The Toughest Coach There Ever Was
by Frank Deford
Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan was known for his iron fist and his passing game, but there was much more to the man.
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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 roadhouses 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.
Bull Cyclone had been reared nearby-"So far out in the country you could still smell pu'pwood on his breath," according to his old friend Carlton Fleming. Sullivan moved his wife, Virginia, and two daughters-another daughter and a son would come later onto campus into what was known as The Alamo, a broken-down dormitory that housed the football players. It was reputed to be the only three-story public building in the county. The old place was so ramshackle that the Sullivans had to practice "leak drills." But it was home, and Christmastime they'd set up the tree out where the boys on the team could share it.
Getting those quarters in The Alamo was crucial because all Bull Cyclone was paid for being the football coach-and the baseball coach and athletic director-was $3,600 a year, plus $75 for every game he won. Most of the latter went for gas so he could go on recruiting trips. Bull Cyclone couldn't do much work over the phone inasmuch as there were only three in all of Scooba, one at the drugstore, and one each at the president's house and the president's office.
What Scooba had above all was homogeneity. The students were all the same: free, white, going on 21, mostly penniless. They were bound together in a way that most of today's diverse student bodies couldn't conceive. The girls were only allowed out one night a week, and on the Sabbath girls and boys alike were "urged" to attend both Sunday school and church and then, for good measure, to observe a "quiet hour" from two to three in the afternoon. "At this time," the school catalog explained, "students are to be in their rooms. It is suggested that they write their parents during quiet hour and that they spend some of this time in meditation." The college library had only 4,500 volumes. A football coach could be a gigantic personage in that sort of place.
And he was. For amusement Scooba had jig joints and bad girls, hunting and fishing, and, in season, football. It has always been Dixie's game. Bradberry, who was raised close by in the little town of Sturgis, says, "If you were a boy and grew up in Sturgis, Mississippi and didn't play football for the high school, your daddy didn't get credit at the grocery store."
Said the East Mississippi catalog the year that Bull Cyclone arrived, "Athletics may be justified as part of the physical culture program, as a recreational feature and as disciplinary measure.... We also teach good sportsmanship and self-denial in habits and attitudes:'
Armed with that mandate, Bull Cyclone got in his old station wagon and, like some preacher or salesman, hit the highways and byways in search of football players. He had only one returning from the winless '49 season. Sullivan ranged far and wide and, brandishing the GI Bill, even induced some soldiers at various posts to abandon service for their country to play for Scooba. Tales of such outlanders arriving on motorsickles can still be heard. "They'd put 'em in jail for tearing up, and then they'd tear up the jail," Fleming recalls with a guffaw. But on his field, Bull Cyclone, who peaked out at around 6' 5" and 285 pounds, brooked no backtalk.
His first team assembled, coach Sullivan called up and got a game with Little Rock J.C. to open the season. And what was Little Rock J.C.? Only the '49 winner of the Junior Rose Bowl, the junior-college champion of America. Bull Cyclone was scared of no one, and he would prove it.
When the Scooba team arrived in Little Rock, it was told to practice at the stadium itself. Bull Cyclone, who was especially attuned to spies, suspected that some would be hidden in the stands, so he had his players run all sorts of goofy plays. After a while, Bull Cyclone called over his manager. Managers were very important to Bull Cyclone, and he expected almost as much of them as he did of his quarterbacks. "The trouble with being a manager for my father," recalls Bobbie, his oldest daughter, "is that he assumed a manager would know what he wanted before he asked." Bull Cyclone instructed this first manager to play dumb and to go over to the Little Rock J.C. locker room and tell the coach that Scooba had forgotten to bring kicking tees. He then was to ask whether he could borrow some. Sure enough, the manager saw that the Little Rock coach was drawing all the ridiculous East Mississippi plays on a blackboard for his players.
Bull Cyclone was pretty sure, then, that his first game as a head coach would be "like taking candy from a baby." One of his major tenets was to strike fast with surprise. He knew Little Rock wouldn't know what hit it.
Back in Scooba that night, the postmistress, who had a good radio, picked up the game all the way from Little Rock. Bull Cyclone had promised that he would call in the outcome to the phone at the president's house, but during the game the lady with the radio started going around town giving everybody updates. Pretty soon a lot of townspeople were congregated around her radio in the Sullivans' apartment at The Alamo, listening to the game. This was the biggest thing that had ever happened to Scooba, and Bull Cyclone had only just come to town.
He beat the defending national champions 34-14, and his legend was in the making in that grateful little crossroads. As best we can tell, Bull Cyclone went 8-3 that first season, and 21-9 for three years, which was more victories than Scooba had enjoyed in its history. The college had been chartered in 1927, a step up from a county agricultural school. However, in 1953 Bull Cyclone departed Scooba, taking his family up to Nashville, where he wanted to finish up work for his bachelor's degree in physical education at Peabody College.
Once he had his degree in hand, though, he planned to return to Scooba. And he did-for the '56 season. East Mississippi had taken on a new president in the interim, a local man familiar with Bull Cyclone's exploits, and he hired him back. The president was a little red-haired fellow named R.A. Harbour. He always went by his initials, hoping that no one would remember that his square name was Ritzi Algeine. Unfortunately, behind his back he was called Stumpy, for he was as small a man as Bull Cyclone was big.
Like the coach, though, the president was married to a smart woman, one who was every bit his partner. Edna Harbour joined the faculty at Scooba, and she eventually became its public relations director. Edna was a beautiful woman, taller than her husband, and she constantly pushed Stumpy, regularly correcting him and embarrassing him in front of his colleagues.
Still, it's fair to say that Stumpy wanted as much for the college he ran as Bull Cyclone did for the football team, and the new president was delighted to get Sullivan back in '56. The team had again fallen on hard times, and the fans had grown resentful, as all fans do, at the lack of success. When Stumpy hired Bull Cyclone, the Kemper County Messenger ("This is the only newspaper in the world whose sole interest is in Kemper County") exulted: "He is considered one of the best offensive coaches in existence, including senior college.... Sullivan's teams didn't always win, but they always put on a show for the spectators. When you saw Sullivan's boys play, you saw a jam-up scoring, razzle-dazzle game that left you breathless and sometimes mad also. But you saw a football game."
