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Analyzing Notre Dame's Sullivan report

4/21/2011

Welcome back to Three Downs and Punt, where we are already in mourning about the end of spring practice. But not as much as reader Lincoln G. from Oxford, Miss., who writes:

"Just what exactly am I supposed to do with myself between now and August? We're ending spring practice down here with no idea who is going to play quarterback and with a coach who I just know is going to pop up in the middle of all these scandals that seem to break out every week. Seriously, dude. Do I just go pop a tent in The Grove and sleep there all summer until two-a-days start?"

Well, Lincoln, when it comes to Mississippi Rebels news, I'm always going to go with ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff, and he says Randall Mackey is the QB leader in the clubhouse. As for camping in The Grove, I do like the idea. But I'm thinking campus security might not.

To the plays!

First Down: The real takeaway from the Notre Dame accident report

On Monday, Notre Dame released its 145-page report on the Declan Sullivan tragedy. When the 20-year-old member of the football team's video unit was killed on Oct. 27, 2010, it struck an emotional chord with me because of my time as a student videographer with the Tennessee Volunteers in the early 1990s. So much so, in fact, that I wrote extensively about my experiences in this blog.

So when the Notre Dame report was published on the university's website, I promised myself I wouldn't react until I'd had a chance to read the entire report. On Tuesday, I did just that.

In the end, the report blames no one individual or office for the decision to allow the junior to pilot and extend his scissor lift into the blustery day. Not athletic director Jack Swarbrick, director of football operations Chad Klunder, then-head athletic trainer Jim Russ or Sullivan's immediate supervisor, video coordinator Tim Collins.

All of those men had their heads called for by heartbroken fans and understandably angry members of the media, particularly in those raw, first few days following the accident. Swarbrick's personal recollection of the day's events that he shared at the initial October press conference drew the most vicious fire. What wasn't aimed at the AD was saved for coach Brian Kelly, who didn't address the subject in public, save for a few prepared statements and a short press conference following the team's loss to Tulsa.

That's why the initial reaction from so many to Monday's findings was so pointed and emotional. The simplest summation of the report came in its fifth paragraph, part of the opening letter from Notre Dame president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C:

"Many individuals and departments share the collective responsibility for the inadequacy of the procedures that led to this tragedy. The university, then, is collectively responsible."

For those who wanted to see heads roll, the idea of a mass responsibility has been unsatisfying and enraging. There has to be someone to blame, right? A smoking gun has to exist, with the fingerprints of the individual who must live with the guilt of Sullivan's death, doesn't it?

Wrong.

The central finding of the report's story is spot-on. What killed Sullivan wasn't one bad decision made by a person or persons who didn't do their job. Sullivan was killed by a culture, the hierarchy of an old-school, grass-and-lime rectangular world that has largely remained unchanged since the days of Knute Rockne. And it isn't exclusive to South Bend.

In the end, that culture is what the report ultimately blames for the deadly accident. It's the environment that I tried to describe in my October column. It's a mentality straight out of "A Few Good Men" that says you don't question orders, you obey them, whether you're an offensive lineman or the equipment manager. And it's not a duty that's done out of fear, it's out of a desire to do the right thing.

We'll never know what Sullivan was thinking up on that tower in the wind -- even his cryptic tweets have come under differences of interpretation -- but the reason that he stayed up there was simple: He didn't want to let the team down.

When I was asked to clarify my feelings on "Outside The Lines" a few days after the accident, the best explanation I could come up with then was still the best one that I have now. When I was 20 years old, the last thing in the world I would ever have considered was to climb my tower, look at the weather and turn to head coach/living legend Johnny Majors and say, "Hey Coach, I don't think we should be practicing outside today."

You think Sullivan, a kid who grew up outside Chicago wearing green and gold, was going to be the guy who bailed on practice because it was windy or went against what he believed were the wishes of Brian Kelly? Not a chance.

The only section of the report in which Kelly is discussed at length is the pages that detail the timeline of the decision to hold practice outside on Oct. 27. Kelly did as he had always done, eyeball the weather to make the call to practice outside. He conveyed that decision to Klunder, who refers to himself as "Kelly's weatherman" and advisor on the daily outside-or-inside decision. Klunder informs Collins and Russ of Kelly's plan, and they do everything they can to make that happen, sending troops of both students and staff into action. Everyone monitors the weather all day long, but it is clear that if the initial order was "practice outside" that's exactly what everyone is going to make happen.

