CFN Analysis - Should Brian Kelly Be Fired?
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly
Posted Nov 4, 2010

Following the controversy over the tragic death of Declan Sullivan, should Brian Kelly still be the Notre Dame head football coach? Is it even fair to discuss this before the investigation is finished? The CFN writers take a look at the situation at the most visible job in college sports.

CFN Analysis 

Should Kelly Still Be At ND?

By Pete Fiutak

Is Declan Sullivan dead right now because of Brian Kelly?

That might be an extremely harsh way to phrase the question, but who's ultimately to blame is at the heart of the controversy surrounding whether or not Kelly should still be Notre Dame's head football coach in the aftermath of this awful, awful tragedy.

I have a hard time accepting the idea that Sullivan died only because Kelly made a poor decision, or gave it no thought at all. If I can split hairs with the semantics, at least until the final details of the investigation are released, I don't blame him for Sullivan's death, but I do think he deserves to bear the brunt of the responsibility. In times like this, everyone is always looking for someone to point the finger at, and since this is Kelly's football program, was Kelly's practice, and this happened under Kelly's watch, then yeah, it's on him.

Kelly has tried, as much he appears capable of, to do and say the proper things. He's not ducking the issue and he's not shying away from the controversy. He's standing up in the face of the adversity and he's to be commended for that in a college sports world that's terrific at passing the buck and sweeping things under the rug. Unfortunately, it's not totally and completely coming out the right way, and now the PR side is getting progressively worse with every sentence uttered, every appearance in a piece of Notre Dame football paraphernalia, and with every word said regarding the Tulsa game.

It just looks wrong, no matter how you want to spin it, to make it seem in any way like it's business as usual, even if it's really not and even if you're saying it's not. I've heard from one coach who said he doesn't know how he'd be able to go back on campus if this had happened to his program, much less find a way to coach a game, and now that we're a week removed from the incident, the attention paid to a meaningless college football game by Kelly just a few days after the tragedy looks awful.

I'm not for a second suggesting that Kelly's guts aren't completely and totally ripped up over Sullivan's death, and I'd never suggest in any way how someone should grieve, but Notre Dame football, as big as it is, needed to have taken a seat 45 rows back over the last seven days, and it didn't. At least it wasn't far back enough.

It's unfair to criticize Kelly for how he reacted immediately after the tower fell. While it might not seem like the right idea to have continued practicing, it's hard to blame anyone for how they handle a crisis while in panic mode. Kelly had to do the best he possibly could, and if he thought that keeping his players away from the scene by getting back to work was necessary, then okay. Fine. But from then on, there should've been radio silence across the board other than to say how all thoughts and prayers were with the family, and how there could be no focus on football in a time of such grief. Instead, once gameday came, outside of the moments of mention and silence, to the outside observer it was just another college football Saturday.

In his press conference regarding the incident Kelly talked about having productive practices, mentioning the word productive over and over like it means something, and he talked about how the conditions were windy, but nothing out of the ordinary …

No, no, no, no, NO!

A 20-year-old kid is needlessly dead right now, and there is no explanation. Productive practices?! And why did he give a bleep about coaching against Tulsa? 

You don't just drive through this storm. You don't just put your head down and keep on working. You don't slap a decal on the back of a helmet, say a prayer, and go play football. If this is your program and this is on your watch, then you take a step back from the situation, maybe a leave of absence, to give it the respectable amount of time it deserves. You don't talk about football in any way. Not right now.

This is Notre Dame and there is no other coaching job in the world like it. The head coach isn't just the head coach; he's the figurehead, the main spokesperson, and the mouthpiece for a worldwide and world-class religious academic institution. To have been on the sidelines and to have dealt with all the things that go into a college football Saturday made Kelly look like nothing more than a simple football coach.

Now, how can Kelly ever again go into a recruit's house, sit in a living room, and look a mom in the face and say the best interest of her son will be his fist priority? How can he shake a dad's hand and say that his boy will always be taken care of?

But Notre Dame football is life and the rest is just details, right? Soon, the focus will completely and totally shift to the games on the field, and the concern over the collapse of the tower will be replaced by the worry over the team's collapse these two weeks against two mediocre teams, finished off by Kelly's boneheaded decision that cost the Irish the Tulsa game, and made worse by the bigger doorknob move of stubbornly saying he'd make the call again in the same situation.

Right now, Kelly shouldn't be doing the same things the same way in any facet of his job, because those ways, his fault or not, resulted in the death of Declan Sullivan.

Appearances matter, and that goes ten-fold at a school burdened and blessed with a football program that's supposed to be the model for all others, and that includes recognizing those moments when the game of football is immaterial. Notre Dame football must be above reproach at all times and at all costs. Notre Dame football isn't allowed to have any off-the-field controversy whatsoever. Notre Dame football has to be held to a higher standard because of what it is, what it strives to be, and what it represents. There is no margin for error.