But it was just like '50 all over again. Scooba had only two players back from the '55 squad, so Bull Cyclone had to scour the territory for live bodies. The way it worked then, at Scooba and at a lot of other places, a coach would rope in so many players, weed out the losers during summer practice and then "dress out" the survivors. Bull Cyclone didn't disguise what he was doing. Just the opposite. A candidate he was recruiting would ask, "Corch, are you giving me a scholarship?"
"Yeah," Bull Cyclone would grumble, ''I'm giving you a scholarship-if you don't quit or if I don't run you off." It was customary for a Scooba player-freshman or sophomore-to sign his scholarship form as he boarded the team bus to go to the first game.
Understand, "running off" was a fairly common gridiron practice in those days. It was, far example, what cemented Bryant's reputation as a martinet when he started coaching at Texas A&M in '54. You didn't get cut, you got run off the team. Or perhaps, more often, you chase to run yourself off. "Bull ran off more All-Americans than he kept," says Dan Edwards, who played quarterback at Scooba in the late '50s. Players can remember hearing suitcases banging dawn the stairs of The Alamo just before dawn as boys decided not to go through another two-a-day. Others would leave surreptitiously in the black of night. They'd sneak dawn the stairs and then push their cars out of earshot before starting them up, lest Bull Cyclone woke up and come after them and make them stay on the team.
When Sullivan's old players get together, they often wonder about the ones that quit. It wasn't exactly dishonorable to get run off. After all, a lot did, and damn near everybody almost did. Edwards, for example, left six times before ultimately deciding to stay. Still, the survivors wonder whatever happened to the others. Well, here's one report, from C.R. Gilliam of Carrolton, Ala.: "We'd practice four hours in the morning and then four more hours in the afternoon. I was playing defensive guard and got my nose broken. It was bleeding real bad and pushed around to the side, but Bull just kicked my butt and told me to get back in there.
"That night, I'm laying on that pillow, my nose is aching, I'm feeling real sorry for myself, and I'm thinking, 'I don't have to take this.' I got up and met Bull in the hall the next morning and told him I was going home. 'How?' Bull asked me. 'Walkin',' I told him. I started out and must have gotten four or five miles, to near Geiger, when here come that red Pontiac station wagon of his. He picked me up and took me on home to Carrolton. I never did go to the doctor about that nose."
Something like 200 of Bull Cyclone's players became coaches, and he'd tell them, "Son, don't never worry about a player who leaves. The only thing for you to do is find out why he left and work on it for the next one comes along like that."
Coaching, at least as it was practiced then, in the good old days, wasn't exactly like the ministry. The idea wasn't to save all the souls. The ones that got run off were on their own, but the ones who stayed would be affected far out of proportion. Bull Cyclone, like a lot of coaches, especially football coaches, had more impact on many boys' lives than did their fathers. It was all very basic, really. "You either loved him or you didn't stay," says Bill Buckner, Scooba's best quarterback, who is now the coach at Hinds J.C. "He pushed everyone to the point where they either left him or they gave him what they were capable of."
Edwards remembers the year he was captain and a big lineman complained that Sullivan was slugging him. "Nobody hits me, not even my daddy," the lineman said. But Edwards wasn't about to get involved. "Besides, Bull wasn't really hitting the boy," he says. "Just in the solar plexus."
"Yeah," says Bill (Sweet William) Gore, a retired postman who was Bull Cyclone's good friend. "They'd think he was killing a boy out there when all he was doin' was gettin' his attention."
Bull Cyclone's attention getting took varied farms. One of his favorite tactics was to have his players practice hitting one-on-one, head on, right before a game or, when he was especially irritated, at halftime, or even during time-outs. More often than not, this was very disconcerting to the wide-eyed apposition, not to mention what it did to the bodies of the Scooba players. Often in these drills Bull Cyclone wouldn't tell his players who was supposed to be the ballcarrier and who was supposed to be the tackler. So, starting 20 yards apart, a pair of players would tear into one another. Before such drills, Bull Cyclone also had the habit of saying, "Now, I don't want to see any of you ----s standing up, and I don't want to see any of you ----s on the ground."
L.C. Jeffries, who played on one of Bull Cyclone's early teams after having seen combat with the Second Infantry in Korea, says, "Sure, we broke some ribs and noses going one-on-one with ourselves at halftime, but understand that what Bull did didn't come out of cruel rural ignorance. He was a smart man and he was playing on the psyche."
Although Bull Cyclone would line up all his players in their star jerseys for the pre-game head-ons, he often made sure that his best ones, especially the quarterbacks, who were inviolate in his scheme, never took a lick. When they neared the front of the line, one of the eight or nine scrubs would jump ahead and replace them in the rotation. These unfortunates Sullivan called the "gook squad." Hence when the apposition looked over to see Scooba banging heads, what it unknowingly saw far the most part was the gook squadders repeatedly laying into each other.
Bull Cyclone made sure, though, that no one on the team felt safe. Sometimes he would advise his players, "I've killed more men than I can stack on this football field." That usually got their attention. One time, when he was mad at Bradberry, he said, "Bradberry, I killed seven gooks with a foxhole shovel. One more sonofabitch like you won't matter."
If these remarks were hyperbolic, their substance was real enough. Sgt. Sullivan had fought the last battles of the Pacific with the First Marines, ending up on Okinawa, where he was wounded on June 16, 1945. Maybe that's why he thought he could demand so much of his players, whose sacrifices couldn't compare with those of the good Americans he had fought alongside, and left behind-and finally, as we shall see, honored. He never quite separated war and football. Flipping through what seems to be a scrapbook dedicated entirely to football, one suddenly comes to a long clipping about Okinawa, with a huge headline: BLOODIEST BATTLE OF THE PACIFIC. Once at halftime Bull Cyclone spread his players along the 50-yard line--"Team! A-ten-shun!"--and marched them to the end zone, military style, to reacquaint them with that foreign terrain.
Bull Cyclone didn't always need a whistle to get his players' attention. He just hollered "Whoaaa!" and everything screeched to a halt. His language, especially in the earlier years, could wilt the blossoms in Mr. Smith's pasture. Grown men listened in awe when he cursed-"Unbelievably vile," says Charlie Box, who was a fullback and no prude. One time, Dick Potter, a referee, felt obliged to penalize Scooba 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct because of how grossly Bull Cyclone had yelled at one of his own players.
