The legend of Bull Sullivan (from 1982)
(The following story, written about Hall of Famer Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan, first appeared in The Clarion-Ledger in 1982. A Delta flight passenger left the sports section on board. Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, flying from Birmingham to New York, picked it up and read my story. Deford used my story as the basis for the longest cover story in the history of Sports Illustrated. A year later, Sullivan was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.)
SCOOBA — Welcome to Scooba, home of 538 people, one junior college, no traffic lights and one honest-to-God, bigger-than-life legend.
The legend? Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan.
Two nicknames, you ask?
One just would not do. If you called him Bull, you’d get the point across about his size (6 feet, 4 inches and 290 pounds) and tremendous strength, but a simple Bull gives no hint of his coaching style. That’s where Cyclone comes in.
Bull Cyclone Sullivan coached football as it has never been coached before or since. He worked himself and his East Mississippi Junior College players — those with the guts to stick with him — into a frenzy before every game.
It has been almost 11 years since the successful, controversial coach passed away, but they still talk about him around here as if he were about to send in the next play. Almost always the stories begin, “You remember the time when Bull. . .” And just as often the tales end, “I know that sounds unbelievable but I saw it with my own eyes….”
Here’s one from Bill Buckner, who coaches at Hinds Junior College and is one of six All-American quarterbacks Sullivan produced at the junior college that is affectionately known as Scooba Tech.
“One time Coach Sullivan was really disappointed with us after a game, so he led the players on a gauntlet drill where they’d run off through the woods, through briars and mud. He had them running into trees. He finally stopped at the edge of a pond and had the defense line up with their heels in the pond. He lined the offense up, put the ball down and told the offense, “OK, drown ‘em!” The bottom of the pond was real boggy and we lost 16 pair of football shoes. One big guy really did almost drown.”
And here’s one from Dick Potter of Hattiesburg, a long-time junior college referee:
“A lot of officials had problems with him, but I always thought the only ones who did were bad officials. He wouldn’t give you any problem if he respected you. Whenever they were on the road, Cyclone used to take a lot of flak from the fans. Anyway, one time at Holmes it got pretty bad, so Cyclone had his players pick up their benches and march across to the other side of the field away from the Holmes fans. They actually did that.”
East Mississippi record books are incomplete and nobody seems to know Sullivan’s overall won-loss record. But everybody agrees that (1) he won far more than he lost, and (2) he won far more than anybody had the right to expect. Scooba was by far the smallest, most isolated junior college in the tough Mississippi Junior College Association. Despite his tiny recruiting area, Sullivan’s teams almost always were title contenders.
“I know you hear this all the time about coaches,” Buckner said, “that they get absolutely 100 per cent out of their players in every game, but I guarantee you it’s never been more true than it was with Coach Sullivan. The man was an offensive genius. He was far, far ahead of his time in the passing game. He knew everything there was to know about it.”
The man, with two nicknames, was much more, including:
Intelligent. Besides coaching football, Sullivan taught history, journalism, anthropology and sociology. He held a Master’s in sociology and anthropology from Mississippi State.
A master psychologist. Said Buckner, “He did a lot of crazy things, but he wasn’t crazy. All those things he did were calculated to bring every player to an emotional peak on game day.”
Profane. Sullivan’s language was notorious. “He knew cuss words I’d never heard before,” Buckner said. “I flagged him one time for the way he cussed a player,” Potter said laughing.
Religious. Late in his career, Sullivan was a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
A loving father of four daughters and three sons. “I’ve never seen anyone better with kids,” Buckner said. “He was married twice and he named two of his sons by two different wives Vic. We called ‘em Little Vic and Big Vic. The Vic was short for victory.”
A unique individual. Years after football helmets were revolutionized, Sullivan still had his teams playing in leather, facemask-less headgear. The helmets were black and for a time had a skull and crossbones painted on the front. “Coach believed the facemask was responsible for more injuries than it prevented,” Buckner said. “I remember one time, we were playing Tyler (Texas) in a bowl game. We came out on the field with our helmets folded up, hanging out of our pants. They just stared. We won by three touchdowns.”
A military hero. Sullivan served in the Marines in World War II in some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theatre. “We all heard he once went into a Japanese machine gun pill box and killed seven of them at once, using just a shovel,” said Randall Bradbury, Sullivan’s last quarterback and now the coach at EMJC. “I know he once told me, ‘Bradbury, I don’t know how many gooks I killed but one more like you ain’t gonna make any difference.’”
Bradbury, as all of Sullivan’s players who stuck with him, professes a deep respect and love for his former coach.
“He recruited me like he did everyone else,” Bradbury said. “He gave me a sheet of paper to sign and told me, ‘This means if you don’t quit or I don’t run you off, you got a scholarship.’”
A lot of players did quit. Everyone considered quitting.
Said Charley Box, a former Scooba fullback, “At the beginning of two-a-days, people would leave in droves. They’d leave in the middle of the night so they didn’t have to face him. They’d push their cars off the campus so they didn’t wake him up.”
