The Most Charismatic name in Auburn Football History
January 1, 2020 | View PDF
That will not change. He battled cancer for years, continuing to coach until he could not stand up. Pat Sullivan, dead at the age of 69.
“The most charismatic name in Auburn football history.” That is what Coach “Shug” Jordan said about Pat Sullivan in 1971. There is no question that this was true in 1971 after Pat won the Heisman Trophy. It is also true today. Even after Bo Jackson and Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy, Pat Sullivan is the name that Auburn people revere over any other. Why is that true? There is no one reason. There are many. Maybe it is because Pat was the first Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn. Of course, that award cemented Sullivan’s name in the annuals of Auburn football history. The Heisman Trophy is not the main reason that the word “charismatic” was used to describe Sullivan. Could it be the fact that Sullivan’s Auburn teams beat “Bear” Bryant’s Alabama teams in 1969 and 1970 after five straight embarrassing losses to the dominating Crimson Tide. That surely helped. Coach Bryant said on his TV show, “I’ll be glad when that Sullivan boy graduates.”
Pat Sullivan is not the only reason Auburn was such a power in ’69, ’70, ’71. Auburn had some good football players. Terry Beasley was the number one receiver drafted by the NFL in 1972. Dick Smaltz was one of the best possession receivers in the country. Alvin Breshler was a great deep threat at wide receiver opposite of Beasley. He was even faster than Beasley. He just didn’t have Beasley’s agility. Terry is the most famous pass receiver in Auburn history and in the history of Robert E. Lee High School football.
Two other players from Montgomery were outstanding football players. Jimmy Speigner was a tough-as-nails linebacker and his brother, Danny Speigner, was a leader in the offensive line. Both were on the ’66 and ’67 Lanier High School state championship teams. The most amazing player from Montgomery on that team was Spence McCracken. At 5’10” and 200 pounds at best, he was the center and leader of the offensive line on those teams. He also was a star center and linebacker for the great Robert E. Lee teams in ’66 and ’67, who lost only to Lanier’s state championship teams.
Yes, Pat had plenty of help in dominating the headlines during those three years, culminating in his winning the 1971 Heisman Trophy. However, his leadership kept the Tigers from losing their focus on the tasks that lay ahead. The years 1969, ’70, ’71, ’72 were when Alabama and Auburn football was at its zenith in the State of Alabama.
During those glory years, it was evident on and off the field that Pat Sullivan was the leader. He was not a “rah rah” type leader. He was a quiet, gentle leader. He held the team together when the going was tough. Every player looked up to him. Even the coaches were in awe of his skill in running the Auburn offense. If you had to rank the Auburn quarterbacks of all time, you would have to rank Pat Sullivan as number one. That is even considering the great Cam Newton who led the 2010 Tigers to the national championship. Newton was a better athlete. But, Pat Sullivan is the most charismatic name in the history of Auburn football. That’s hard to top.
Just to continue describing Sullivan’s impact on Auburn, I am going to risk drawing attention to another great leader from the State of Alabama. Pat Sullivan was Auburn’s Bart Starr. Starr was the same type of leader. His coaches in college were obviously not as good at recognizing talent as Coach Jordan was. Coach Red Drew probably recognized it in 1952, but didn’t know what to do with it. However, Drew was fired after Bart’s junior year during which Bart was battling injuries the entire time. Bart’s senior year, Coach “Ears” Whitworth did not even recognize Bart’s talent. Bart also sat on the bench in the NFL for a few years at Green Bay, Wisconsin. It took a real football coach in the person of Vince Lombardi, who took control of the Packers in 1958, to recognize what two college coaches and one NFL coach could not see. The references to Bart Starr are important to understanding my observations of Pat Sullivan’s less than successful professional career.
Norm Van Brocklin was the coach at the Atlanta Falcons when the Heisman Trophy winner was drafted by Atlanta in 1972. To understand what happened to Sullivan in Atlanta, one must understand Norm Van Brocklin. Van Brocklin was a great NFL quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles. What made him a good quarterback probably also made him a terrible football coach. He was a great passer with perfect delivery with the football. He was also cocky and more impressed with himself than most. You can see that his personality would clash with the quietly confident and humble Pat Sullivan. This combination was a disaster for Atlanta and for Sullivan. Van Brocklin did not like Sullivan’s delivery and release of the football, which had earned him the Heisman Trophy. He made the same mistake a lot of professional coaches make. He wanted to change everything about Sullivan’s mechanics. Instead of looking for leadership at the quarterback position, he wanted a precisely mechanical delivery just like his precisely mechanical delivery. “Over coaching” has led to the graveyard for many coaches. This was also Van Brocklin’s problem. “Do it like I do it, not like you do it.” At this point it is important to point out that Norm Van Brocklin did not win the Heisman Trophy.
