SI Vault
 
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.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 30, 1984

The Toughest Coach There Ever Was

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

He was dictating to Virginia. "If you put mc out now it will be just like killing a man, for I know that I wouldn't live six weeks." When she finished typing the draft, she told him that that last sentence was overwrought. He took out his pen and scratched this instead: "If you put me out now I won't live long." But the letter went on, pleading—he had only four more years to retirement; he was working 16 to 20 hours a day at a summer job to help put his kids through college. "I have given of myself to this school so diligently and so long and so completely that now I have nowhere to turn.... Thank you and God bless you."

Harbour and his cohorts weren't moved. Bull Cyclone was a disgrace to a respectable institution. He was a Neanderthal man, more backward than his Woodland Culture people. Why, he'd been forced to sit in a chair for a whole game. No, he was fired. All he got was a 30-day eviction notice to clear his family off campus and a deal to keep his mouth shut or forfeit 18 months' severance. "Our entire lives, value systems and hearts were ripped out and we were cast to an unknown destiny," recalls Royce. "Being young and having been raised to believe injustice, honor, patriotism and love made our pain and confusion undefinable."

The family found an old house up in Columbus, where the Chicken Chef franchise was. A radio station there hired Bull Cyclone to do some sports commentary, and he got a job selling insurance. All his friends bought a little, and that helped. That the situation was so desperate was good in a way, because he didn't have the time to dwell on football when the season started. "Still," Bobbie says, "you can't imagine what it did to him after the leaves started to fall, and he knew he was supposed to be on a football field, and everybody knew he was supposed to be on a football field, and he didn't have his field."

Under its new coach, Scooba had a fine year. He installed a conventional attack—you established the run before you dared pass—and he went 9-1. Nonetheless, Pearl River won the conference, and there wasn't any national championship. The 9-1 finish kept the pressure off Stumpy for a while, but he had signed his own notice when he got Bull Cyclone fired. The coach's friends began to mobilize, and on April 10, 1970 the board summarily fired Harbour. The school comptroller was ordered to change the lock on the school safe.

But all that was small beer for Bull Cyclone. "The firing of Harbour does not restore my wrecked life," he wrote shortly afterward. "I came to Scooba when I was 30 years old and left when I was 50. If ever a person gave his life for anything, I gave mine to EMJC."

His anguish increased as another football season approached. A few schools had talked to him about coaching positions, but when they asked Scooba for a reference, the academic dean, operating on orders from Harbour, responded with a scurrilous letter, defaming Bull Cyclone with false charges. The new president, Earl Stennis, fired the dean when he learned about the letter, but that was no consolation for Bull Cyclone. The first game in Mississippi that year was an NFL exhibition over in Jackson in early August. Bull Cyclone was given a couple of tickets, and he invited Gael to join him. He enjoyed the game, too, but driving home he told her that he prayed every day for Stumpy, and that she must do so as well.

Then it was September again, and the season was upon him in earnest. Some friends in the Lions Club invited him to speak the next Tuesday, the 8th. The subject was to be how best to watch football on TV, and Bull Cyclone got some old blank index cards and made notes for his talk.

While he was getting dressed, Bobbie called from Tulsa, where she had moved a few days earlier to take a job as a junior-high physical education teacher. He chatted with her and told her how much he missed and loved her, and then he handed the phone to Virginia and went to finish dressing for the Lions Club meeting. In the bathroom, Bull Cyclone had just slapped some cologne on his face when he dropped dead without a sound.

Nobody in the family, or any friends, or anybody who ever played for coach Sullivan doubts that he died of a broken heart. Everyone who ever knew him says that unequivocally. It was football time again, and Bull Cyclone didn't have a field.

When they buried him, cradling a pigskin, Little Vic didn't want to leave his father. Finally, he snatched off his jacket, took a shovel from one of the workmen and began to toss dirt on the casket. Without anyone saying anything, one by one, all the men there, so many of them Bull Cyclone's old players, removed their coats and took turns shoveling the grave full. A rose fell and someone tried to pluck it out of the dirt. Little Vic stopped him. "No," he said, "it's over his heart. That's where it belongs." So the rose wasn't moved.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Related Topics
  ARTICLES GALLERIES COVERS
Randall Bradberry 1 0 0
College Football 12088 0 92
iRobot Scooba 1 0 0
Bill Buckner 47 0 1
Edna Harbour 1 0 0