But more frightening was his mere presence. He was big all over-ham-hock arms, huge feet, a melon head so large that when he decided to change his game ensemble, switching from a ten-gallon hat to a baseball cap, he had to split the cap in back to get it comfortably on his head. Virginia, a lovely woman, his second wife, who was at his side all the years in Scooba, remembers a player telling her, "Miz Sullivan, we're not afraid of Corch. Why, we reckon ten or twelve of us together could whip him." Players commonly took off their shoes as they passed his room, fearful that they might awaken him from a nap. A lot of times he would tear off his coat in the middle of a game, throw it down, stomp on it and then sort of hurl it back to the bench. Whatever player got in front of it would quickly pass it along, because nobody wanted to be holding it when Bull Cyclone started looking for his coat again. And, to be sure, nobody dared put it on the ground. So the coat would go up and down the bench like a hot potato.
Lester Smith, a quarterback from Foley, Ala., recalls one game at Southwest during which the fans were "giving him fits." When the game was over and the fans were threatening his players, Bull Cyclone told them, "O.K. now, if I say 'sic 'em,' I mean sic 'em!" But he became the point man and went and stood in the stadium gate and glared at the fans until one by one they all melted away, and Bull Cyclone's team filed out, unmolested.
To spice up practices Bull Cyclone would sometimes have the managers wrap old mattresses around pine trees to make blocking targets. The idea was to see if anybody could slam into a tree hard enough to knock off a pinecone. Try it. Or, if he thought things were slack during a scrimmage, he would scream, "Get after it!" and the linemen were automatically obliged to choose up and start fighting one another.
From his Parris Island days, Bull Cyclone borrowed the idea of an obstacle course, adding a wrinkle of his own-a trip wire in the tall grass that the managers yanked as the weary players came through. From another part of the course, Bull Cyclone would hurl bricks at the players as they tried to regain their balance after clambering over a wall. He would miss, but barely. He did, however, get their attention.
Probably his most famous gambit was to hold scrimmages at the edge of the pond, which is located at the bottom of a gentle slope, down from where Mr. Smith's pasture used to be. Bull Cyclone came up with the scheme in order to test goal-line defenses. He took his defensive unit and lined it up in the shallow water, which came up to about the players' knees. Then Bull Cyclone had the offense storm down the hill. It "scored" if the running back could make it into the water.
Gerald Poole, who's still on the faculty at Scooba, was Bull Cyclone's defensive assistant the day he dreamed up the pond scrimmage. "You think your defense is tough?" Bull Cyclone roared, and then had coach Poole station his players in the water. The first two goal-line plays, off-tackle, failed to get a splashdown. On the third and last shot, Poole told his middle linebacker that he thought the ballcarrier would come right over the middle on the next assault. "If he does, I'm gonna shoot him like an old dove," the linebacker said. Sure enough, the runner took the handoff and tried to leap into the pond over center. The linebacker popped up, met him at the height of his dive, and the two players crashed into the muck, headfirst. It wasn't uncommon for the defenders to lose their cleats in the Mississippi mud.
The reference to dove shooting wasn't unusual, either. Most Scooba players were country boys who had, like the coach, grown up with guns. Because Bull Cyclone was almost paranoid about opponents spying, he outfitted his managers with rifles. On at least two occasions it's documented that Bull Cyclone grabbed a rifle from a manager and fired at a private airplane that had strayed into his practice airspace. Another time he bade the manager to open fire on a plane, but the boy panicked, threw down the gun and, so the story goes, ran off the field, never to show his face again in Scooba. On another occasion, a succession of shots heard from where a manager was stationed-with a shotgun and orders to shoot to kill any suspected spies.
"Oh my Lord!" Bull Cyclone screamed. "Who did he shoot?"
Mercifully, no one. The manager was just another old country boy, and when he saw a covey of quail nearby, he blasted away.
Scooba boys were the last in the country to eschew leather helmets, because Bull Cyclone believed that the hard modern helmets caused more injuries than they prevented. He thought his players would be better off with the nice, soft leather helmets-especially if they were decked out with skull and crossbones. No sooner had he thought of the skull-and-crossbones idea than he dispatched a manager with a bunch of helmets for Mrs. Sullivan to start painting. "Bob thought the skull and crossbones would kind of rattle the other team," she says. "He told the players, 'Now, you don't have to make faces. But don't smile.' "
Traditionally, when the Scooba players came out before a game, they didn't make a sound. Most teams scream and shout and carry on to prove they're ready to play, but Bull Cyclone thought that was a waste of good energy. His charges came out as silent as the fog. Imagine being a player on the other team, and here comes the bunch you're going to play, togged out in star jerseys-and now in skull-and-bones helmets-quiet as mice, and then on the sideline they start going one-on-one. That was likely to get your attention.
Bull Cyclone had some kind of temper. Because he was a man of his word, remarks he made while in a rage were not disregarded. He often drove the team bus, a rattly, broken-down vehicle that was known as Night Train because it seemed to function better after the sun went down. After one defeat, Bull Cyclone climbed behind the wheel and announced that he was so mad he was going to run the bus off the road and kill the whole team. Box, who was aboard, says, "I don't know how many of us believed him-most of us believed everything he ever said-but the manager sure did, because he started crying, 'Well, let me off first, Corch, because I'm just the manager, and I didn't have a thing to do with us losing this game.'"
Bull Cyclone's tempestuous hijinks didn't go unnoticed. People would come out just to watch him carry on, throw his coat down, stomp on his hat. One time at Holmes the crowd got so abusive that Bull Cyclone called time and had his players pick up their benches and march to the other side of the field. Robert McGraw, now an assistant at Ole Miss, recalls seeing Bull Cyclone storm onto the field because a wide receiver had run the wrong route. He picked up the player by his jersey and sort of flung him aside. The boy scurried to the bench and hid under it, quaking, while the coach stormed back, the fans all the while chanting, "Give 'em hell, Bull!"
