A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. ~Jackie Robinson
Byron Spruell had aspirations of becoming an engineer since he was in the sixth grade, when his teacher told him that his math and science talents would serve him well in the engineering field. When he reached high school and not only excelled academically, but also athletically on the football field and basketball court, Byron received the opportunity to attend the University of Notre Dame on a football scholarship. Recruited by head coach Gerry Faust and ultimately finishing his collegiate career playing for head coach Lou Holtz, Byron experienced what it was like to play college football under two very different personalities. Now Byron is a vice-chairman of Deloitte LLP, managing principal of the organization’s Central region, as well as managing principal of Deloitte’s Chicago office. Spruell helps drive Deloitte’s national strategy for client and business growth, as well as the firm’s strategic positioning in local markets across 17 states in the Central region. Byron and his wife Sedra have two children: Devyn and Aleah.
Q: Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, how did you end up playing football at Notre Dame?
A: “I was the product of two excellent role models. My mother was a seamstress/tailor and my dad was an engineer at the sewer district. They wanted my siblings and I to do our absolute best in everything we did. At the culmination of my high school career I was co-valedictorian of my high school class, and I had several opportunities to play football and basketball at Division I schools. The key criteria for what I wanted to get out of college helped me narrow down my choices to end up selecting the University of Notre Dame. What I was looking for was a school that was not only serious about academics, but also had a great athletics program. I also wanted a school that was close enough to home that my family could come see me play. Notre Dame passed all of my requirements with flying colors.”
“My parents ended up being able to come see me play for the majority of the home games through my senior year, and then for my fifth year of eligibility they were able to see every home and away game. It’s one thing to be good on the field, or off the field, but Notre Dame helped me excel in both of these areas and that was exactly what I wanted and aspired to achieve.”
“The other schools that I looked at besides Notre Dame were Vanderbilt, West Virginia, and Ohio State (particularly considering that I grew up in the Buckeye State). I knew once I got on campus for my visit at Notre Dame that it was a great fit for me. The style of teaching and learning in the classroom, the people walking around, I immediately felt welcome. My host during my visit to Notre Dame was Allen Pinkett. He was one year ahead of me and was in the school of engineering, so I’m sure they matched me up with him so that I could have the chance to meet another football player in a path that I wanted to pursue. By the time I got to ND the next year though, Allen had decided that trying to study engineering and play football was too rigorous of a schedule for him and he had transferred into the school of business. (The engineering school was aptly nicknamed ‘pre-business’ and they often times told freshman, ‘look left and look right…one of you will be gone at the end of your freshman year.’) When I was a senior at ND they paired me up with a visiting Rod West, who was very focused on academics and mildly interested in studying engineering at Notre Dame. After shadowing with me he made a comment that his head would explode if he had to take the engineering classes that I was in and it confirmed his choice to go straight to the business school!”
“I would have to say though, that one of the main reasons that I chose Notre Dame was because of how well they combined academics with athletics. My sixth grade teacher told me I was good at math and science and that I should become an engineer. I wanted to be a design engineer for one of the big three U.S.-based auto companies and that’s why I chose to study mechanical engineering, but as I neared graduation they were not doing so well. I had the chance to extend my studies and begin work on my MBA during my fifth year at ND which was also special because it was Tim Brown’s Heisman year. When I wasn’t drafted in the NFL after that year, I decided to remain at ND and finish my MBA. The year I finished my MBA, Notre Dame won the national championship. It was fun and rewarding to be on campus and witness the team’s success. Coach Holtz gave me and my fellow co-captain Chuck Lanza national championship rings because we had done so much to get the team to that point. I cherish that ring and my relationship with Coach Holtz as he is a mentor to this day (a ‘Coach for Life’ as he would say).”
Q: What is your best Notre Dame football memory?
A: “The game against USC in 1986 sticks out in my mind. Out in Los Angeles, the whole environment, the Coliseum, the Trojan horse, down by 22 points…we rallied together as a team that day to pull out the win. It was Coach Holtz’s first year at Notre Dame. We lost five games that year by a total of six points. It was crazy how close we were but just couldn’t pull out the wins. It was the final game of the season and we were down 37-15 at halftime.”