That's why Brian Kelly, if he admits he's responsible in any way for the death of Declan Sullivan, can no longer be the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame.

By Richard Cirminiello

Are we here already?

Whether the issue is the Irish's brutal 4-5 start or the tragic death of the team videographer last week, any talk of the ouster of Brian Kelly seems premature. Obviously, there's virtually no on-field result that ought to get a guy canned after just one season, so that's a non-factor. The coach deserves no less than three years to get his system up and running. The accident involving Declan Sullivan, however, is quite a bit trickier.

If Kelly was careless and culpable last Wednesday, resulting in a 20-year old's demise, it's hard to imagine how he survives. Heck, Notre Dame was the program that gave George O'Leary the boot for beefing up his resume. The price tag for negligence extends beyond just compensatory damages. I just don't know if, after seven days, investigators are ready to implicate the coach or anyone on his staff for this tragedy. Until all of the facts have been gathered and laid out for our review, doesn't it seem too early and impetuous to be playing judge and jury? It does to me, which is why I'd rather wait for more of the details to come out before vilifying a man and his staff. Just because Kelly might have been reckless last week doesn't mean we should repeat the same behavior when his fate and future are the topics.

By Matt Zemek

Wow. Just wow.

The fact that this question is even being asked is a sad and sorry commentary on the nature of the college sports beast. It's also a searing indictment of a hyperactive 24/7/365 media culture that seeks to pin blame to somebody with as much rapidity as possible, instead of waiting a few days to gather facts, make complex assessments of situations, and render nuanced verdicts on issues.

This is what Jason Whitlock hath wrought, everybody. The simple fact that we're sitting here discussing whether an immensely smart, resourceful and talented head coach should be fired in his first season at Notre Dame – because a hydraulic lift is a shoddy piece of equipment that has no business being used in conjunction with a football practice – is immensely depressing, to say the least.

Yes, a young person died, and yes, that's a horrible, unspeakable, unfathomable, wrenching, sickening, soul-crushing, agonizing, heartbreaking tragedy which should produce the kinds of lamentations and plaintive wails that painfully reverberate through the night. What happened to Declan Sullivan casts a long and dark shadow over all of us and The Games People Play. This incident cuts deep and it rightly overshadows our attempt to chronicle a kid's game played for enjoyment on Saturdays. We get that. I get that. This senseless death, this waste of a precious and promising life, is not taken lightly or absorbed with a quick and casual glance before moving on. This is awful and always has been viewed as such.

However, acknowledging the enormity of this tragedy is not equivalent to the notion that Brian Kelly killed Declan Sullivan or is centrally responsible for the death. That's just not commensurate with the larger reality of this situation.

Kelly is being a compassionate, sensitive stand-up leader by claiming responsibility for the course of events that wound up taking Declan Sullivan's life. He's being an adult and is not trying to deny or sidestep the fact that yes, he could have taken practice indoors, in which case Sullivan would not have died. What would you have expected a person to say or do in Kelly's place? "I had nothing to do with this"? Or how about, "Well, Declan should have asked me, and then we could have revisited the issue"?

If Kelly had made statements to that effect, or if he had been dismissive, defensive, or short-tempered in dealing with this situation, he'd have been guilty of showing both callous disregard for Declan Sullivan and a disgusting degree of self-aggrandizement. Naturally, Mr. Kelly – a smart man with immense public-relations savvy – did the adult thing and took the bullet without dumping the issue in someone else's lap. Can we see this? I would like to think we all could.

There are some inconvenient facts, though, for Mr. Whitlock and anyone else who wants to lay this tragedy at Kelly's feet. Notre Dame did not release a concrete policy for the use of the hydraulic lifts that other FBS schools (but not all of them) have already regulated with policies of their own. Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick's job description includes overseeing the use and implementation of hydraulic lifts, not Brian Kelly, and Swarbrick is the man who should REALLY be taking responsibility for the accident, but Kelly – hired by Swarbrick – was generous enough to take the heat instead of his boss. It's Swarbrick and people in the Notre Dame athletic department who needed to be on top of the issue of hydraulic lifts, and they needed to put in place policies and procedures that would have automatically prevented Declan Sullivan from even having to consider going up in that faulty lift. Kelly's job is to determine whether practice gets held outdoors or not; Swarbrick's job is to have a policy pertaining to the use and operation of hydraulic lifts. One can link Kelly's decision to Sullivan's death, but Swarbrick is the man who failed to perform due diligence and head off the problem at the pass.

Fire Brian Kelly because Swarbrick didn't do his job in a sport where not all FBS schools have policies in place on the use of hydraulic lifts? You've got to be kidding. Let's reform the safety guidelines at all FBS schools instead. That's how you deal with a terrible tragedy, not firing a football coach who doesn't get paid to learn the finer points of how hydraulic lifts function.