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.
"Bull" (Cyclone) Sullivan was a legend in his place. That place was
Scooba, Miss, in Kemper County, hard by the Alabama line, hard to the rear of
everywhere else. He was the football coach there, for East Mississippi Junior
College, ruling this, his dominion, for most of the '50s and '60s with a
passing attack that was a quarter century ahead of its time and a kind of
discipline that was on its last legs. He was the very paradigm of that singular
American figure, the coach—corch as they say in backwater Dixie—who loved his
boys as he dominated them, drove off the weak and molded the survivors, making
the game of football an equivalency test for life.
Bull Cyclone had
spent his own years struggling through a hungry country childhood, getting
wounded and killing in close combat as a Marine and then coming home to raise a
family and till a tiny plot of American soil he had fought for. Once that would
have meant working 40 acres with a mule and a plow. What Bull Cyclone turned
was a parcel of earth 100 yards long and about half as wide, scratching out
boys as his crop. "There are two reasons people play football," Bull
Cyclone was heard to declare. "One is love of the game. The other is out of
fear. I like the second reason a helluva lot better."
Bradberry, who is now the football coach at East Mississippi—most people just
call it Scooba—was a quarterback there in 1967. One day a Buckeye jet trainer
from the nearby Meridian Naval Auxiliary Air Station went out of control. The
pilot bailed out, and the empty plane winged in dead over the campus, missing
the boys' dorm by 40 feet before plowing into the ground, miraculously doing no
damage to edifice or person, except for muddying N.J. Smith, an agriculture
teacher, whose outdoor laboratory—"Mr. Smith's pasture"—abutted the
football practice field. But what a God-awful noise! Bradberry heard the jet
skim over and then explode. "The only thing that crossed through my mind
was that the Russians were attacking us," he recalls, "and that they
had decided they had to go after Corch Sullivan first. I mean that."
for the story about how he made his team scrimmage in a pond full of man-eating
alligators, none of the tales about Sullivan have been exaggerated. "I
mean, everything you hear is true," says Joe Bradshaw, who played guard for
him in the early '50s. Bull Cyclone did sometimes run scrimmages in the pond,
except the only gator certified to have been in it was an itty-bitty one the
coach's family had brought back from Florida as a souvenir. And maybe it did
Few of the
stories were written down. Instead, as if from some other age, an oral history
of the coach developed, and whenever old players or other Scooba minstrels
gathered, they would share Bull Cyclone stories, telling the same ones over and
over, word for word, liturgically, as the wives drifted to the corners and
shook their heads. Nobody even knows how many games Bull Cyclone won, although
the best detective effort puts his record at 97-62-3. That was over 16 seasons,
his life's work. However, he never had any real fame outside of Scooba and
environs, he never won a national championship, never even won a Mississippi
Junior College Association title, and he was too ornery, too cussed
independent, for any big school to take a chance on him.
A lot of folks
recall that Bear Bryant himself was on record, way back when, saying he wasn't
near so tough as Bull Cyclone. As early as 1959, Jim Minter, now the editor of
The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal, wrote in fascination about
the growing Scooba fable. Minter had heard some coaches talking about tough.
Their opinion, wrote Minter, was that Wally Butts, "The Little
Spartan...was left at the gate.... Bear Bryant failed to win, place or show....
General Bob Neyland was not even mentioned." Instead, when it came to
old-fashioned tough, "without dissent.... Shotgun Sullivan." And
Minter's story went on:" 'I can tell you one thing,' offered one college
coach who has seen Shotgun Sullivan in action. 'If you get a boy who has
survived him for two years, I can guarantee he will make your team.' "
football people acclaimed him as a genius, and everyone accepted him as a man
of integrity, no one would dare hire him in the big time, because Bull Cyclone
sure as shooting wasn't going to be a football assistant for any mother's son.
It's apparently true that Norm Van Brocklin, an old pal of his, did once ask
him to take over the Atlanta Falcons' offense when Van Brocklin was head coach,
but Bull Cyclone declined, saying, "Now, Norm, why should I come up there
and work for you when I already know more football than you do?" So he
stayed in Scooba, eking out a living for his family, hunting and fishing,
developing offenses that big-city coaches would make fashionable a generation
later, and driving his players, whom he tricked out in skull-and-crossbones
helmets and short-sleeved jerseys he designed himself. The shirts were known as
star jerseys because below the black shoulder trim and above the numerals,
there across the chest, were arrayed five stars. As far as anybody knew, no
one, not even his wife and children, had any idea what the stars signified,
and, of course, no one dared ask Bull Cyclone prying questions such as that. He
was some coach. Curiously, as you shall see, he was also beloved.
He was 32 years
old, a veteran, husband and father, when he returned to the Deep South in 1950
to assume his first head coaching job. East Mississippi had gone winless the
autumn before and, for that matter, had seldom ever won a game. Even as the
years wore on, as he produced 31 J.C. All-Americas, Bull Cyclone would tell his
players they were suiting up for the smallest football-playing college in
America. That might well have been true. Scooba had only about 250 to 300 kids
then, a third of them girls. So in any given year, a substantial proportion of
the male enrollment was playing for Coach Sullivan.
The hamlet of
Scooba (Choctaw for "reed brake") then boasted 734 souls, which made it
a metropolis in Kemper County. The county must look exactly the same now, only
less so; when Bull Cyclone arrived in Kemper in 1950, the population was
16,000; today only 10,000 remain, planting a little cotton or soybeans, cutting
pulpwood—"pu'pwood," as everybody says. Even into the '60s Scooba's
main street had hitching posts, and it still has a big faded sign that reads
SERVE COKE AT HOME. For more substantial spirits, the folks would go out to
what were known as "jig joints," illegal road-houses in a state of
Baptists and bootleggers that nevertheless winked at Prohibition, which
remained the law in Mississippi until 1966. More than that, of course,
Appomattox had yet to be acknowledged anywhere in Mississippi, especially not
in Kemper, its most antediluvian, impoverished outpost.