If the mind-jumbling revelations of December kept Manti Te’o from playing his best in his final college game, head coach Brian Kelly didn’t see any hints of a less-than-focused linebacker before kickoff.
Irish coach Brian Kelly didn't seem anythign amiss with his superstar linebacker will preparing for Alabama.
Kelly found out in the early morning hours of Dec. 26 that Te’o’s attention was at the very least divided between football and the unraveling details of his fictitious dead girlfriend. The coach was one of only a few people at Notre Dame who knew about the hoax. He said he didn’t see a difference in the way the team captain practiced and prepared for the BCS Championship game on Jan. 7.
“I didn’t sense it, really,” Kelly said Tuesday in his first interview since the night of that game. “He went through a tough time during the year, and we didn't really see anything there that would have set off an alarm that he was under so much pressure concerning the situation. I just didn't see it as we practiced and leading into the game.”
It was impossible not to see when the game began. During Te’o’s award-collecting tour in December ESPN reported the All-American missed only two tackles in the 2012 regular season. He topped that during the first half against the Crimson Tide. The typically stout Irish defense and the rock at its center did not look themselves in Miami while giving up 42 points in a blowout loss.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Kelly said. “He didn't play his best. Alabama had something to do with that, clearly. But I really don't know. There's a lot to weigh on the shoulders of somebody. I think we could make a leap that maybe it did [affect his play]. But I think that Manti would know for sure.”
In his first interview after the news broke, Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap that the distraction of the hoax wasn't the reason for his sub-par performance.
Kelly said keeping the made-for-tabloids tale under wraps in the two weeks before playing Alabama was low on his priority list. He was more focused on understanding the details of the bizarre plot than on how and when to share them with the rest of the world.
Members of Notre Dame’s administration went about sorting through Te’o’s story while Kelly and his staff worked on a game plan for the Crimson Tide. He said the timeline of events previously reported — a Dec. 6 phone call, the Dec. 26 conversation with Te’o and an investigation during the first week of January —square with what he knew and when he knew it.
“My first concern was to find out what was going on,” Kelly said. “Let's find out what the heck is going on here. Because you get a phone call in the middle of the night, and the first thing is this young lady is not, in fact, dead. You don't know what to think.”
Time has added more clarity. And in time, Kelly believes, this story will only be a footnote on the legacy that Te’o leaves behind at Notre Dame.
“I think Manti will be remembered as a great leader on our football team — on an undefeated team at Notre Dame,” he said. “He’ll be, in my eyes, one of the very great teammates that I've ever had in 22 years of coaching. He was just special to coach.”