“Sure, we were down 22 points out in Los Angeles, but we rallied under Coach Holtz’s leadership and came back to win the game on a last-second field goal by John Carney. We had started to build some real camaraderie that season and that win over USC gave us great momentum to carry us into the next year. On the flight back, Chuck Lanza and I got the indication that we would be co-captains next year. To have that type of victory in a hostile house environment and then to know the team felt that I was a leader moving forward is something I will never forget.”
Q: What was it like playing for Coach Faust? Coach Holtz?
A: “Coach Faust really delegated a lot to his assistant coaches as compared to Coach Holtz who leveraged his coaching staff but still had command of every single detail. Holtz used his coaches but was completely involved. Coach Faust appeared to be more of a figurehead and was not so much in full command.”
“As a result, Coach Holtz really spent a lot of time, not only with his coaches but with his players, too. He helped us grow and develop into men (and this carried off the football field as well). I still remember going into his office for career advice as I was deciding between several employment offers. He advised me to focus on “What’s Important Now” (WIN) and to secure a good foundation with a company that cared about my continued growth and development, a place that promoted excellence with people I could trust. Those words have always been in my mind throughout my career and the organizations I have been associated with.”
“Coach Holtz made sure you understood three things. One, that he cared about his players. Two, that he made sure you were ready for what you were going to face on the football field. Three, that he was your coach for life, and made sure you were ready for your future both on and off of the field. He prepared you with the details that would make you a good football player, but also prepared you to be a good man in the business world or wherever life would take you.”
“Again, one of the most important factors that led me to choose to attend Notre Dame was how well they combined academics and athletics — Coach Holtz was a big part of why this worked so well. He prepared you for the details that would make you a good football player, but this same attention to detail was also what was going to make you a good man and successful at whatever you pursued after football.”
Q: What was it like being a student-athlete at Notre Dame? How did being a student-athlete at Notre Dame prepare you for life after college?
A: “For the most part it was all about balance, work ethic, and discipline. I like to be busy anyways but you need to cut through the clutter and be organized to succeed at a place like Notre Dame as a student-athlete. I really liked the environment at Notre Dame. It was a good fit for me. At Notre Dame you are truly a student-athlete. There are no athletics dorms. You are a student first and an athlete second — you carry yourself that way. You are given certain opportunities but you are not separated and you are not made to feel special or privileged compared to your fellow students. With the exception of Wednesday training table and game day (when we had steak), we ate dining hall food just like everybody else (only a few hours later).”
“Class, film, study, practice, training table, and then you go back to your dorm and study some more. You are tired and don’t feel like studying, but you still have to get it done. I definitely spent some late nights with David Letterman on in the background while getting my work done. It took hard work and discipline to play football and get my engineering degree and my MBA from Notre Dame.”
“My wife lived in Badin. I met her at an SYR (“Screw Your Roommate”) dance freshman year (that was our first date). We dated all four years, studied together as undergraduate engineering students, and got engaged between our fifth year and the final year of graduate school. She got her graduate degree in Aerospace Engineering and I got my MBA.”
“The engineering department was a challenging place to be — it definitely was not a place for the faint of heart! I had some adversity athletically as well, suffering some injuries at Notre Dame. I had hoped to work in the NFL and pursue some business opportunities during the offseason, but the knee injuries that I suffered as a student-athlete came back to haunt me, and the NFL didn’t think I was good enough or hungry enough. Even though this was a disappointment, I was okay with it. It allowed me to go back and get my MBA. It was a wonderful experience playing football at ND and I would have loved to continue that path, but at the end of the day the NFL is a business and you learn that fact very quickly. I would not change a thing.”
“From a diversity perspective, the environment at Notre Dame was very similar to my high school experience so I was not shocked when I got to ND. I didn’t have any situations that were negative as a student-athlete and the situations that I did encounter got me ready for the business world in terms of connecting with people from all walks of life and it was a very positive experience.”