At his maddest, he could really kick a ball. Langston Rogers, who served as Bull Cyclone's aide-de-camp and is now the sports information director at Ole Miss, swears that on one occasion when the coach got mad at the officials, he blustered onto the field between plays, right up to the line of scrimmage, and booted the ball 30 yards, soccer style, dead through the uprights. Another time he went out and kicked the game ball into the stands. As a result the Mississippi Junior College Association required him to spend the whole next game in a chair on the sideline. Stumpy Harbour was infuriated. He acted as if Bull Cyclone had embarrassed him in front of the other presidents. None of them had a football coach kicking game balls into the stands, did they?
A lot of people thought Bull Cyclone would never be able to sit still in the chair the entire game, so there was no telling what Stumpy would do. But, wouldn't you know it, Bull Cyclone stayed put, barely even rising from his seat. That might have made Stumpy even madder. Bull Cyclone could control himself when he had to. Why, to this day, you'd have a hard time finding a lady in Kemper County who ever heard coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan utter a curse word.
For that matter, although he constantly fought with officials, he never argued just to dispute a call. Bull Cyclone only let the officials have it when he thought they had misinterpreted a rule. "You stink, Billbo!" he screamed when Billbo Mitchell made a call that Sullivan didn't agree with. Mitchell stepped off 15 before saying, "Can you still smell me, Bull?" Bull Cyclone was a stickler about the rules. He knew the book so well and cared so passionately for it that General Neyland, the revered Tennessee coach, eventually got Bull Cyclone from Scooba appointed to the NCAA rules committee, even though his unknown little school wasn't even a member of that august national body.
This isn't to say that Bull Cyclone was above taking the rules as far as they could go. At least one time, in the rain, he taped thumbtacks to his quarterbacks' fingers so they could get a better grip on the ball. That worked just fine until the tacks started scratching up the pigskin better than a Don Sutton belt buckle. Another time, Bull Cyclone got to thinking about how his linemen pulled out to block. He was using the split T then, and most of the plays came off the quarterback rolling right. So Coach thought, "Well now, if my guard and tackle are going to pull on just about every play and everybody figures this, I might as well get them headed in the right direction to start with." So he had them come up to the line of scrimmage and take their three-point stances facing the other way, with their rear ends staring the opposing linemen in the face.
And on a most memorable occasion, just as Scooba was about to score against Southwest, the officials called a holding penalty, citing the number of a player who wasn't in the game. Enraged by this breach, Bull Cyclone ran onto the field to get his point across better. That's an automatic 15 on top of the 15 for holding. First-and-40. Potter, the referee, said, "You gotta go back, Corch," but Bull Cyclone kept on coming. Another 15. First-and-55. "C'mon, Bull," Potter pleaded. He liked him. "Go on back, or I gotta give you 15 more."
"I don't give a damn!" Bull Cyclone thundered. "You're wrong!" Potter stepped off 15 more. First-and70. Then, as soon as Potter placed the ball down once again, Bull Cyclone went into his patented kicking phase. He booted the bejesus out of the ball. By the time they retrieved it, it was first-and-85.
Because they had nearly run out of acreage and he had made his point, Bull Cyclone returned to the sideline, pausing only to tell his quarterback to call a Z-out, Z-in. This was one play, mind you. Southwest was still laughing and, needless to say, wasn't looking for Bull Cyclone to try to get the whole 85 back on one play. But he was. Z-out, Z-in, TD.
"Wooo, that did it," Poole says.
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 halftime. 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."
"Yeah, he was tough," Edwards says. "But I loved him like a father. And I'll tell you: Any player who ever stayed with him will say that."
That was the way it was. That was the way people let it be. The players were all the same sorts, they were in it together, and football and Okinawa were very much the same. "Football doesn't mean near as much as it used to," Bradberry says. And no, he goes on, there's no way in the world that he--or anybody else--could coach Scooba the way coach Sullivan did. "The ones playing now look at football differently," says Bradberry. "They've got more to do. There's nowhere near as many dedicated people."
Bull Cyclone's family remembers the first time he saw the Beatles, and, recalls Royce Tucker, one of his daughters, "he thought the world had come to an end." Still, everybody could see that at least he made some accommodations as the '60s came to an end and a new type of player evolved. Nonetheless, as Royce says, "Yeah, he changed some. He changed, but he liked the old ways best. You could see he was under some stress."
One time he told Royce flat out, "You can't coach in the same way."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because it doesn't work anymore." And that was all there was to that.
At a very early age the boy who would become Bull Cyclone realized that the best chance he had on this earth was with football. That doesn't mean he was dumb. Mrs. Elizabeth Cunningham, one of his high school teachers, remembers that he was an "excellent" student, and all through his life he loved such un-pigskin things as writing and anthropology. But the Sullivans were the poorest of poor whites in the poorest of times in the poorest part of the country.
Mrs. Sullivan had to support six children by herself because her husband, Wild Bill, dropped dead one day, down at the creek, fishing for dinner. Mrs. Sullivan barely got by, working at the cotton mill in Aliceville. That's just up from Scooba, only on the Alabama side.
Bull Cyclone was born in Echola, in Tuscaloosa County, Ala. in 1918, and the family moved to Aliceville when he was 10. Mrs. Sullivan moved the family again when young Bob was 16. She went down to Mobile, hoping to find a better paycheck in the big city. But Bob stayed behind to play football for Aliceville High. He got a room in back of a store by the cotton mill, paying for it by sweeping out the place. Years later, as a coach, no matter how badly Bull Cyclone would embarrass a player, he'd never let a boy be embarrassed by his clothes. Whenever possible, he'd try to get the youngster some better duds.
He also learned to abide almost any sort of person except someone who put on airs. It especially irritated Bull Cyclone that Stumpy Harbour had come to be more interested in the trappings of his office than in the substance. According to Bull Cyclone, Stumpy would rather gussy up the president's expanding mansion than improve the curriculum. Bull Cyclone never could tolerate Kemper County's self-proclaimed social elite, which dismissed the Sullivans as boorish newcomers even after they'd lived in Scooba for 15 years.
One spring Sunday, Bull Cyclone took his family out to lunch over at the old Five Points Restaurant. It had a fine reputation, although its owners closed down with the onset of integration rather than serve the colored on white tablecloths. But on this particular Sunday, one of the pillars of Scooba society was also dining there, and she kept casting sideways looks at the Sullivans. Bull Cyclone stared back at the dowager, and out of the corner of his mouth, to his family, he whispered, "Don't anyone dare laugh." Then, while smiling at the matron, he reached over, picked up one of the daffodils that decorated the table and, most conspicuously, ate it, stem and all.
