families aren’t allowed into the stadium

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly suggested his team may not accept an invitation to play in the College Football Playoff if players’ families are not allowed to attend the games.

Kelly, whose team is second in the College Football Playoff rankings and faces third-ranked Clemson in the ACC title game in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, was concerned about the possibility Notre Dame could have to play a semifinal game on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl, one of the two semifinal sites, which will not allow fans inside the stadium because of COVID-19 restrictions. The Sugar Bowl, the other CFP semifinal, will allow a limited number of fans for the game in New Orleans.

“I’m not sure we’ll play in the playoffs if parents can’t be there, to be honest with you,” Kelly said Friday during a teleconference. “Why would we play if you can’t have the families at the game? A bowl game? Yeah, we would opt out.

“If you can’t have family at bowl games, I mean, why would you go to a game where your family can’t be part of it? What is the sense of playing a game in an area of the country where nobody could be part of it?”

Kelly said it’s “not the bowl game’s fault” government officials decided not to allow fans inside the Rose Bowl, but said they could always play the game at another site, if necessary.

“Why can’t it be the Rose Bowl in Las Vegas or why can’t it be the Rose Bowl in another town?” he said. “I get it. But where is the flexibility for the student-athlete is all I’m saying. Let’s be flexible. The one thing these kids have been is incredibly flexible. And then on the other side we can’t be flexible?

“It’s hard to imagine. We’ll deal with it if we’re fortunate enough to be one of the four teams. It’s going to be a topic is all I’m saying. Our guys may come out of it and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re not going to wear a Rose Bowl patch.’ I don’t know. All I know is that it is a No. 1 topic for our guys if and when we are selected.”

Kelly said he would discuss the situation with his players if Notre Dame is awarded a semifinal place. The Irish will be in with a win over Clemson and most likely even with a loss since they beat the Tigers in a regular season game in South Bend, Ind.

Was Kelly at all concerned that the CFP selection committee would see his statement and select another team that would be willing to play in any environment for a chance at the national championship?

“If we’re one of the teams, then I’ll talk to my group and they’ll come out with a statement,” he said. “It wont be Brian Kelly’s statement. It will be Notre Dame and our players, and they’ll make a statement regarding us. I don’t know what they’re going to say.

“They may say, ‘Oh we’re glad to be in and this is much ado about nothing.’ Or they might say, ‘We don’t want to play if we don’t get the parents in the games.’ So I really can’t answer your question until we find out what’s going to happen in the selection, whether we’re in or not…

“But if they decide to keep us out because Coach is running his big trap about what he thinks, I probably should get in line with all the other coaches who have run their mouths when they shouldn’t be.”

As for swapping playoffs sites and perhaps giving the Rose Bowl a playoff spot next year when the COVID-19 situation is more under control, Kelly seemed to understand that’s not a likelihood because of the Rose Bowl’s grand tradition.

“Tradition? We’re worshiping the ashes of tradition? That can be the only reason,” he said. “Look, nobody is going to trade out this year for next year. Next year is going to be a revenue-producing year, so nobody wants to come in and say, ‘Alright, we’ll take it.’ ”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agreed with Kelly that “plenty of venues” could host a playoff game with families inside the stadium.

“I don’t think there’s any question there’s plenty of venues that, if for whatever reason (the Rose Bowl) doesn’t work, punt, push it to next year where you can have that opportunity,” Swinney said during a teleconference. “You try to have fairness for playoff teams. There’s plenty of venues where you can have fans and an atmosphere for these kids who’ve worked all year. We’ve played in front of fans all year and have had an incredible experience…

“There are certainly stadiums where you can have fans. You certainly can have families, I think it would be really sad at this point to be in a playoff game and these players’ families couldn’t be there. It would be a poor decision in a year where everybody has had to have flexibility and make adjustments along the way. I think that would be a mistake.”

Swinney said he has not spoken to his players about the possibility of playing in an empty stadium, adding he just “hopes we have the opportunity” to be selected.

“It makes no sense to me to put a bunch of kids on a plane and fly them all the way to California to play in an empty stadium” Swinney said. “That makes zero sense when you have plenty of stadiums right here where you can have fans. ... It should be the same for all four teams.”

Kelly said he understands “we’re in a pandemic and there are restrictions and things like that” that have been instituted for health and safety reasons.

“But we’ve got to think about the student-athletes in this situation and not having a chance to share this with their families after being away and sacrificing so much, you could see why they wouldn’t (want to play in an empty stadium),” he said.

Kelly’s talk of a potential boycott was precipitated by a question on whether Notre Dame and Clemson both merit a spot in the CFP no matter the outcome of Saturday’s rematch. Kelly laughed at the question.

“Whatever I say really has no merit on what those people are going to do in their room,” he said, referring to the selection committee. “And I respect the question, I really do. But whatever I say is going to be a sound bite that’s going to come out 18 different ways.

“Here’s what I’m going to say, OK? They’ve got to figure out that whatever sites they play at that the parents are going to be watching their sons play. That’s what they’ve got to figure out. So maybe they’ve got to spend a little less time on who the top four teams are and figure out how to get parents into these games, because it is an absolute shame and a sham if parents can’t be watching their kids play…

“You’re going to tell me we’re going to have a playoff, and maybe one site can have families and the other site can’t? Please. Somebody has got to wake up in that room and figure this out or you just might as well call this the professional league, because nothing speaks to ‘this is just about having a playoff and we don’t care about the student athletes.’

“I know I went off on a tangent, but I’m so sick and tired of this playoff committee talking about having sites where you can’t have parents and their families. It’s ridiculous.”