“When you come out of Notre Dame you are prepared for the next chapter. In my case, I had a great football experience (and was molded by a great coach), two degrees that I could build a career upon (and be branded as a “Double Domer”), and a bonus of meeting a wonderful young woman with whom I could build a life and future family. I definitely look back and appreciate all of the opportunity that the ND experience afforded me.”
Q: Where did life take you after football?
A: “True to form as a coachable and approachable person given my athletics background and ability to connect, I always sought out advice. I spoke with Coach Holtz and he wanted me seek out a company where I could trust the people, love what I do, and they were committed to excellence. I talked to one of my professors, Clay Smith, and he told me that I probably wanted to start out in consulting and special services and get exposed to a lot of different things. Then, after that experience, I could move back into the corporate world if I saw fit. I simply wanted to use both my engineering skills and my MBA skills that I had attained. With all of this input, I looked at a number of corporate and consulting opportunities and decided on taking a job with Peterson Consulting, which was founded by Alan Peterson who came out of the old Andersen firm and started this business that focused on consulting and litigation support. They were headquartered in Chicago and they had an office in Houston which was great for me since my wife got a job at Rockwell on site at NASA. At Peterson, I definitely got the opportunity to use both sets of skills (engineering and MBA/financial skills), and I also got to work with attorneys to use the dispute skills that I learned in my business law class.”
“For the first seven years of my career I did bankruptcy work, construction claims, and environmental claims which was a great proving ground and exposed me to client service and what I do today. Then I made the move to Deloitte & Touche. I was on the road a lot during my time with Peterson Consulting and my wife and I were ready to start a family. The move to Deloitte allowed me to stay at home more. It got me into a new practice that had an entrepreneurial spirit like Peterson had, but with the support of a big company and brand behind me. It was also in Houston and I focused on the oil and gas industry and business insurance claims consulting.”
“In 2004 I moved to the Deloitte office in Chicago to focus on broader financial advisory services, and then in 2007 I moved to the New York Deloitte office and served as Chief of Staff to former U.S. CEO and current global CEO Barry Salzberg. I was involved in operations, communications, strategy, global, regulatory/policy, talent, and clients/market matters. I spent a great deal of time shadowing Salzberg, and foreshadowing him as well. You need to always try and be a couple steps ahead of him in order to avoid any surprises. Like Holtz, Barry had a huge impact on me as a person and helped shape my professional career. In 2011 I became Global Managing Director of Financial Advisory and now I am back in the Chicago office as the Central Region and Chicago Managing Principal.”
“One of the most important things that I have learned along my career journey is to always be coachable. Never feel as though you know everything or that you can do this alone. Be prepared for new opportunities and be flexible and adaptable. Notre Dame really teaches you how to learn — this is also the culture at Deloitte. We pride ourselves in growing leaders and also have a great connection to Notre Dame and the Mendoza School of Business.”
Q: What advice would you give current student-athletes?
A: “I currently sit on the monogram club board and one of our jobs is to be a liaison between the current student-athletes and former student-athletes through mentoring and providing advice about the professional and business world. The biggest thing, particularly for ND student athletes, is to stay focused, perform, and be coachable. Know that Notre Dame is a special brand that people really do respect. IF you come through a place like Notre Dame and do well both academically and athletically, you will have a great value in the marketplace. Use that to your advantage.”
Q: Can you talk about your involvement with the Jackie Robinson Foundation?
A: “One of the things I most enjoy is giving back to the community. I love to give back and invest in people. My passions are diversity and education. We do a fair amount of mentoring for Jackie Robinson scholars. I give my time, talent, and treasure because it is about mentoring and developing, growing them into young men and women and giving them opportunities to go to college that they might not otherwise have. I keep a fair amount of relationships going to provide advice and counsel to give them perspective on what they are going through. I look forward to continuing to work with them. They have a lot of credibility in the market with the successes they’ve achieved.”
I’d like to thank Byron Spruell for graciously taking some time out of his busy schedule to stop by the blog. We all greatly appreciate it! Stay tuned for many more great stories in the “Where are they now?” series! If you enjoy this series, you can also read more stories in my new book, “Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became” now available for purchase.
Cheers & Go Irish!