SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o didn’t show any signs of being affected by the girlfriend hoax leading up to the BCS title game, but his play indicates it might have taken a toll, coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday.
“Hindsight is 20-20. I didn’t think going into the game he was affected by it. But he didn’t play his best. Alabama had something to do with that, clearly. But I really don’t know,” Kelly said.
“It’s a lot to weigh on the shoulders of somebody. I think we can make the leap that maybe it did. But I think Manti would know for sure.”
Te’o said in an interview with ESPN after the news of the hoax broke that it did not affect his performance in the title game blowout.
Kelly spoke to reporters Tuesday by conference call for the first time since the Irish were beaten 42-14 by Alabama in the BCS title game on Jan. 7. He said his interview the Philadelphia Eagles was mainly to get more information about coaching in the NFL, and his heart remains in college football. He also is working on a contract extension with Notre Dame.
Kelly said so far everything that has come out about the girlfriend hoax matches up with what Te’o told him when he called him Dec. 26. Kelly contacted athletic director Jack Swarbrick immediately after Te’o told him what happened.
“Obviously, we all heard the story. It just sounded so crazy that the first thing I wanted to make sure we did was get the right people on top of this immediately,” he said. “That was my first thought, to find out ‘What the heck is going on here.’ ”
Te’o had described the girlfriend, who supposedly died of leukemia last fall, the love of his life. But Te’o got a call from the person posing as the girlfriend Dec. 6, to say she hadn’t died. He continued to talk about her when questioned at the Heisman Trophy ceremony Dec. 8. He told Kelly about the situation 18 days later.
Te’o told ESPN on Jan. 18 that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old acquaintance who lives in California, contacted him Jan. 16 and confessed to the prank.
Kelly said he wasn’t sure what to think initially. Despite all that’s happened, Kelly said he still will remember Te’o as one of the best teammates and leaders he’s been around in 22 years of coaching.
“He showed the way of how to be a great teammate. His work ethic, his commitment, all of those things,” he said. “He was special to coach and he did all the things that I think great players have to do on a day-to-day basis.”
Kelly described his interview with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was more “intrigue than it was interest,” saying the Eagles contacted Swarbrick within a day of Andy Reid being fired Dec. 31.
“My head said: ‘Let’s be more informed as it relates to the NFL.’ But my heart is in college football and with Notre Dame,” Kelly said.
He said he wanted to learn about the day-to-day operation of NFL teams to see if it was something that might interest him.
“I wanted to answer those because we’re going to win again next year and there’s probably going to be teams interested in me coaching in the NFL and I want to be able to tell them definitively that I want to coach college,” he said.
Kelly, who agreed he wouldn’t talk to the Eagles until after the title game, said it wasn’t a problem keeping the interview from being a distraction.
“Because I wasn’t even certain I was going to interview,” he said. “It really wasn’t even on my radar.”
Kelly said he’s been telling recruits that he was flattered by the attention from the NFL, but that he’s committed to Notre Dame.
Kelly also said he feels good about negotiations under way with Swarbrick about a contract extension, saying negotiations began on Dec. 6.
“We both want the same thing, the long-term consistency of the program,” Kelly said.
Kelly originally signed a five-year contract three years ago at a reported $2.5 million a year and was given a two-year extension a year ago.
Kelly said despite losing by 28 to Alabama, he’s still excited about the Notre Dame football program. He said Irish players understand how much more they need to improve.
“Our workouts now in the offseason will be focused on getting back to that game,” he said. “As I told our team, we have some work to do. No question. But we know where we want to go.
“We know that we’re capable of getting back to the national championship game, and we started that journey two weeks ago.”