One year later, Sullivan family honors Declan’s memory


One year ago, Notre Dame student videographer Declan Sullivan had his life end after a wind storm tipped over the lift he was filming football practice on. The tragedy was immense — his death a terrible mix of circumstance, poor decision making, and outdated protocol. After a thorough investigation, Notre Dame released its own internal report and Indiana’s OSHA board fined the school $42,000 for safety violations.

Family and friends grieved the loss of a life far too young, while those watching from afar whispered about the legal ramifications. It took less than a week for to hypothesize that the accident could cost Notre Dame $30 million dollars. They were far from alone, as message-boards and websites took aim at people they could blame — the head coach, the athletic director, the video coordinator, the university president — any and all thought culpable by those hoping to tidy this tragedy up.

That thought process never consumed the Sullivan family as they grieved the loss of Declan. One year after the tragedy, the Chicago Tribune sat down exclusively with Barry Sullivan, Declan’s father, to discuss how the family has moved forward.

In his first extensive interview since his son’s death a year ago, Barry Sullivan told the Tribune that his family was never interested in suing the university and has not received a financial settlement from the school. He does not blame the storied college football program for the accident, either.

Rather than allow their grief to manifest itself as anger or legal vengeance, he and his wife, Alison, have devoted the last 12 months to making sure something beneficial comes from their very public tragedy.

“It was not our first impulse to go out and hire a lawyer. That’s not the way we’re wired,” Barry Sullivan said. “We never really felt a reason to pursue any kind of legal action. Why would you do that? … We didn’t want to take resources and energy away from other positive things that might happen by tying up people with lawsuits and other actions.”

The family has plunged their work into the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial fund, splitting the more than $100,000 of donations between Chicagoland educational pursuits like Horizons for Youth, St. Mary’s School and Carmel Catholic High School. In addition to a national safety campaign for aerial lifts run in conduction with the Indiana Department of Labor, Notre Dame has also announced an endowed scholarship in Sullivan’s name, which “will assist students who are not only in financial need, but who also have demonstrated the traits that made Declan original, whether through a particular interest in filmmaking, service to under-privileged youth, creative writing, or other passions.”

The loss of Sullivan is still fresh in the hearts and minds of those that knew and loved Sullivan. Private masses will be held for Declan’s dorm-mates at Fisher Hall and a mass will be held at Lewis Hall as well, where Declan’s sister Wyn lives. The university dedicated a memorial to Declan’s memory last weekend, just outside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and the LaBar Practice Fields.

“Dec would want us to go on and remember him in a positive way,” Barry Sullivan told the Chicago Tribune. “I’d like to think we’re doing that.”

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”