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The Toughest Coach There Ever Was
Frank Deford
April 30, 1984
Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you've surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob "Bull" "Cyclone" Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan. Also, at times he was known as Big Bob or Shotgun. He was the most unique of men, and yet he remains utterly representative of a time that has vanished, from the gridiron and from these United States.
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April 30, 1984

The Toughest Coach There Ever Was

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He conjured them up at all waking hours. Around the house, plays would be sketched on newspapers, napkins, books, calendars; they were found on church programs and high school prom dance cards. One morning Bobbie discovered that her father had absentmindedly scribbled plays all over the margins of a term paper she was turning in that day.

Box remembers being awakened in his room in The Alamo at 3 a.m. by Little Vic. Instructing Box to follow, the boy took him downstairs to the Sullivan apartment and then right into his parents' bedroom. Virginia was sound asleep in her half of the bed. But Bull Cyclone was sitting up next to her, running a projector, staring at films on the far wall. He ran a play and asked Box if he thought a new variation involving him would work. Flabbergasted, Box said, "Yes sir, I don't see why not."

"O.K.," Bull Cyclone said. "Go back to bed." He promptly began to diagram the play on an index card. He usually had all his special plays for that week's game designed by Monday.

Bull Cyclone would take the basic stuff he planned to use and make a deck of plays that he flipped through on the sidelines. Says Bradberry, "I can see him now, wiping the blood off my face with one hand, shuffling through his deck with the other to find me the play he wanted." Purists maintain that one quarterback must be deputized to be in charge of a team, but if Bull Cyclone didn't believe he had an outstanding player, he'd use two, or even three quarterbacks during a game, alternating these paragons of leadership after each play. And it worked just fine.

For example, as a freshman Bradberry alternated with a string bean named Ricky Garner. In one game, Bull Cyclone got furious with Bradberry for citing some wrong information about a linebacker and yanked him. "You little sonofabitch," he screamed, "don't you ever open your mouth again. The only way you'll ever take another snap for me is if Garner breaks both his legs." But, out of the blue, late in the first quarter, Bull Cyclone summoned Bradberry from the bench, riffled through the deck and dispatched him to run one play. It wasn't exactly a vote of confidence, for the call was a rare halfback sweep, in which the quarterback was supposed to block. Bradberry ran the play and, on another possession midway through the second quarter. Bull Cyclone sent him back in to run the same punishing sweep.

Then, right before the half ended, the coach yelled for Bradberry again, shuffled through his deck and, like a magician, pulled out a card and showed it to the quarterback. "See this," Bull Cyclone said. "Hit the tight end, and it'll be a—touchdown."

Telling the story, Bradberry merely smiles, then shrugs and says, "And hey..." and raises his arms in the TD salute.

Defense bored Bull Cyclone, so he let his assistant handle that. Of course, from carefully studying the passing game, he became an expert at pass defense. Scooba played man-to-man and stunted constantly. "Forty-four red dog" was his favorite defensive alignment: four-man line, four others up close, blitz. Against running attacks, which were what he usually faced, Sullivan's basic concept—again presaging the future—was to have his linemen "mess things up" so that the linebackers could dash up and make jarring tackles. A wiry little demon of a linebacker named Bob Wilson is reputed to have made as many as 25 stops in a game, 150 in one season.

In practice, though, Bull Cyclone would spend almost all of his time working on passing—7-on-8—exiling the interior linemen to the sidelines, where they could get at it among themselves all day. Nowadays, major schools have so many assistants that a head football coach primarily has to be an administrator just to keep practices running effectively. But Bull Cyclone was always in the midst of things, and when he ran his beloved passing drills, he'd move right along with the team. Most coaches stand in one spot and shout "bring it back." Bull Cyclone's players would practice up and down the field, simulating a real drive. No one was allowed to disturb this routine, and, of course, no outsiders were present, lest they be shot as spies.

One thing Bull Cyclone had going for him was that few other teams concentrated on the pass—and none in all of America as much as he—so that opponents weren't geared to stopping a promiscuous aerial game. On the other hand, Scooba was invariably the runt of the litter. The Mississippi Junior College Conference had 15 teams then, and the rules limited recruiting to certain areas. Bull Cyclone, like Bradberry today, was left with slim pickings in his six backwoods counties. Big as he was himself, Bull Cyclone came to admire the tiny farmers' sons he had to make do with—"little itty-bitty boys," says Box, who played fullback at 160 pounds. Smith was a 150-pound quarterback, and Garner didn't weigh even that much. Wilson, the best linebacker Scooba ever had, barely went 135. You've heard of baseball players who can't hit their weight. The year Wilson supposedly made 150 tackles he might have been the only college football player in history to tackle more than his weight.

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