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Pat Sullivan Was An Auburn Icon and an Unbelievable Man

By on December 2nd, 2019 in Football, Memories, News 16 Comments »

It’s difficult to explain to younger generations what Pat Sullivan meant not only to the Auburn Family but also 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 Catholic High 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, “..do 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 an 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 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 in the NFL he became a successful Birmingham businessman 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. If anyone ever epitomized what a true Auburn Man was supposed to be, it was Pat Sullivan.

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 2014 season due to back surgery he 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 Sullivans but for the extended Auburn Family as well. 

It’s also a sad day for college football not to 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 Sullivans.

“He was an unbelievable man.”

16 Comments

  1. wde1988 wde1988 says:

    If you grew up in the early 1970s as I did and you were an Auburn fan if you played back yard football there was normally a fight before the game on who was going to be Pat Sullivan. If you were lucky and had his jersey well obviously you won the fight out right. You tried to mimic everything about this truly outstanding quarterback.

    When I played football as a kid the guy that coached my weight class for Hoover Athletics said he played for Auburn during the Sullivan years. When ever I could I would always ask about what he thought of Pat Sullivan. He would always say he was a fierce competitor but a true gentleman as well. An ambassador for the game and for Auburn during a time that was critical for Auburn.

    I think I remember him playing one time in the 1970s in the NFL. He played for Atlanta falcons. His last year in the NFL he played for Washington Redskins. As I remember he never started. He was always a backup. They said he was too small for the NFL.

    I think to this day his impact on Auburn as a player and a coach was legendary. But his impact on the game as a whole was under appreciated. The story about his impact on TCU was amazing. And the fact he would have probably been an SEC coach at LSU was never known to me.

    He was an exceptional man.

    While my kids love Cam Newton, my favorite Auburn Quarterback will always be #7.

    Thoughts and prayers for his wife and family.

    We will miss you Pat.

    War Eagle!

    • I remember those days. Everyone wanted to be No.7. He was the best and I admired him for it. As I grew up, I learned what a good man he was and I admired him for that. Pat Sullivan was so different from what a lot of sports hero’s are today, he took his influence seriously and used it to make others better. RIP Pat!

      • AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

        Re; “Using his influence to make others better:” I read somewhere that the greatness of a man is not in how much wealth or awards he can achieve but in his integrity and ability to have a positive impact on others. By that definition, Pat Sullivan was truly a great man.

  2. zotus zotus says:

    Paul, thanks for your tribute to Pat Sullivan.

    I was born and raised in the same West End neighborhood in Birmingham that all the Sullivan’s called home.

    If you would take Pat’s grandfather and Pat’s father and then add in some of Coach Jordan, what you would get is Patrick Joseph Sullivan.

    Pat Sullivan was a great man who came from a wonderful family and he was admired by everyone who was fortunate enough to have known him.

    War Damn Eagle Pat!

  3. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Tremendous tribute! If I’m remembering correctly, the LSU offer came after the 1994 season. LSU had fired Curly Hallman, and was looking. LSU ended up picking up Vanderbilt’s coach, Gerry Dinardo. I think there was some breach of contract court stuff on that deal, as well.

  4. Im4Auburn says:

    This article is the best description I’ve read anywhere about Pat Sullivan.

    He was a great football player, an unassuming hero to many and definitely a great man – a person for young people to try to emulate and the best ambassador for Auburn University. He will be sorely missed by us all.
    Condolences to his family!

  5. Great post ATM.

    Can’t believe this post hasn’t got more comments. It’s being shared and talked about all over Facebook.

    Pat Sullivan was a great football player but an even greater human being. It’s not just the game that , “needs more Pat Sullivan’s,” Our world today is in desperate need of men like him. He will be missed. RIP Pat!

    • WarSamEagle WarSamEagle says:

      As Re: comments. Your right about facebook and according to the counter of FB likes at the bottom of this article, it has gotten over 1200 facebook likes as of 3:44 today. You would think that might generate a few more comments here.

  6. I read where Sullivan and Johnny Musso were both planning on signing with Auburn but at the last minute Musso got a visit from Bear Bryant. He changed his mind and went to Bama. I always couldn’t help but wonder what would it have been like had both of them been teammates at Auburn.

    On another note, I know he was a Christian man who lived out his Christian faith of service to his fellow man. It was because of that faith that he was everything else. Praying for his family.

  7. AUTigerinBR says:

    Great article.
    Pat Sullivan will always be my favorite Auburn player. His glory days are my first memories of my late Daddy taking me to games.
    While at Auburn I had the opportunity to meet Coach Sullivan and I told him that I had the poster of him throwing to Terry Beasley on the wall in my room when I was a “little girl”. He laughed and asked me how old I was, but before I could answer, he said “wait, I don’t want to know because that will make me feel even older”. I remember thinking his reaction was hilarious– I get it now.

    I could not wait to tell my brother I had met The Legend. And yes, we had the 45. Many reading this will not even know to what I am referring. It’s on You Tube. Listening to it now.
    I later came to realize what a terrific person he was in all aspects of life. Pat Sullivan personified the Auburn Creed.
    In 2011 when Pat was honored before the Samford game, I embarrassed my kids screaming like I was still that little girl with the poster. My guess is many of us were honoring him not just for his Auburn football career, but saying thanks for the memories.
    Thoughts and prayers for the entire Sullivan family.

  8. WarSamEagle WarSamEagle says:

    A good read about a good man.
    Pat Sullivan was a class act both on and off the field. He provided us with so many great memories and he was the best representative Auburn University has ever had. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. May God give them comfort and peace.

  9. Sullivan013 Sullivan013 says:

    I met Pat Sullivan in the spring of his Heisman season at my brother’s graduation. I was just ten years old and was introduced by my brother who was his fraternity brother.

    Pat was gracious, commented that we had the same name (including middle name) and that he had a little brother about my age. We only spent a few minutes talking, but I remember that he was extremely self-effacing, kind and engaging, traits that he carried all his life by every account I ever noted.

    Eight years later I was in my Freshman year at Auburn and when the inevitable head-snap by the professor as my name was announced at roll call for the first time (happened in nearly every class), I saw another student react two seats away. It was Joe Sullivan, Pat’s little brother that he mentioned to me.

    Thoughts and prayers for the entire Sullivan and Auburn family. He was the best among us.

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