Others, including Bradbury, were scared to quit.
“I remember my first game as a freshman,” Bradbury said. “I completed one of my first 15 passes, just one. He was climbing all over me. You just wouldn’t believe the way he got on me. You could have heard him in Meridian.
“I wound up 21 for 36 or something like that, so you know whatever he said worked. But after the game, my mother came up, grabbed my arm and said, ‘Come on, Son, we’re going back to Sturgis. You don’t ever have to go through that again.’
“I told her, ‘Oh no, I’m not going anywhere. I don’t want that big sonuvagun to come looking for me.’ I was scared to death of him; we all were. We weren’t physically threatened, but there was just something about him. . .”
Sullivan’s pre-game and halftime speeches are as legendary as they were incendiary. He’d break chairs, chalkboards, tables, anything. He’d rip off his coat or Stetson hat. He’d stomp on the latter.
“People wondered why we ran out on the field so fast,” Bradbury said, chuckling. “We were trying to get away from him. We figured we were a lot safer on the field than we were in the locker room.”
The fear ran deep. Sullivan always took a nap before the game. Players and regular students would take off their shoes when they walked by his dormitory apartment so as not to wake him.
“Coach used to have drive the bus to and from games,” Box said. “One time we played so poorly that he was just furious. He started driving and hollered that he was going to run the bus off the road and kill all of us. Some of the guys really believed him. You never knew what to believe. I know the manager believed him because he started crying and telling Coach to let him out, that he didn’t have anything to do with the way we played.”
Ole Miss sports information director Langston Rogers never played for Sullivan. “He recruited me to be his manager, personal secretary and publicity man,” Rogers said. “I loved that man. We got close.
“One time we were about to play East Central, our most hated rival. Coach Sullivan had guards posted at all the gates to the practice field to watch for spies. This little prop plane kept flying lower and lower over the practice field,” Rogers continued. “Coach hollered, ‘Rogers, go get my gun.’ So I did. I was so scared I ran all the way, got his gun and gave it to him. He started shooting up at the plane, yelling ‘Spies. East Central spies!’”
Chances are better than good Sullivan had the plane fly over and was using the act to fire up his team. “Yeah, you’re right,” Rogers said, “but we didn’t know it at the time. Scared us to death.”
Another year, Sullivan stationed a manager at the gates to the stadium with a gun to ward off East Central spies. He was talking to his players, Buckner included, when all of the sudden he heard two shotgun blasts.
“Coach’s face got all red and he yelled,’Oh my God, the dumb sonuvagun has gone and shot somebody.’ Turns out, a covey of quail had flown by and the manager, a country boy, just unloaded on them.”
Referees, especially unseasoned ones, dreaded going to Scooba. Sullivan could be hellish on a rabbit-eared official. One time after a ref marked off a penalty against Scooba, Sullivan ran out on the field and kicked the ball into the stands. The next game, the junior college association made Sullivan coach from a chair on the sidelines. For man nicknamed Cyclone, the penalty was severe.
Despite his shenanigans, Bob Sullivan was a devoted student of the game. Said Buckner, “I played at Mississippi State, Delta State and with the Atlanta Falcons and I’ve been around football all my life. I’ve never met anyone that knew as much football as Bull Sullivan.”
Although he was from Tuscaloosa County, Ala., Sullivan’s football background was western. He played collegiately at Nevada as a center on a team that set the NCAA single season passing record. He was then an offensive assistant coach at Oregon under Norm Van Brocklin.
Sullivan and Van Brocklin became life-long friends and at one point Van Brocklin tried to hire Sullivan as his offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons. Supposedly, Bull Sullivan turned down the job, saying, “Norm,why would I come work for you when I already know more football than you do?”
Van Brocklin was by no means the only famous football coach to cross paths with Sullivan. Bull Sullivan coached both John McKay and Sammy Baugh on service teams and talked football often with Bear Bryant. The Atlanta Constitution once featured Sullivan as a “Backwoods Bear Bryant.” At Scooba, fans considered Bear Bryant a more polished Bull Sullivan. Bryant was another who is said to have offered Sullivan a coaching job, but Bull wouldn’t leave Scooba.
Sadly, the school Sullivan would never leave eventually made his decision for him. After the 1968 season, one which East Mississippi finished 7-3, Sullivan was dismissed.
“The Scooba president knew the most respected man on campus was Bull Sullivan and he just couldn’t stand it,” Box said. “He couldn’t measure up to him so he got rid of him.”
A year later, Sullivan’s former players, many who had riser to influential positions, had the president fired. What’s more, they succeeded in having a new athletic dormitory named for Bull Sullivan.
He would have liked that, but he never knew about it. Bull Sullivan died at the age of 51. a year after his dismissal. “He couldn’t live without football,” Box said. “That’s what he lived for.”
They buried Bull Sullivan right outside of Columbus. They buried him with a football tucked under his arm.