Bull Sullivan: The rest of the story. . .
Here’s one of the reasons I love my job so much. The family of the late Robert “Bull Cyclone” Sullivan visited the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame for the first time Friday morning. So I got to watch them see the video exhibit of their daddy for the first time. There were smiles. There were tears. It was, as they say, a moment.
All of them were gathered in Jackson to be interviewed for a documentary film on Bull Sullivan. For those who don’t know, Bull Sullivan was the legendary coach at East Mississippi Community College at Scooba. He was made nationally famous by the splendid writer Frank Deford in a 1984 cover article — The Toughest Coach There Ever Was — in Sports Illustrated which can be found here.
It was then and still is the longest cover article in the history of the magazine. It would have to be to cover the legend of Bull Cyclone Sullivan.
The story behind Deford’s story is this. I had done one of the longest stories I ever did for The Clarion-Ledger. I’ll let Deford, himself, tell the rest of the story, as he wrote years later in his book about his life as a sports writer (which I highly recommend):
The morning I returned home from seeing the Bear, I boarded a plane in Birmingham bound for Atlanta. The plane had previously stopped in Jackson, Miss. On the seat next to mine someone had left that morning’s edition of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Idly, I picked it up. There was a long story on the sports page—exactly, I’m afraid, the kind of feature that has since disappeared from sports pages.
I read the piece. It was by a fine writer named Rick Cleveland, about a football coach named Bob (Bull) Sullivan. Bull—or Cyclone, as he was also known—had coached only at a little junior college, but he had become something of a legend in the oral sports history of Mississippi. He had been dead for several years, and this was the only article of any substance that had ever been written about him.
The Toughest Coach There Ever Was was the expanded version of Cleveland’s story of Bull Sullivan that I wrote for SI. Bull was as fascinating a figure as I ever heard tell of. The article made him famous. I went to Jackson a year later when, because of that piece, Bull was put in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Today I still get the cover of the magazine mailed to me to autograph. It struck a chord. Bull was the archetype of the coach for whom men of a certain age had once played. In a way he was a purer Bear Bryant, because he had never been anything but a coach, never been sidetracked by fame and glory. Bull’s widow believed that I was some kind of divine messenger who had appeared to give her husband the acclaim he’d never had in life. I agree with her premise, but I think that the divine messenger was that unknown passenger who left the copy of The Clarion-Ledger on the seat next to mine. I just dug into a story that had been dropped into my lap.
Back to Friday’s surprise visit from the Sullivans, who live all over these United States: The Sullivans didn’t know that I had switched jobs from the newspaper to the Hall of Fame.
“You’re the one who started all this,” Big Vic Sullivan said, pointing at me.
That, for me, was another moment.