Coaching at the Division I level of college football demands a lot of attention to detail. You’re in charge of an entire program and, in most cases, that detail covers everything from what uniforms your team will wear, when you warm up, how you warm up and of course it encompasses everything about how and when your team practices. Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly calls himself the CEO of Notre Dame football. The title certainly fits. You could put that title on just about every other coach at that level.
As CEO of Notre Dame football, Brian Kelly failed miserably earlier this week with not just poor judgment, but inexcusable judgment. His decision making ultimately cost a young man his life.
Twenty-year-old Declan Sullivan was an aspiring filmmaker and journalist who loved Notre Dame football and he loved his job as one of the videographers who was charged with filming their practices. Every big program across the country has a Declan Sullivan or two. They aren’t athletes, but it doesn’t make them any less passionate about the game or their team. Teams need Declan Sullivans. They are all a small part of what it takes to run a successful program. His commitment to his job and duties was no less than the players who wear the jerseys.
Unfortunately, his job got him killed on Wednesday afternoon. Instead of heading back to his dorm to study or maybe go out with friends that night, Declan Sullivan lay in a South Bend hospital bed with a sheet covering his lifeless body as a result of fall he suffered when the video tower in which he was working tipped over as a result of high winds.
Instead of his parents talking to their son that night maybe about his week or what his plans for the weekend were, they were getting a phone call from the Notre Dame athletic department telling them they needed to get to South Bend immediately. There would be no more phone calls from their son because he was dead. A bright, 20-year-old young man who was outgoing, energetic and from all accounts a true pleasure to be around was gone.
Senseless acts happen in the world every day, but this was one that was unnecessary and inexplicable. A CEO’s job is to look out for the best interest of his company and its employees. That’s why CEOs get paid the kind of money they do, because of their ability and track record of making the smart, wise decisions.
Brian Kelly wants to win and he wants to win now. The Fighting Irish football program has taken its lumps in recent years during the Charlie Weiss debacle and Brian Kelly has been given the task of returning the program to the elite status it’s failed to reach over the last several years. Perhaps with his team having been roughed up by Navy, Kelly lost perspective as the man in charge.
I don’t know what was going through Brian Kelly’s mind when he elected to move his team's practice outdoors on Wednesday despite weather warnings that called for high winds. Just the day before, the team had practiced indoors due to similar conditions. Coaches will often take the approach of “well, if we have to play in it, then we better practice in it.” He certainly wasn’t going to gain anything from having his QBs attempt to pass in the type of conditions they were experiencing. But practice they would.
Even before getting into the tower, Declan Sullivan had tweeted at 3:22 p.m. ET, just as practice was beginning, "Gusts of wind up to 60 mph. Well today will be fun at work. I guess I've lived long enough." Less than an hour later, Sullivan, according to media reports tweeted: "Holy [blank]. Holy [blank]. This is terrifying." Little did he know that in less than an hour, he would be dead.
The weather reports had winds gusting between 40 to 60 mph that day in South Bend, yet the CEO of the Fighting Irish football program failed to do his job when he did not communicate to Sullivan’s immediate boss or Sullivan himself that he would not be asked to be in the tower or, at the very least, to stay at a more reasonable height of no more than 15 or 20 feet. These portable lifts have clear instruction that goes with them that they are not to be operated in dangerous weather conditions -- that would mean high winds.
As a police investigation continues, there’s also a separate investigation being done by OSHA. This is the workplace watchdog group that ensures safe and proper working conditions for employees. When a military leader knowingly leads his unit into harm’s way and there is unnecessary loss of life, in many cases these leaders are demoted a rank or two. In business, CEOs who knowingly make decisions that harm their employees come under fire from a board and, in some instances, they are fired.
The CEO of Notre Dame football made an inexcusable decision on Wednesday that cost a young man his life. It’s ironic in some ways that this tragedy took place at an institution that is also a leader in the religious community. So the question becomes ... will the leaders at Notre Dame do the responsible thing and act with clear minds and clear hearts or will their views be eschewed by the big business of football and what their CEO can deliver on the field? Touchdown, Jesus, and the rest of us will be anxiously awaiting their decision.