Brian Mullins was more forceful than normal in his insistence that we meet for a pint or coffee. I chose the caffeine option which meant a morning visit to my old alma mater, UCD, and the Belfield campus where he was Director of Sport.
It was a few weeks after Ryder Cup 2006. My business was bathing in the afterglow of how well it had gone and our role in its staging. Though Platinum One was, largely through my failings, about to enter a period of serious financial difficulty it was then getting positive comment from pretty much all quarters. The crest of the wave is exciting, provided you’re equipped to ride it – otherwise it’s perilous, as it was to prove. Still, my mind was elsewhere as my mother had died on the morning of the Ryder Cup Opening ceremony.
My clients, Ryder Cup Limited, couldn’t have been more supportive but, as she’d have wanted and expected, I’d carried on as normal. Hours after her death I’d stood with Julian Erskine, who was producing the ceremony, on the giant stage in the K Club, discussing final arrangements. Over the few days that followed, the importance of the Ryder Cup and the six years work I’d already given to it meant I’d had to live that well-worn cliche, ‘the show must go on’.
Brian chatted about the K Club and how proud I should be of how well it had gone, how he’d read of how well it had been received overseas, and then he asked me about my mother. Over the previous few years, we’d got to know each other quite well but I wouldn’t have been even sure he’d have known of her death. I talked about her and her struggle with cancer but then he reached across the table, took my arm and asked – ‘have you grieved her passing Fintan?’ Caught off-guard, I offered some blandishments about the timing and the need to keep going so while I had to focus on work, I’d been present and involved with my siblings in all the ceremonies to mark her passing.
Brian looked unimpressed. He then told me a story of how, many months after his father’s death, he was cycling to work in UCD, listening to the radio and a bereavement counsellor was being interviewed. To make a point about the importance of fully grieving our loved ones, this person gave an account of how she’d once failed to do so and how it had damaged her. Brian then described how he’d been completely overcome by hearing this account; diverted down a side-street, got off his bike, sat on a pavement and wept the tide of tears he hadn’t done at the time of the bereavement. That was the moment where Brian, later than he should have done, allowed the force of grief for his dead parent to wash over him.
Brian Mullins and I liked each other. We were good friends, not close, but something had struck him about the circumstances of my bereavement which prompted him to want to eyeball me in order to share that story. Brian said he’d been completely out-of-sorts for a long time after his own loss and was thankful for how chance had intervened to trigger the necessary release, that random morning as he cycled to work. That experience had prompted him to think of me over the previous weeks and to wonder. That he sought me out and made time to share it was what defined Brian Mullins.
It may seem unduly morbid but, as it happens, Brian and I had first met on the death of someone I’d been close to for many years.
Dr Tony O’Neill, who’d been a quiet but hugely important influence on me and a great number of footballers in UCD over the 1970s, died in autumn 1999. I played for the UCD under 19s that Tony managed in 1977 and was fortunate to travel the world representing the university as, summer after summer, ‘the Doc’ as he was known, brought college teams on footballing odysseys to, in my case, the US, Asia and Africa in three successive years. Those organisational skills were to mark most of his professional life.
In 1988, Tony left medical practice to become General Secretary of the FAI where he did an outstanding job until he chose to leave in 1992 to become UCD’s first Director of Sport. I had the privilege of serving on the university’s sports development board that assisted him in those early years as he began stitching sport into the fabric of university life. Within a number of years this included, as planned, having moved nearly all sport’s facilities from the east to the west of the campus. I remember at my last board meeting how Tony referenced this and the ambition to complete the job by moving the athletics track across; that and the building of an Olympic standard pool were the major infrastructure needs of the emerging Belfield campus.
Tony died at 53 and with his loss, the coalition he’d built across academia and administration that positioned sport at the fulcrum of the university, was threatened. The elevation of sport was due largely to his vision, determination and persuasiveness; it had become integral rather than the addendum it had always been at 3rd level in Ireland. UCD led in that respect and did so because Tony O’Neill was a pioneer. The loss, when he died, was felt in football, all sports and more generally in education. It was felt most intensely within UCD with an accompanying dread at how his shoes – boots more appropriately – could possibly be filled.
Months later I was contacted by a close friend of Brian Mullins. The process to replace Tony O’Neill was imminent and Brian, then head of the community school in Carndonagh, Co. Donegal, wanted to apply. Could I -would I – be prepared to help? I was no longer a board member so there was no conflict and I agreed to meet him for a chat. To that point, in common with most sports fans, I knew of him only as one of the greats of Dublin football.
