By Rubin E. Grant
Growing up as a University of Alabama college football fan, I wasn’t a fan of Pat Sullivan when he played quarterback for Auburn. But I was glad to see Sullivan win the 1971 Heisman Trophy because no player in the history of the state had won the prestigious award.
When I came to Birmingham in 1979 and started my sports writing career, I interviewed Sullivan on many occasions while he was Samford’s football coach, from 2007 to 2014, and during his previous coaching stops at Texas Christian University as head coach, from 1992 to 1997, and at UAB as offensive coordinator, from 1999 to 2006. I grew to respect and admire him because of his honesty and dignity.
The relationship between coaches and the media used to be one of mutual respect and sometimes friendships developed, but during my 40-year plus career, it’s become more adversarial and sometimes downright hostile.
But it’s hard for me to see how anyone could have had a contentious relationship with Sullivan. He was a gentleman in a sport that doesn’t always lend itself to such noble character.
Sullivan, 69, died Dec. 1 after a lengthy battle with cancer. The Sullivan family had a celebration of his life service Dec. 6 at the Grants Mill Campus of Church of the Highlands.
I remember my last sit-down interview with Sullivan, in April of 2018. He had been named as the honoree for the American Cancer Society’s Tee It Up Fore Life 2018 golf tournament at Old Overton Club.
We met at his office on the third floor of the Samford football building that bears his name, the Sullivan-Cooney Family Field House. His personal assistant, Darryl DuBose, was right by his side.
“He’s my brother,” Sullivan said fondly.
Sullivan was being nourished through a feeding tube and had an oxygen tank to help him breathe.
“I’m doing all right,” he said. “I have my issues to fight every day, but the good Lord has been good to me.”
And the good Lord has been good to me by allowing me the privilege of knowing Pat Sullivan.
During Sullivan’s memorial service, Samford University President Andrew Westmoreland, who hired Sullivan to be the Bulldogs’ head coach in 2006, said, “We all thought he belonged to all of us. He lived as a Heisman Trophy winner here at the center of the college football universe, and he did it without pretense and with genuine humility.”
I asked a few others who knew Sullivan to give their reflections. Here is what they had to say:
Bob Lochamy, lifelong friend and former radio broadcaster:
“When I think about Pat Sullivan, I think about his compassion, his sincerity, his integrity and his perspective. Those were his most powerful characteristics for his players, his coaches and the community.
“We grew up together on Mims Avenue in West End. When he was announced at his press conference at Samford, somebody said to me, how long have you known coach Sullivan. I looked around and saw his family members, and other than them, I’d known him longer than anyone in the room.”
Lochamy told a story about how Sullivan interacted with a friend of his, Barton Long, a former Samford player, at the end of a press conference.
“Barton has had MS (multiple sclerosis) for 25 years. He’s gone from not being able to drive or work to being relegated to a walker and now a motorized chair. After the press conference, Pat came over and said, ‘Bob, thank you for coming.’ He reached out to shake Barton’s hand and he noticed the walker leaning next to the chair and then Pat kneeled down in the coaching position to get eye-to-eye with Barton. And Barton said, ‘Coach I never thought we’d have a Heisman Trophy winner at Samford.’ Pat blushed and said, ‘I’m honored to be at Samford. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Months later, Sullivan invited Long to speak to his Samford players on a Friday before a game the next day. Lochamy said, “Pat was so moved by what Barton said he was in tears and I had a lump in my throat.”
“There’s no way you can measure what impact that had on Barton Long’s life. I could see the gleam in his eyes, the smile on his face and strength in his voice as he spoke to the players. That meant the world to Barton, and it’s all because of Pat Sullivan’s compassion, sincerity, integrity and perspective.”
“Another thing is how Pat and (his wife) Jean and their family became an inspiration to so many families, husbands and wives, in how to deal with their own trials and tribulations, with the way they dealt with Pat’s cancer.”
Scott Myers, executive director of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame:
“Coach Sullivan was so humble, such a thoughtful person on all accounts, and such a fine man. We got to know each other more after I started working for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Before that I
was affiliated with Samford with the business school and the athletic department when he got the head coaching job there. I was ecstatic that someone of his influence, caliber of character and integrity was coming to Samford. I think it was a perfect fit.
“He loved the game so much, and of course he was an Auburn icon. He was a unique individual.”
Early this year, the ASHOF named an award for Sullivan and former Alabama quarterback Bart Starr, who died in May. The Starr-Sullivan Achievement Award will recognize a former collegiate quarterback who exhibits exemplary character, integrity and leadership while making a significant contribution in the community.
“I’m so thankful we were able to name that award before both of them passed. There are not two finer men than those two.”
David Housel, former Auburn sports information director and athletics director:
“I think you can look at Pat Sullivan in many different ways. If you look at him in terms of Auburn, he was the Moses of the football program, how he brought them out of the desert. Auburn wasn’t winning for a
long time, and he could have taken the easy way out and gone to Alabama, but he came to Auburn to play for coach (Ralph “Shug”) Jordan. He gave Auburn hope. The first game he played, he reared back and threw a long pass to Terry Beasley. It was incomplete, but you knew this was a different time for Auburn football.
“In terms of a man, he was a quality man, a humble man, a quiet man. As Shakespeare said, the ‘elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to the world, ‘This was a Man!’
“Pat had more accolades than you can name, but his finest hour was the way he battled cancer toe to toe for all those years. In his fight, he taught others how to fight. He was a profile in courage. That dwarfs everything else he ever did.”
Rubin E. Grant is a sportswriter for Over The Mountain Journal.