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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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Bull Cyclone enjoyed matching wits with other coaches. Dobie Holden down at Pearl River was his favorite rival. Pearl River was often the top team in the conference. It was a much larger school than Scooba and always well coached. One year Pearl River was an overwhelming favorite against Scooba and was at home, to boot. This brought out the best in Bull Cyclone. He really put on his thinking cap. Scooba would normally arrive for a Saturday night game around 4 p.m., after stopping along the way for a typical training meal that the players referred to as "the four Ts": tea, taters, toast and tough meat. This time, however, as old Night Train rattled through Hattiesburg on the way to Pearl River, Bull Cyclone had the bus pull up to one of the fanciest restaurants in all of Mississippi and treated the boys to the finest of repasts. Then, as Night Train rolled into the Poplarsville area, where Pearl River is located, Bull Cyclone diverted it to a roadside park. Everybody in Pearl River was wondering what was up as game time approached. Where were Bull Cyclone and the Scooba team? Finally, just in time for the players to dress, Night Train arrived.

In the locker room, Bull Cyclone told them not to utter a sound until right before the kickoff, whereupon they were to "go crazy." Pearl River, already discombobulated by the late arrival, was put off even more by these antics, and the home team left the field at halftime down 3-0. Unfortunately, Bull Cyclone didn't have any more psychological tricks up his sleeve, and Pearl River won something like 42-3. Edwards, who was a sophomore, remembers saying to Bull Cyclone afterward, "Well, that kinda backfired."

"Oh, we got a half out of 'em," said Bull Cyclone, with equanimity. He never had any difficulty accepting defeat—or even losing seasons—as long as he thought he was outmanned and everybody had done his best.

Most of Bull Cyclone's players still maintain that the public never really saw him at his best—at half-time. Even with one-on-ones awaiting them, Scooba players were wont to say, "It's safer on the field than in the locker room." As Poole remembers, chuckling, the players would "draw up" during halftime. Among other things, Bull Cyclone threw a lot of objects, from salt tablets up to and including a huge axle-grease drum. To give the devil his due, Sullivan thought the drum was empty. It wasn't. It had been used as a trash container, and when he flung it at a post, the top flew off and the garbage poured over the poor lad who had chosen to sit against the post. Petrified, the player never budged, just letting the trash spill on him and his star jersey, while the coach raved on. Other times, Bull Cyclone destroyed a chair by smashing it against a table, kicked any number of things, drove his fist clear through a blackboard and, to use the singular Mississippi expression, "forearmed" a variety of stationary objects.

But halftimes weren't just pyrotechnic displays. Indeed, to add to the air of uncertainty, Sullivan would always leave his boys alone at first, letting them unwind with Cokes and Hershey bars. Because he favored wing-tip brogues that always seemed to squeak, everyone could hear him approaching. The first game Bradberry played for Scooba, Bull Cyclone came in and squatted on the floor in front of the quarterback. Bull didn't say a word until it was time to go back onto the field. Then, staring straight through poor Bradberry, he snarled, "Come on, young lady," and got up and departed. The performance so unnerved some of the veteran sophomores that a couple of them threw Bradberry against a wall and advised him he damn well better not screw up and get the coach down on the whole team. Terrified, Bradberry brought Scooba home 29-3.

During another memorable halftime, Bull Cyclone suddenly materialized in the locker room on his hands and knees, with his overcoat collar pulled up around his ears. He gave no explanation for this bizarre posture but merely crawled from player to player, stopping before each one, staring him dead in the face, like a mad dog. This caught their attention.

Bull Cyclone usually started at halftime by walking the length of the locker room. Then he'd shorten the span until eventually he wasn't taking steps, but just sort of doing an about-face. It was mesmerizing. Next he would talk. To hear him was a hypnotic experience, for he would blink a lot—an aftereffect of his war experiences—or his eyes would sort of roll back up in his head. When he spoke with emphasis, which he invariably did, his jaw would shake, so that his gruff voice resonated all the more. Edwards recalls one halftime when Bull Cyclone went through this routine, never saying a word, until, at the last, he spun on his heels and screamed, "I was on an island with 5,000 Japs! Now, get out of here!" The players all but stampeded in an effort to escape him, and then destroyed an unsuspecting opponent.

Box remembers when Bull Cyclone gave his finest Knute Rockne oration. He spoke very softly, recounting how he was in a foxhole with a buddy who had just been hit by shrapnel. Blood was pouring out of the Marine, and he obviously wasn't going to make it. "Anything I can do for you?" Bull Cyclone whispered. The locker room was still and reverent.

"Yeah, Big Bob, just win one for me sometime." Well, this was the sometime. And Scooba won, too. Apparently, that was the only time Bull Cyclone invoked his friend's dying wish. But he always wanted to do something for the ones he left back in the Pacific. Sometimes, when he was really furious, out of the blue he would holler, "You—s, you're out here playin', breathin' this free air because a heap of people died for you."

If he cared, he would never let up. That was the way men were made then. Maybe it was the wrong way, but it was the way back then. "He'd ride you to just before he got you to the ground, and only then he'd let you up...some," Bradberry says. "Then he had you in his hip pocket."

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