I wasn’t expecting the quietly spoken, thoughtful, man who sat with me and explained his philosophy and ideas for building on my friend Tony O’Neill’s legacy. There was also a confidence and directness about his ambition. I liked that about him and thought it would serve sport well in UCD. We chatted for a couple of hours and I left, hopeful that his foresight would come through in the selection process. It clearly did as he was appointed to follow as gifted an administrator as there was then, in any area of Irish life. Still, fill Tony’s boots he did; where his predecessor’s approach was to navigate difficulties by stealth, a critical feature in most academic environments, Brian, no less visionary, would prove to be more obdurate when, as it happened, that’s what was needed for sport to remain central to the university’s mission.
I’m a proud alumnus of UCD. I learned a great deal there, little enough of it in lecture halls truth be known. The 1970s was a wonderful time; the Belfield campus was still being developed but there was a particular joy to being there in its adolescence. I had some great teachers, like Maurice Manning, Tom Garvin, Hugh Gough and Art Cosgrove (later its President) and there were others who helped nurture learning in a way that was empowering of young minds. I stayed connected in the 1990s through my involvement with sport as Tony O’Neill embarked on his mission. What he achieved was remarkable but he was an exceptional administrator, respected as such at home and overseas, so replacing him was a daunting task for UCD. It was also going to be exceptionally challenging for whomever the university chose.
Brian served as Director of Sport since and, masterfully, over the governance of three different presidents, each with their own outlook, he managed to maintain the momentum of his predecessor and deliver on the next critical elements in the facilities transformation. Knowing how unwell he’d been, I thought of him and Tony O’Neill this week as that last piece of the sports jigsaw – the magnificent new athletics track – was placed on the western flank of the campus. It was a moment of triumph for them both.
The most difficult part of that ambition, first articulated by Tony back in the late 1990s, was always going to be the building of a 50 metre pool. Back then, as a board, we knew how challenging it was but we saw it as absolutely essential delivering on what we were there to do – make sure that UCD had the full suite of sporting infrastructure for the 21st century. The pool was extraordinarily difficult but it was also a ‘must have’. We were desperate to move it on and considered many options including, with the help of restaurateur, Mike Fitzgerald and Jonathan Irwin, a partnership with the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Its president, the late Sam Freas, came to town for discussions but, as with other options, it never materialised.
Brian Mullins was in Carndonagh then but he knew of the heartache this particular challenge had been so, shortly after the magnificent pool and new sports centre were completed in 2013, he peppered me to come and see it. I was no longer a frequent visitor to UCD so we spent some time wandering around the whole sports campus. I was amazed by how coherent it was but also by the sheer number of students and staff, like bees swarming over a hive, using the range of facilities, most markedly the pool.
In terms of that facilities part of the Director of Sport brief, delivering the pool was always going to be the most complex task. That it was done to the standard it was and at a time when the country was going through an unprecedented economic crisis was testimony to his gifts as an administrator.
Brian was proud of this but whenever we talked about UCD his attention always quickly turned to people; his delight in those he worked with, his hopes for younger members of the team and his commitment to the students, to working with them to ensure that sport and health were axiomatic to their Belfield experience. This was a four-time All Ireland winner, a brute of a man to face in competitive battle and the hardest of hard taskmaster’s as a coach but Brian valued participation way above competition and in that belief he served, magnificently, every member of the UCD community throughout his 22 years as a senior member of its staff.
Most of his more obvious achievements were as its second Director of Sport but, since 2016, as Head of Health Promotion, his talents were expressed in a different way. As the tribute on UCD’s website puts it, ‘he developed initiatives that created an environment on campus focused on the benefits of wellbeing, among our colleagues, students and local communities’.
The full tribute (www.UCD.ie), clearly written by those who knew him well, talks of his dedication and work ethic. Most touchingly, it references how students looked up to him as a mentor, friend and supporter of their endeavours, whatever the level, whatever the sport.
A year ago, to the day he died, Brian and I had a long breakfast in Gleeson’s pub on Dublin’s southside. Covid was still prevalent but there was some form of break in uber-intense lockdown so he’d chased me down to meet and ‘catch-up’. We talked about the loss of his brother, his plans to do more travel, recent ‘sightings’ of mutual friends but all through it Brian was checking me out. It was his way; whenever we met or on any lengthy phone call, he’d gently probe to see that you were doing ok – you were active, minding yourself, playing a bit of sport, meeting mates, having a pint – all done unobtrusively but done nonetheless and all to make sure that you were alright. Knowing I lived alone and himself disliking, as everyone did, the restrictions of Covid, he wanted to see how I was?
That was just how it was with Brian Mullins. When you met or even spoke on the phone after any length of time without contact, you knew he was interested in your well-being. I used to think that he carried some kind of virtual kindness clipboard in his head, one that allowed him to gently surf through your behaviours, to be sure that you were looking after yourself. What I’ll remember most about him – and from what I’ve read, a great many others will too – is that composite of, often subtly manifested, characteristics best expressed in one simple word: kindness.
Brian Mullins, RIP. 1954-2022