As the report details, there should have been better monitoring of to-the-second weather conditions. There also should have been more defined roles as to who would do that monitoring and to whom they should report if they had concerns. There certainly needed to be more thorough training on what the team's three scissor lifts were and were not capable of. All of those issues were addressed, and plans were laid out to correct them.

But the most important sentence of the report gets lost among all of the carefully worded timelines and recommendations. The words that ultimately hold the solution to avoiding another practice-field tragedy live on Page 15, between "Appointment of Athletic Department Safety Contacts" and "New Lift-Identification Protocol."

It reads: "In addition to the Safety Contact, coaches, filming coordinators, videographers, and all other employee-operators should still be encouraged to voice any concerns they may have regarding the propriety of using lifts in certain conditions. Moreover, lift operators should continue to be empowered to ground or lower the lifts if they feel uncomfortable for any reason whatsoever."

In other words, forget the chain of command. Forget that you might get yelled at by a position coach for having missed a few plays on video while you adjusted your lift. Forget that you might receive catcalls from the players below for wimping out while they are toughing it out.

Now those who have long been an invisible link in the college football chain are being given the power to do the right thing. To speak up and use common sense in situations they are uncomfortable with.

"When we get to the CSVA [Collegiate Sports Video Association] conference next month, we'll be talking about the Notre Dame report for five days," an ACC video coordinator told me Wednesday afternoon. "The recommendations in the report aren't just for Notre Dame, they're for all of us. But what we're most excited about is that it gives us stronger position in the decision-making process. You don't take blind orders anymore and just see them through, damn the torpedoes. Now you can speak up and say, 'This is a bad idea.'"

Second Down: My Worlds Collide

You may or may not know my other beat is motorsports, particularly NASCAR. You also may or may not know auto racing and college football cross-pollinate on a fairly regular basis. An increasing number of pit crew members are former college football players, and every summer brings a long line of coaches, players and even athletic directors, who regularly serve as grand marshals, to the track.

For last Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Talladega Superspeedway, two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip ran the event with a special Auburn Tigers BCS championship paint scheme, which you can see here.

For the event, they even brought in Tigers head coach Gene Chizik to utter the most famous words in all of motorsports, "Gentlemen, start your engines." His lack of enthusiasm has provided some nice anti-Auburn message-board chatter, but you can judge for yourself here.

The most interesting part of the whole experiment was the reaction from the crowd of 100,000-plus. Going into the weekend, Waltrip said the Alabama-based grandstand was going to simultaneously "cheer me louder than Dale Jr. and boo me louder than Kyle Busch."

Every weekend, my friend, Jeff Gluck of SBNation, carries a noise meter out to the prerace driver introductions to gauge NASCAR's ultimate popularity contest, prerace driver introductions. He ranks the top-10 drivers who receive the biggest crowd reaction. As Dale Earnhardt used to say, "It doesn't matter if they're cheering or booing, as long as they're making noise." Good thing. Because both Waltrip and Chizik got what Gluck calls a "mix."

Mikey ranked 10th, not bad for a guy who no longer runs full time, but received more boos than normal, thanks to his War Eagle uniform. Meanwhile, Chizik ranked third, trailing only Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon and edging out eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson. You can see Gluck's entire results here.

And you Alabama Crimson Tide fans screaming about unfairness, don't forget Mikey took care of you last year and even gave the Texas Longhorns some love back in 2006.

Third Down: Show Your True Colors

The idea of a college football team riding on the hood of a race car is nothing new. Over the years, there have been countless cars on the track sporting the colors of the college gridiron.

It should be noted that most of these appeared around the same time Mark Schlabach was being forced to cover NASCAR for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Perhaps it was all just a scheme to make him feel more comfortable.

Here are some of my favorites:

• Two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin's 1998 Tennessee national title paint job

• Lake Speed's Nebraska Cornhuskers special

The oft-forgotten 2000 Ohio State Buckeyes ride

• Elton Sawyer's 2001 deal with Starter that included schemes for everyone from Kansas State to Connecticut to Michigan to UNC, depending on where the NASCAR Nationwide Series was running. You can see a slate of them here and here.

Punt: Two for the Nutt

We end this week's entry where we started, at Ole Miss. This one goes out to my man Lincoln. First, it's Houston Nutt doing his best impersonation of the Joker, then it's Tim Brando doing his best impersonation of Houston Nutt.

The second vid is scary good. The first is just, well, scary.