Pat Sullivan Was An Unbelievable Man

Monday, December 2, 2019

Pat Sullivan Was An Unbelievable Man

It’s difficult to explain to younger generations what Pat Sullivan meant not only to the Auburn Family but to the game in general. The Auburn legend passed away Sunday morning, he was 69 years old. He was not only a legend, he was a college football icon. He may be the last of the gentlemen coaches that used to roam the sideline. Men like his mentor, legendary Coach Ralph Shug Jordan.

Pat was a three-sport letterman at John Carroll CatholicHigh School in Birmingham – playing basketball, baseball, and football. Although he was a natural baseball player he went on to football stardom at Auburn.

In his day players were not allowed to play varsity sports till their sophomore year. In the three years he played, Pat broke or set school and NCAA records for passing and in 1970 led the nation in total offense.

Opposing coaches were in awe of his talent. After losing to Auburn, Georgia coach Vince Dooley said, “We were beaten by the best quarterback I’ve ever seen. Sullivan was a super player having a super day.”

Sports Illustrated, picking up on Dooley’s quote, headlined its article about the game with the title, “Underneath That 7 Is An S.” The magazine said Pat Sullivan could, “ everything but leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

Dooley’s sentiment was often echoed by other SEC coaches such as Alabama’s Bear Bryant, who felt Sullivan was one of the best to ever play the game. After Sullivan rallied the Tigers from a 17-0 deficit to defeat Alabama 33-28 in the 1970 Iron Bowl, Bryant said,“[Sullivan] does more things to beat you than any quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

Pat finished his varsity career with 6,284 passing yards and a NCAA record of 71 total touchdowns (53 passing and 18 running). A two-time All American, he was a two-time SEC player of the year, most valuable player in two bowl games, and still commands a place in the SEC record books. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

Sullivan was the second SEC Quarterback and the first Auburn player to win the Heisman Trophy. And he was given the Walter Camp Award in 1971 as the College Football Player of the Year.
He was part of the greatest tandem in college football history. The phrase “Sullivan to Beasley” is forever etched in the annals of Auburn football lore. Yet he remained a humble and gracious man.

I remember meeting him in the summer of 1988 at a booster club meeting. Although an Auburn sports hero, he treated my wife and I as though he had known us for years. And later he sent my wife an autographed picture that had been taken of our time together; a gesture that he went out of his way to do for us. Yes, he was a humble and gracious man.

After playing four years for the Atlanta Falcons he became a successful Birmingham business man and color analyst for Auburn football before becoming an Auburn assistant coach.

His career saw coaching stops at Auburn, TCU, UAB, and Samford University. As Pat Dye‘s quarterback coach, he helped Auburn win three SEC championships during the eighties while mentoring Auburn quarterback greats Jeff Burger, Reggie Slack, and Stan White.

He was the winningest coach in the history of Samford University, and in 2014 Samford renamed its football field house the Sullivan-Cooney Family Field House in his honor.

Many don’t realize it, but he was responsible for the renaissance of TCU football. In 2014 the school recognized that when it honored him and his 1994 Southwest Conference Championship team when TCU played Samford in the season opener. It was Sullivan who laid the foundation for the success the Horned Frogs enjoy today. And, he did it on a shoestring budget.

TCU trustee Malcolm Louden admitted, “We let him down on some things, and it made his job here more difficult.” He continued, “But down to the end, he remained one of the nicest, classiest people I’ve ever known.” Yet, the school refused to let him out of his contract when LSU made an offer to hire him in Baton Rouge.

Current TCU Coach, Gary Patterson said at the time, ““Pat Sullivan is an unbelievable man. A great football coach.” And anyone who ever met Pat came away with the same impression, he was just unbelievable.

His health hadn’t been good since he began a battle with throat cancer 16 years ago, and he had difficulty even coaching from the sideline his final 2914 season due to back surgery he had underwent before the start of that season. 

Health issues precipitated his retirement as Samford Head Coach. But his impact on the game was far greater than just a football coach. Fiercely loyal to his alma mater, he spent his life teaching youth his values and mentoring them, teaching them to be men, to be accountable, to have integrity, and all the while treating them as if they were his own sons.

So, the man who was the gentleman of college football has gone. His passing is a great loss to his wife Jean and their family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them. It’s a sad day not only for the Sullivan’s but for the extended Auburn Family as well. 

It’s also a sad day for college football to not have this giant of a gentleman around the game. In this day of big ego coaches who always seem ready to move on to the next highest bidder, the game needs more Pat Sullivan’s.

“He was an unbelievable man.”

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