Pat Sullivan had been a precise passer since 6th grade when he first started playing quarterback. In the 6th grade, it is hard to throw a football very far without making a three-step (back, up, out) procedure out of passing a football. Obviously, he became pretty good at it. Coach Tom Banks at John Carroll High School in Birmingham didn’t try to change him. Coach “Shug” Jordan didn’t try to change him. Van Brocklin spent three years trying to change him. A coach in most cases has to evaluate a player on his ability to lead a team into battle and not worry about the minutia. Sometimes it is just smart to pick the leader, tell him that he is your quarterback, “sic ’em.” That’s what Coach Vince Lombardi did with Bart Starr in 1959. That’s what “Coach” Norm Van Brocklin did not do with Pat Sullivan in 1972. Starr and Sullivan were similar. Bart had a perfect two-step delivery (up and out), but his leadership kept the Green Bay Packers at the top of the NFL for a decade. Bart spent his NFL career being who he was. Pat spent his short NFL career trying to be what Van Brocklin wanted him to be. Van Brocklin was fired. Sullivan was traded to the San Francisco 49ers to sit on another bench. But, he had company this time. Terry Beasley was with San Francisco at the time of the trade. They were “together again” for a brief moment in time. Then life got in the way.
They went separate ways but both wound up in or around the Birmingham area. In 1984, Pat was asked by a frustrated Pat Dye to come in and run an offense other than the only offense he knew, the wishbone, which he had learned at Alabama. Coach Dye wanted to feature Bo Jackson more than he could out of the wishbone. That was smart on the part of Coach Dye. They agreed on running the triple option out of the “I” formation. That bought Bo Jackson the 1985 Heisman Trophy. That year Auburn called many plays featuring Bo, and all they had to do was say, “sic ’em.”
The best game that Pat Sullivan ever played was not seen by many people. It was my good fortune to have been there. I had been to Huntsville on a Thursday night to scout Huntsville High School when I was coaching at Lanier. I heard about the Auburn freshman team playing the Alabama freshman team on Friday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. So I re-routed myself through Tuscaloosa on the way home instead of going through Birmingham. My high school coach at Robert E. Lee, Tom Jones, was in his first year as Auburn’s freshman coach. I was just curious to see how my old coach would handle this situation. Of course, I had seen Terry Beasley play since he was a running back under Coach Durden Lee at Capitol Heights Junior High School. Tom Banks had become athletic director instead of head coach at John Carroll in 1966, which was Pat Sullivan’s junior year in high school. Being in the same Catholic school system in Montgomery, I spent time with Coach Banks every year. Tom was a player on the infamous Auburn team that beat Alabama in 1949. Tom played center and linebacker on that team. They shocked everybody including me by beating bowl-bound Alabama 14-13.
He and others like quarterback Travis Tidwell were heroes of mine when I was a boy. It was good getting to meet some of these guys later in life, especially Tom Banks. He had told me about this quarterback at John Carroll that was going to be something special. Since I had not seen Pat Sullivan play in high school, I wanted to watch him in this freshman game. I am so glad that I made that decision. I have never seen a player take over a game like young Pat Sullivan did on that day.
During the first half, the Alabama freshmen were making the Auburn freshmen look like high school players. Coach Tom Jones did everything he knew to do but to no avail. The halftime score was 28-0 in favor of Alabama. I was really embarrassed for my old coach. When the second half began, I noticed Coach Jones being somewhat detached from the game. I will never know what went on in the Auburn locker room at the half. But, Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley put on a clinic that day. Sullivan led Auburn back from 28-0 to win the game 35-28. How many times do you see a team behind 28-0 being down at the half come back and win the game? I have never seen that again. On the way home, I knew Auburn football was in good hands.
When Sullivan and Beasley were seniors in high school. I went to the state track meet in Auburn. Beasley stole the show, winning five medals, leading Robert E. Lee to the state championship. I was sitting in the stands with a few coaches, including Coach Gene Lorendo, the Auburn offensive coordinator. I said, “Coach, do you think you can coach that Beasley kid?”
Without hesitation, he said, “I’m gonna split Beasley to one side and Breshler to the other, and tell Sullivan to throw it as far as he can.” You know, that is almost exactly what Auburn did for the next three seasons. It was like Disneyland at Auburn.
Pat Sullivan did a lot of good for people, especially teammates. His accomplishments were many. In addition to playing professional football, he was head coach at TCU, color commentator with the great Jim Fyffe for years on the Auburn Football Network, business man. A few years prior to being named head coach at Samford, he learned that he had cancer of the throat. While this obviously changed Pat’s future in a dramatic way, he continued to coach until 2014. In December of this past year, he was gone.
I was fortunate to be with Pat Sullivan on a number of occasions. The first was when Jim Fyffe asked me to come to the Auburn Spring Game that was to be Pat’s first try at doing the radio color with Jim. I had worked high school games with Jim for years. We also worked three Division III national championships. My job was to show Pat how we did the broadcasts. It was obvious very quickly that Pat didn’t need much help. He had that “it factor” that we hear so much about. You could drop Pat out of a plane with a parachute on over the Mojave Desert and he would find a way to succeed.
Talking football with Pat was like talking to the little brother I never had. We disagreed on the hurry-up spread offense. He was probably right. We disagreed on some high school prospects here in Montgomery. He was probably right.
Pat Sullivan was always a gentleman. He seemed to fit in anywhere. Why not? He is the most charismatic name in Auburn football history!