Staying alone back in Aliceville paid off for Bull Cyclone. He captained the football team in '37 and was its biggest and best player, a barreling fullback in the old short punt formation. On defense he was a linebacker. His play gained him passage to Union University up in Jackson, Tenn. By then Bull Cyclone had married a hometown girl named Thelma. The marriage didn't work, except for the three children it produced. One of the two sons was named Vic. Later on, when Bull Cyclone married Virginia, they named their only son Vic, too. The two half-brothers are known as Big Vic and Little Vic. Few people knew that the father's middle name was Victor, and if you ask anyone why Bull Cyclone gave two sons the same name, he'll say, "Corch always wanted to have a victory around." That isn't as farfetched as it seems; he and Virginia named their third daughter Gael because he wanted to have a Little Cyclone.
In 1942 Union was a football powerhouse, going undefeated and outscoring the opposition 211-75 behind a fabled back known as Casey Jones. Sullivan, big No. 41, was settled at center by then and was good enough to get an offer from the Detroit Lions. But he joined the Marines instead.
Bull Cyclone probably decided to be a coach while in the service. Certainly, his experience at Parris Island, where he became a DI, relates to Scooba. "The recruits hated you so much it was hard to take," he once told Virginia. "But by the end of the training cycle they had come to love you. They'd even buy you a little something, and then they'd leave, and the awful part of it was, there was a whole new group in there the next day, hating you all over again."
The members of that great '42 Union team had vowed to come back and finish school together. But when Bull Cyclone returned late in '45, shrapnel in his right leg, blinking nervously from all the gunfire, jumping at unexpected noises, he discovered that the Union administration had eliminated football. For one of the few times in his life he was bitter. In the college paper he wrote this in his sports-page column, which was entitled by Sullivan on Sports: "Then the matter of a war came along and the boys left the football field for the battle field only [to] return and find what they fought for [had been] taken from them by people who slept between clean sheets while the boys made themselves cozy in a muddy foxhole."
Before departing Union at the end of the school year, Bull Cyclone got his first real coaching experience and crowned it by marrying one of his players. His marriage to Thelma had been dissolved by now, and when Bull Cyclone took over a girls' softball team on campus, he took a shine to the shortstop. He named the team the Terrapins because he thought the players were so slow. He shifted the shortstop, Virginia Dale, to first (and later tabbed her All-League in his column) and led the club to an undefeated season. The first big game he ever coached was a showdown between the Terrapins and their main rival, which boasted the league's fastest pitcher. To prepare his girls Bull Cyclone brought in his roommate, a softball pitcher, to throw batting practice. The first two days, they didn't get a bat on the ball, but by the time they had to face the female fireballer, her vaunted offerings looked like change ups, and she was quickly driven out of the box. Not long afterward, Sullivan married his first-sacker, and they headed to Reno so he could play football at the University of Nevada, where a coach named Whistlin' Jim Aiken was assembling a postwar juggernaut.
Nevada set national offensive records that stood for years, and Bull Cyclone was a standout at center and linebacker, good enough to make the Shrine All-Star game in Honolulu, where he intercepted three passes. The Baltimore Colts of the old All-American Conference offered him a contract. But when Whistlin' Jim went north to take over as coach at the University of Oregon in 1947, he asked Bull Cyclone to come along as an assistant, and he did. Sullivan had decided it was time to stop playing and get on with his calling in life, which was to coach football.
When Bull Cyclone arrived in Scooba in '50, the split T, a grind 'em-out power offense, was in fashion, but he favored a wide-open passing game, so he operated from the I formation. Jimmy Jobe, who played and coached against Bull Cyclone, says, "Things you saw last Sunday for the first time on TV, well, I guarantee he was doing them 20 years ago. All that motion and then reverse-Bull was doing that in the late fifties."
"I had to laugh when Bill Walsh won the Super Bowl two years ago and everybody discovered a genius," says Bradberry. "Corch Walsh may be a genius, but Corch Sullivan was doing the same thing when I played for him in the sixties. I don't believe we ever ran a play that didn't have five receivers."
Adds Poole, "Every play was pass action. I don't know how anybody prepared for us. He'd make up at least six plays for every game."
He conjured them up at all waking hours. Around the house, plays would be sketched on newspapers, napkins, books, calendars; they were found on church programs and high school prom dance cards. One morning Bobbie discovered that her father had absentmindedly scribbled plays all over the margins of a term paper she was turning in that day.
Box remembers being awakened in his room in The Alamo at 3 a.m. by Little Vic. Instructing Box to follow, the boy took him downstairs to the Sullivan apartment and then right into his parents' bedroom. Virginia was sound asleep in her half of the bed. But Bull Cyclone was sitting up next to her, running a projector, staring at films on the far wall. He ran a play and asked Box if he thought a new variation involving him would work. Flabbergasted, Box said, "Yes sir, I don't see why not."
"O.K.," Bull Cyclone said. "Go back to bed." He promptly began to diagram the play on an index card. He usually had all his special plays for that week's game designed by Monday.
Bull Cyclone would take the basic stuff he planned to use and make a deck of plays that he flipped through on the sidelines. Says Bradberry, "I can see him now, wiping the blood off my face with one hand, shuffling through his deck with the other to find me the play he wanted." Purists maintain that one quarterback must be deputized to be in charge of a team, but if Bull Cyclone didn't believe he had an outstanding player, he'd use two, or even three quarterbacks during a game, alternating these paragons of leadership after each play. And it worked just fine.
For example, as a freshman Bradberry alternated with a string bean named Ricky Garner. In one game, Bull Cyclone got furious with Bradberry for citing some wrong information about a linebacker and yanked him. "You little sonofabitch," he screamed, "don't you ever open your mouth again. The only way you'll ever take another snap for me is if Garner breaks both his legs." But, out of the blue, late in the first quarter, Bull Cyclone summoned Bradberry from the bench, riffled through the deck and dispatched him to run one play. It wasn't exactly a vote of confidence, for the call was a rare halfback sweep, in which the quarterback was supposed to block. Bradberry ran the play and, on another possession midway through the second quarter, Bull Cyclone sent him back in to run the same punishing sweep.
