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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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But at the time Buckner was simply distraught. That night he left his room in The Alamo and went outside, thinking he might keep right on going. A mattress was airing out on a fence, and Buckner lit into it, pummeling it, harder, harder, harder, all his anger and frustrations pouring out. A man has to wonder if Bull Cyclone might not have heard all the commotion and come to his window and watched, smiling, content.

The next day, Buckner was still second string. Only, as soon as the other quarterback made an error, Bull Cyclone was all over him—"Get out of my —huddle! Get out my—life!"—and Buckner was back in the saddle. They were getting ready for Jones and then the Junior Rose Bowl. Coach Sullivan didn't have much more to tell Buckner, except throw the ball and throw it away if pressured.

So it was 7-0 Scooba. Buckner was back to pass again, and the Jones defenders rushed in. Instead of lobbing the ball far away, he thought he saw a way to salvage the play and scrambled. He ducked this way and that, but two Jones linemen were still closing in on him. "Throw it away!" Bull Cyclone hollered. "Throw it away! Get rid of it!"

Buckner was trapped now; it was too late. He was hit low, and as he went down, another defender caught him with his fist, solid, square on the cheek. As he buckled, Buckner could feel his whole face cave in as if it were papier-mâché. The man who took the game films for Bull Cyclone told him he'd caught it all. But the films had to be developed in Jackson, which is Jones territory. When they came back that one play had been spliced out. Bull Cyclone didn't care. He'd seen it all himself. He vowed never to play Jones again, and he never did.

Buckner struggled to his feet and staggered to the sideline. He didn't lose consciousness, but he knew his jaw was broken the instant the blow landed. Now he was bleeding so much he had difficulty talking. His face was all splintered. He went over to Bull Cyclone, and he mumbled, "Corch, I believe my jaw is broken."

Bull Cyclone just stared at Buckner, dead on, for the longest kind of time. Finally, he balled his fists and screamed, "You damn idiot! I told you not to run that—football!" Then he turned away from Buckner and sent in the No. 2 quarterback. They would retire Baby Doll's number, but not Buckner's. Jones won the game.

Bull Cyclone's youngest daughter, Gael, Little Cyclone, was 12 then. She used to race her friends onto the field after games, all of them trying to see who could get to her daddy first. This time Gael won, but as soon as she reached him, she froze. "Right away, I knew something terrible had happened," she says. "This time I could tell he was sad, not angry."

Scooba was in shock and lost the next week, too, finishing 9-2. Buckner never again wore his star jersey. Somebody else got invited to the Junior Rose Bowl. Somebody else was national champion. Scooba fell in the polls. It didn't even win the conference. Bull Cyclone never won it, and he wouldn't have another terrific shot for five more years, with the royal flush team of '69.

A few days after the Jones game, Sullivan went to the hospital in Meridian to visit Buckner. He was carrying flowers. A lot of times he would yank up some black-eyed Susans and have the managers take them over to Mrs. Sullivan, but now he was carrying a real bouquet. Buckner has never forgotten any of it. Bull Cyclone came in, laid down the flowers and just stood there at the end of the bed. Buckner was waiting to say something after Bull Cyclone spoke, but Bull Cyclone never said a word. For 10 minutes he just stood there, until, at last, bereft of voice and dreams, he turned and walked away, going back to Scooba.

Finally, in 1966, the Sullivans got their own house, a neat and sturdy red brick just beyond the end zone. President Harbour thought that respectable faculty housing was good for the campus. But that was the coach's only perquisite, and for his $5,600 salary, Bull Cyclone wasn't only football coach and athletic director but dean of men as well. A friend gave him a partnership in a little local franchise known as Chicken Chef, even though Bull Cyclone never had the cash to invest in the deal. "If Bull lived to be 200 years old, he'd never have had any money," says his old buddy Fleming. Friends say letters would come in from his former players, down on their luck, between jobs, and old coach Sullivan would pull out his last five-dollar bill and send it on.

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