This is a story of an era that has vanished from American sports. I’d venture to say it’s about a man you’ve never heard of (Robert Victor Sullivan) and a place you didn’t know existed (Scooba, Mississippi).
I’m using material from an April 1984 Sports Illustrated feature article by Frank Deford.
The Sullivans were some of the poorest of the poor in Aliceville, Alabama, which is just east of Scooba and just across the state line. Mrs. Sullivan was trying to raise six children while working at the local cotton mill. Her husband had dropped dead one day while fishing for dinner down at the creek.
Robert Sullivan was a good student and a top athlete — captain of the football team and its best player. He got a scholarship to Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. In that era, Union was a small-college powerhouse. A center and linebacker, Sullivan played well enough to get an offer from the Detroit Lions. But World War II had begun, so he joined the Marines before graduating.
He trained at Parris Island in South Carolina and spent time there as a drill instructor before being sent to the South Pacific, where he was wounded in the bloody fighting on Okinawa.
Sullivan was a big man with an oversize head, hands and feet, standing 6-foot-five and tipping the scales at about 285 pounds — not a person you’d want to give a lot of backtalk to.
Early in life, he picked up several nicknames: Big Bob, Shotgun, Bull and even Cyclone. Since he was such a big man, it was said he needed two nicknames, so he was generally known as “Bull Cyclone” Sullivan.
After the war, he returned to Union to finish his degree and football career but found that the school had dropped the sport during the hostilities. So, he headed west and played well enough at the University of Nevada to be selected to play in the Shrine Bowl, a collegiate all-star game, and was later offered a contract by the Baltimore Colts.
But he decided it was time for him to stop playing and get on with his calling in life: coaching football.
At age 32, after a couple of years as an assistant at the University of Oregon, Sullivan returned close to home in 1950 to take the football reins of East Mississippi Junior College at Scooba, where he spent the rest of his coaching career and earned his reputation.
In 1959, an Atlanta sports writer surveyed Southern college coaches as to which of their number was the toughest. Neither Bear Bryant, Wally Butts nor Bob Neyland made the cut. The consensus was Bull Cyclone Sullivan.
One coach at a four-year school said, “If you get a boy who has survived him for two years, I can guarantee he will make your team.”
His salary was $3,600 a year plus $75 for every game he won. Most of the latter paid for gas for recruiting trips. Included was an apartment in the broken-down dorm for football players, called The Alamo, where his wife and two daughters had to practice “leak drills” when it rained. He was also athletic director, coached baseball and taught sociology and anthropology.
In 1950, Scooba (population734) was not much of a town and the college (about 300 students) seldom won a football game. He had one player returning from the winless 1949 team. So, Sullivan got in his car and scoured his six-county recruiting area for players.
He opened the 1950 season against Little Rock Junior College, the 1949 National Junior College champions. He beat them 34-14 and had an 8-3 season.
So, Scooba was off and running — or we should say passing.
Sullivan concocted a wide-open passing offence that was 25 years ahead of its time. His teams did not always win, but they always put on a good show. One of his former quarterbacks said that he could not remember running a play that did not have five eligible receivers.
Sullivan saw parallels between war and football and a drill instructor and a coach. Most recruits hated their drill instructors during training but loved them at the end because they’d been taught not only how to fight but also how to survive.
It was the same with his players. He pushed them until they either quit or produced what they were capable of. And those who stayed learned something about themselves that made them fiercely loyal to their coach.
His practices could be similar to Marine boot camp. He devised an obstacle course complete with trip wires. He’d wrap mattresses around a large pine tree and see who could hit it hard enough to make a pinecone fall off. One scrimmage was conducted in a shallow pond.
Spectators at a game take enjoyed watching Sullivan off his hat and coat and stomp them or walk out and kick the game ball — soccer style — into the stands. He knew the rule book and disagreed with officials when they misinterpreted it.
In one game, Scooba was about to score when he challenged the ref. It cost him 15 yards, and then 15 more, until they ran out of real estate. When he left the field, it was first-and-85. On the way off, he told his QB to run a certain pass play. It went for a touchdown.
Sullivan had a skull and crossbones painted on the front of Scooba’s leather helmets and he designed their game jerseys with five stars across the front above the numerals. He told no one what the stars represented.
By the late 1960s, Sullivan had mellowed considerably, had had a religious experience and was not as tough on the field. As he told a cohort, “It doesn’t work anymore.”
But he still had a good team and was extremely popular with Scooba’s student body. They dedicated the 1967 yearbook to him. He was content with his $5,600 salary plus housing. He had a great squad returning for the 1969 season and was expecting to win the state’s junior college championship.
However, R.A. Harbour, the school’s president saw Sullivan as a threat to his position. So, that summer, when he knew several of Sullivan’s supporters on the board of trustees would be gone, he convened a closed meeting of the board and fired him. They bought his silence with an 18-month severance package.
The man who had looked death in the face on Okinawa and had given his life to this little college was done in by pettiness and jealousy.
Sullivan’s supporters organized and Harbour was fired less than a year later. But that was not much solace for the Sullivan family. They moved to Columbus, Mississippi, where he sold some insurance and did some sports radio. But he was a broken man. One day in 1970, as he was dressing to speak at a civic club, he dropped dead. Many of his friends said he had a broken heart.
There was a large crowd at his funeral. When it was over, his former players did the last thing they could for their old coach. They shed their coats and shoveled in the dirt on his coffin.
Bull Cyclone Sullivan’s coaching career had produced a .650 winning percentage, 31 junior college All-Americans and some 200 football coaches from his former players.
He was inducted, posthumously, into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1985. Scores of his former players were among the 700 people attending the ceremony.
Now, what about the five-star jerseys?
After Sullivan’s death, one of his assistant coaches related sitting with him as he designed them. Sullivan said, “I’ve been trying to find a way to honor five of my best friends from the War. We all landed together on Okinawa, but when the fighting was over, I was the only one who came home alive. There must be a reason.”
And there was.