Then, right before the half ended, the coach yelled for Bradberry again, shuffled through his deck and, like a magician, pulled out a card and showed it to the quarterback. "See this," Bull Cyclone said. "Hit the tight end, and it'll be a ---- touchdown."
Telling the story, Bradberry merely smiles, then shrugs and says, "And hey..." and raises his arms in the TD salute.
Defense bored Bull Cyclone, so he let his assistant handle that. Of course, from carefully studying the passing game, he became an expert at pass defense. Scooba played man-to-man and stunted constantly.
"Forty-four red dog" was his favorite defensive alignment: four-man line, four others up close, blitz. Against running attacks, which were what he usually faced, Sullivan's basic concept-again presaging the future-was to have his linemen "mess things up" so that the linebackers could dash up and make jarring tackles. A wiry little demon of a linebacker named Bob Wilson is reputed to have made as many as 25 stops in a game, 150 in one season.
In practice, though, Bull Cyclone would spend almost all of his time working on passing-7 -on-8-exiling the interior linemen to the sidelines, where they could get at it among themselves all day. Nowadays, major schools have so many assistants that a head football coach primarily has to be an administrator just to keep practices running effectively. But Bull Cyclone was always in the midst of things, and when he ran his beloved passing drills, he'd move right along with the team. Most coaches stand in one spot and shout "bring it back." Bull Cyclone's players would practice up and down the field, simulating a real drive. No one was allowed to disturb this routine, and, of course, no outsiders were present, lest they be shot as spies.
One thing Bull Cyclone had going for him was that few other teams concentrated on the pass-and none in all of America as much as he-so that opponents weren't geared to stopping a promiscuous aerial game. On the other hand, Scooba was invariably the runt of the litter. The Mississippi Junior College Conference had 15 teams then, and the rules limited recruiting to certain areas. Bull Cyclone, like Bradberry today, was left with slim pickings in his six backwoods counties. Big as he was himself, Bull Cyclone came to admire the tiny farmers' sons he had to make do with-"little itty-bitty boys," says Box, who played fullback at 160 pounds. Smith was a 150-pound quarterback, and Garner didn't weigh even that much. Wilson, the best linebacker Scooba ever had, barely went 135. You've heard of baseball players who can't hit their weight. The year Wilson supposedly made 150 tackles he might have been the only college football player in history to tackle more than his weight.
For all the great quarterbacks Bull Cyclone had-at one stretch four in a row went on to star at four-year colleges-the only uniform number he ever retired was 31. It belonged to a halfback named Clyde Pierce, who was always known as Baby Doll Pierce and always described as "Baby Doll Pierce, 124 pounds, soaking wet, from West Point, Miss." Bull Cyclone even had a reel of film made up just of Baby Doll to show the big guys what tough really was. One time Baby Doll got hurt, and as the call went out for a stretcher, Bull Cyclone just scooped up the limp little form and carried Baby Doll off the field in his massive arms.
Though quarterbacks enjoyed an exalted status in Bull Cyclone's cosmos, they suffered much more for their sins than other players. Smith was brought to Scooba two weeks before school opened in 1962, and he moved in with the Sullivans. As he studied the offense with Bull Cyclone, he became a member of the family. But in the first quarter of his opening game, after he had marched Scooba to a touchdown, he muffed the two-point conversion pass attempt. Smith turned around to find Bull Cyclone running at him, screaming, "You traitor, Smith! You're a traitor!" Smith couldn't believe what had come over the man. "I was fixin' to go over the hill right then," he says.
Smith stayed, however, and Scooba went on to qualify for something known as the Magnolia Bowl. Shortly before that game, Bull Cyclone saw quarterback Billy Wade of the Chicago Bears play a game on TV with tiny shoulder pads, and he figured Smith would profit from the same gear. Only Sullivan didn't have any tiny pads, so he asked Smith if he'd go padless. Smith quickly agreed. "You must understand, he had enough effect on me that I wouldn't even question him when he asked me to play without shoulder pads," Smith says. Bull Cyclone didn't let the rest of the players know what was up until just before the game. "Fellows," he said. "Lester's not going to wear any shoulder pads tonight." Long pause to let that sink in. "And ... he ... better ... not ... get ... hit." Smith didn't, either, except on two occasions when he lost his head, checked off the coach's plays and ran the ball on sneaks.
Although Scooba won and Smith escaped the coach's wrath, Bull Cyclone usually went berserk when a quarterback of his risked getting tackled. A perfect game wasn't a quarterback completing every pass. A perfect game was a quarterback not having his star jersey touched. The first thing Bull Cyclone taught any quarterback candidate wasn't how to throw a complete pass but how to throw an incomplete one. Bradberry well remembers the time Bull Cyclone ripped off his jersey and another time when he yanked off his helmet and chucked it clear into Mr. Smith's pasture, to illustrate how you threw a ball away with proficiency.
Once that art was mastered, Bull Cyclone's quarterbacks got down to completing passes. He required them to come out an hour before practice and half an hour before games and throw to each other "on a knee"-that is, kneeling-a drill that improves form and increases arm strength. Buckner threw so many passes that, for a while, he had to keep his arm in a sling when off the field. Over and over the quarterbacks would work on the same precise patterns, learning to release the ball before the receiver broke. And if a quarterback did anything incorrectly--or worse, stupidly--a terrible wrath was visited upon him. "Get out of my ---- huddle! Get out of my ----life!" Sullivan would bellow. The quarterbacks were different, and everybody knew it. Even now, the quarterbacks talk about Bull Cyclone in a more intimate way than do the other players. The quarterbacks were really the only ones who were back with him, alone, on Okinawa.
Bradberry says the most memorable moment of his life came in the first game of his second season. To this point, he'd never been anything but a "---- idiot" who did what he was told off the index cards. Suddenly, before one play, while standing on the sideline, Bull Cyclone turned to him and said, "Well, what do you think?" Bradberry's knees turned to jelly. He had been ordained. The rest of the season he was a junior partner' and, afterward, Bull Cyclone highly recommended him to Delta State. He was awarded a scholarship, and he broke the records Buckner had set there.
