NOTRE DAME — Brian Kelly bounced back and forth Tuesday between defiant and deflated during his regularly scheduled weekly press conference that was anything but regular.
The Notre Dame head coach wanted to keep the proceedings centered on the Xs and Os surrounding his weekend game against rival USC, while media members couldn't have cared less about a 4-7 football coach explaining how this season finale out in Los Angeles is more of the beginning to better days than the end of a bad dream.
There was a 400-pound gorilla in the room that Kelly couldn't hide from, no matter how hard at first he tried.
In what might be best described as cruel and unusual punishment, the NCAA announced only a couple of hours before Kelly's media gathering that it had hit Notre Dame with a litany of penalties, including a vacating of the 21 victories from the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and a one-year probationary period that expires this time next year.
The timing of the NCAA announcement was as curious as the penalties were harsh, given these rulings stem from an academic dishonesty investigation that was launched more than two years ago.
"Excessive," was Kelly's one-word summation of the NCAA's decision to rip up and rewrite Notre Dame's history books as a penalty for the undetected actions of one part-time employee who irresponsibly helped a handful of football players cheat their way through classes.
"When you hear about vacating wins, you think of a lack of institutional control," said Kelly, pledging that Notre Dame has every intention of appealing these NCAA sanctions. "But this matter here has been a long-standing matter that the university has handled, handled in a positive way relative to how we handled it internally."
In a classic case of no good deed going unpunished, Notre Dame's own transparency and thoroughness during its investigation may be at the root of the NCAA penalties. In other words, had the university chose not to investigate or self-report, simply expelled the athletes involved for an undisclosed violation of team rules, then kept the incident under tight wrap, less vibrant penalties from the NCAA, if any, could've been expected.
Instead, every university administrator on the Notre Dame investigative team acted swiftly, correctly and publicly when they first learned of possible academic improprieties, immediately suspending the players from football activities but allowing each their due process.
No document was left unturned and no detail was left unshared with the NCAA during Notre Dame's investigation.
This was a student-on-student cheating event that understandably fell beyond the scope of a coach's surveillance and involved no cover-up nor a prior knowledge of any scandal from school officials, making these penalties even more puzzling. Several excerpts from the NCAA's 21-page investigation review substantiates that Notre Dame fully cooperated.
"We did the right thing," said Kelly, rightfully calling the punishment unprecedented.
And in response to its own internal investigative findings, Notre Dame went above and beyond with a futuristic prevention mission that included adding more academic support staff to provide another layer of assistance for its student-athletes that may be struggling academically.
"It's my job to support the student-athletes that I have here with the resources necessary on a day-to-day basis," Kelly explained. "We believe that we do that, and we do it in the best interests by providing those resources."
At most schools, the actual one-year probationary period would be considered a bigger deal than a symbolic vacating of football victories. Like Kelly said, "If doing the right thing means you've got to put an asterisk next to these games, that's fine with me."
But Notre Dame isn't most schools, and these 21 wins matter to the university from both a historical and a perceptual standpoint for this proud football program.
See, Notre Dame and Michigan have been in a grudge match for decades in the never-ending battle for the winningest football program in big-time college-football history.
Entering the 2016 season, Notre Dame's all-time .73215 winning percentage (892-313-42) was the best in Division I football, slightly ahead of second-place Michigan at .72987 (925-331-36).
Michigan (10-1) has since reclaimed the top spot on the winning percentage chart by the slimmest of margins. But when Notre Dame presumably loses its appeal and those 21 wins are taken off of the history books, the Irish would drop all the way to sixth on this percentage list and be hard pressed to ever regain the top spot again.
Overturning this confusing NCAA ruling in the months to come is about as unlikely for Notre Dame as it would be beating USC this weekend.
But both missions are still worth fighting for, no matter how long the odds, for the present and future of the Notre Dame program … and for Brian Kelly's place in it.
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer who covers University of Notre Dame sports.