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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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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.

Coach Bob "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."

Randall 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."

Except possibly 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 grow up.

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.' "

Though many 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.

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