But Buckner was undoubtedly Bull Cyclone's best quarterback. He was the one who almost got everything for Coach. With his little itty-bitty boys, only twice did Bull Cyclone have enough to win it all. The last time was in '69. Looking forward to that season, he told Virginia, "It's going to be like taking candy from a baby." To others, more worldly than she, he advised that he was "holding a royal flush." The other time he could have won a championship was in '64, Buckner's final season.
In '63, when Buckner was a freshman, Scooba went 10-1-1 and was ranked seventh in the national J.C. rankings although, wouldn't you know it, Pearl River still won the conference. But with Buckner back in '64, Scooba was even more formidable, winning its first eight games and climbing all the way to No.3 in the country. Scooba was a lock to be invited to the Junior Rose Bowl if it kept winning. Scooba was going to come out of nowhere and show California football that Scooba was 15 to 20 years ahead of its time. Buckner was already a J.C. All-America. He had thrown for 39 touchdowns and almost 5,000 yards in 20 games. Further, he was Mr. Everything: president of the student body, head of the local branch of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Scooba's ninth opponent was Jones Junior College, the top defensive team in the conference. With a 6-1 record, Jones had lost only to Pearl River, by 6-0. It was homecoming at Scooba, and the festive crowd of 4,000 overflowed the stands, whose normal capacity was 3,000. Buckner didn't disappoint anyone, either. On the game's first offensive series, second-and-one on his own 40, he called an audible and struck with a touchdown pass to George Belvin. Sixty yards, just like that, for his 40th TD toss. Only 2:11 gone, and Scooba was up by seven. On to Pasadena!
Not only that, but Scooba held Jones and got the ball right back. Buckner had had such an outstanding career that all week Mississippi had been buzzing with rumors that Jones was out to get Buckner. However, Bull Cyclone had his charges ready. He put them through the toughest week of practices any of them had ever experienced. One day, Bull Cyclone even lashed out at Buckner, and pulled him from the starting lineup. Benching the greatest quarterback in junior-college ball was ludicrous, of course, but Bull Cyclone was bringing everything to a boil. "That man had a gift to know," Buckner says now.
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-mache. 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.
The best way to sum up Bull Cyclone was what a boy named Bernard Rush heard from an old-timer after Rush quit the team and went back home, over in DeKalb. "Son," the old fellow said, "you ought to get yourself back over to Scooba. Corch Sullivan will do anything to you on the football field, but then he'll do anything for you once you left." Rush went back.
Then, too, some said he even mellowed a bit in the '60s. During each Religious Emphasis Week, it was Bull Cyclone, the toughest coach there ever was, that the girls wanted to come to their dorm and talk to them about boys and morals and sex. He was a Methodist, but the Baptists wanted him to address them. He began to take to religion seriously and to punish himself. If he let loose a "goddam" during practice, the whole team was permitted to go in early. Finally, says Gael, one night in '67 he went to the front of his church and fell to his knees "in unashamed prayer." Scooba had telephones now, and the cynics in town burned up the wires questioning Bull Cyclone's sincerity. However, it was real, and it was true.
A few months later, Bull Cyclone brought a black player onto the team. Nineteen sixty-eight: Now that may not sound especially progressive, but it was three more years before Bryant integrated his Alabama squad and a year before any of the major Mississippi teams welcomed blacks. And Kemper County was the deepest part of Dixie.
Sylvester Harris wasn't just the first black player on the Scooba team; he was the first black to attend the college. In fact, East Mississippi had lost a lot of federal funds because President Harbour hadn't let in blacks. Sullivan's action made a good many people around Scooba mad; Kemper wasn't called Bloody Kemper for nothing. Not long before, when a company bought some timberland and began enforcing no hunting regulations, forest fires were set all through those lands. One day, one of the big shots in the county offered the coach $500 to run Harris off.
It would've been easy, too, because Harris wasn't all that good a player. But Bull Cyclone just told the man to clear out, and he went on treating Harris like any other player. Bull Cyclone once said to Tommy Atkins, a player who became a career Marine, "Tommy, there are two kinds of young men-those you have to kick in the pants to get their potential and those you have to pat on the back. If you, as a leader, make a mistake, you've done a great injustice. So be very careful and decide as accurately as you can whether to kick or to pat."
Away from the field Bull Cyclone could be a different character altogether. In his classroom, where he taught sociology and anthropology, he was, his students said, "like a Sunday school teacher." He got his master's in anthropology from Mississippi State in '66 and spent more and more time working in that discipline. He exchanged a lot of correspondence with Senator John Stennis, who came from down the road in DeKalb, about archeological work in Kemper. A 1968 photo shows Bull Cyclone with three of his students following a dig. In a caption he's quoted as saying, "The only significant find seemed to be a complex of single-shouldered projectile points, found in lower-strata kitter midden. The people who populated this site probably belonged to a Woodland Culture some 2,000 years ago."
Says Fleming, "Yeah, Bull had an old skeleton head and all." Otherwise, he devoted his spare time to studying the Good Book and watching football film. Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.
At home, for relaxation, he loved to listen to Stardust. Bull Cyclone could never get enough of Stardust. His favorite acquisition in all his life was an album he chanced upon that was entirely Stardust -14 versions of Stardust. His other musical favorites included Harbor Lights, Somewhere My Love and Easter Parade, which he enjoyed 12 months a year. His daughters were musical, and often he would cry out, "You can be a second Lennon Sisters!" Then he would fall asleep while Bobbie played Stardust for him on the piano.
When he'd first get home from practice, "we'd just lay back for a while," Gael says. The family cat was used as litmus paper. If the cat spied Bull Cyclone and ducked away, the practice hadn't gone well. Sometimes he'd line the family up, as if he were back at Parris Island, and make them fall in and count off. But it was fun. Their favorite order was "Get in the car!" because nobody knew whether he was going to take them for a drive, flying off the bumps in the road, or just go around in little circles in the driveway. One time, when they came to a Howard Johnson's, he pulled in and ordered 28 scoops of ice cream, one of each flavor. "We thought everybody had a family like ours," Bobbie says, laughing. His kids still refer to him as Bull.
Royce had to write this, because it was too emotional for her to say: "Bobbie spent her closeness with Bull at the piano. Gael would sing to him, and Vic was at the field house sharing his life there. My time with Bull was spent in nature and with animals. We would walk to ponds and put out fish traps (we always caught turtles). We would walk in the woods on Sundays. Bull would help me care for and learn all about my animals. This is where Bull taught me about God and the way of mankind and the world."
Still, no bigger school would touch Bull Cyclone. The word that traveled before him was that he was a thug, the meanest football coach that ever walked the land. Buckner remembers getting an offer to play quarterback at a major school "up north in Virginia." The backfield-coaching job was vacant, and he said he'd come if Bull Cyclone was hired. Buckner tried to explain what a genius the man was. The head coach told him to' save his breath. "Hey, I'm afraid of that man," he said.
Clois Cheatham, who is now the president of Scooba, shakes his head. "Off the field, no one was more compassionate," says Cheatham. "But the name was right. He was bullheaded, and he couldn't always make the right transition to others after dealing with players."
At Perkinston J.C., they used to fire a cannon right behind the visitors' bench to stir up the crowd. Bull Cyclone, who could still get nervous when he heard loud noises-"You didn't sneak up on Dad," Bobbie says-protested to the president of Perkinston, but the reply came back that the cannon was "tradition." Bull Cyclone then wrote that "my managers and I will bring double-barreled shotguns to Perkinston, and if there is one tradition I learned in the military it was to retaliate." The president agreed to silence the guns of Perkinston. And so the tales of rough, tough Bull Cyclone spread, and Stumpy Harbour simmered.
By now, too, Bull Cyclone had been pretty much his own football boss for a long time. Maybe he never could work well under someone else. Virginia recalls sitting in the press box with Bull when he was a lowly assistant at Oregon. Over the phone he kept imploring Whistlin' Jim Aiken to employ a certain strategy. After a while, when the head coach didn't, Bull Cyclone just sat back, folded his arms and watched the game, refusing to answer the phone for the balance of the half.
Without question he would have delighted in a larger stage, for even his family agrees that he loved recognition. But he had to learn to take refuge in his pride. "He knew he was a great coach," Bobbie says, and that had to be enough for him. Besides, he had come to believe that Scooba was his destiny, that that little stretch of nothing on the one hand and pu'pwood on the other was his realm. That was where he would teach football players to be men, and everybody else he could to be patriots and Christians. If the world was changing, at least the gridiron was a rectangular verity.
Around campus he came to be an amalgam of Mr. Chips and Mister Roberts. This image was heightened by his disputes with Stumpy. "If I agreed with Harbour on anything it was unintentional," Bull Cyclone later wrote. Once during a cold snap, many of the school's pipes burst. The campus had no water and the toilets didn't work, but Harbour wouldn't cancel school. Eventually Bull Cyclone persuaded him otherwise. Sullivan became even more of a hero. Some came to think that the roughest, toughest football coach in creation might make a terrific college president. Insecure little Stumpy, literally in the big man's shadow, envious of his esteem, now imagined a rival to his throne.
In 1967, The Lion, the Scooba yearbook, was dedicated to Bull Cyclone, with this inscription: "We respect your strong will, strength and spirit. We admire your nature, loyalty and competence. You are just, you are fair, you are great." The coach who had spent a lifetime hewing grown-ups out of pu'pwood had shaped himself into a whole man, too. This may be the best thing about the best coaches-not what they make of others in a couple of years but what, in the long run, they make of themselves.
Bull Cyclone was comfortable now. His family was growing up; two of the girls were already in college. He had his house by the end zone. He had completed his studies, and he was at peace with his God. The rest of the football world was even beginning to catch up to his wide-open style. All that eluded him was a championship, the one that had been wrenched from his grasp when Buckner ran with the damn ball. And the '69 squad was going to give him that. Already, by that spring, Virginia says, he had so many index cards that he had "a whole new box of offense." It was a lock. It was, as we know, "going to be like taking candy from a baby."
School was out, so the players and students who loved Bull Cyclone were away from Scooba when Stumpy Harbour convened the Board of Trustees to fire him on June 29, 1969. Three of the coach's strongest supporters weren't on hand. Still, word of the meeting and what the president had in mind leaked out. Joe Bradshaw, one of Bull Cyclone's former players, distributed petitions in his support that were signed by every high school coach in the Scooba district. Stumpy refused to admit the petitions. Neither did he admit friends of Bull Cyclone's who gathered outside the meeting room.
Bull Cyclone couldn't speak in his own behalf, but he wrote a letter to the board. His desperation was obvious, his supplicant's tone almost pitiful: "I have heard through the grapevine that you have been called together to take up my contract as coach at East Mississippi Junior College. I beg you not to do this. This school is part of my life and I am a part of it; as a matter of fact, this school is my life."
He was dictating to Virginia. "If you put me 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 in justice, 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.
A couple of years later Little Vic was on the varsity at New Hope High in Columbus, and he was playing a good game. The referee was old Billbo Mitchell--Can you still smell me, Bull?--and when he kept hearing the name Sullivan on the P.A. for making tackles, he came over and peered closely at the rangy boy. Little Vic thought maybe he was being assessed a penalty for something or other, but he couldn't figure out why. Finally, Billbo said, "You wouldn't be any kin of the late Bull Sullivan, would you?"
"He was my daddy," Vic said. And then, right there, right in the middle of a game he was refereeing impartially, Billbo put the ball down and stuck out his hand and made Little Vic shake it. "I loved that man," he said.
Years before, Coach Poole had been sitting with Bull Cyclone in Bull's office in Scooba. Bull Cyclone put aside his index cards, pulled out a piece of paper and started doodling. Before long, Poole could tell he was drawing football jerseys, because he could see their general form and the big numbers. Of course, he didn't say anything. He just watched.
Then Bull Cyclone started on about the war and about the time he was with five soldiers with whom he had grown close. But when the island was secure, Bull Cyclone was the only one of them who came home. "There must be a reason," he said.
Coach Poole nodded.
"I've been searching for a way to honor them," he said, and then he doodled some more. He passed the drawing to Poole. "There, Corch," he said. It was a rough draft of the star jersey, with the five stars across the breast for the five boys who didn't get out in '45.
Bull Cyclone would live another 25 years, changing the autumns and the lives of Scooba football players he didn't run off in the summers.
©Sports Illustrated, April 30, 1984.
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