Birmingham native Pat Sullivan (1950- ) was one of Auburn University's greatest football stars, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1971. He has been a success as a player, a college coach, and a cancer survivor. In his playing career, Sullivan was a two-time SEC player of the year, most valuable player in two bowl games, and still has a presence in the SEC record book, among the leaders in total yards per game for a season and a career, in yards per play for a game and career, in touchdowns responsible for a career, and in touchdown passes for a career. Sullivan also still holds several Auburn career records, including the total number of touchdown passes, the number of touchdown passes per game, and the number of pass completions per game. He is one of only nine SEC Heisman winners.
Patrick Joseph Sullivan was born to Jerry and Lorraine Sullivan on January 18, 1950, in Birmingham. He attended John Carroll Catholic High School and was a star in three sports. He excelled in football and won an athletic scholarship to Auburn University, where he played for legendary Coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan. In 1968, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity football, but Sullivan became a starter in his sophomore year. In 1969, Sullivan burst onto the college football scene throwing for nearly 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns in eight wins for Auburn, topping SEC rivals Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Sullivan instantly became one of the Southeastern Conference's (SEC) leading quarterbacks, with wide receiver Terry Beasley of Montgomery being his favorite target. As a junior, Sullivan's statistics soared, as he led the nation with 2,856 yards of total offense, including 2,586 passing yards. Along the way, Auburn went 9-2, defeated the University of Mississippi in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl, and ended the season in the Top Ten in the nation. For his efforts, Sullivan was named SEC Player of the Year and garnered All-SEC honors, athletically and academically. The highlight of the 1970 season, still revered by fans, was a 33-28 win against the University of Alabama (UA) at Birmingham's Legion Field in the annual Iron Bowl in which Sullivan and Beasley rallied the Tigers past the Crimson Tide after falling behind 17-0. Sullivan's place in Auburn University history was already secure when he once again connected with Beasley in a 35-28 Gator Bowl win against the University of Mississippi's Rebels, led by quarterback Archie Manning.
Despite his already impressive career, 1971 was to be Sullivan's greatest year. With Sullivan and Beasley as the centerpiece, the Auburn Tigers went 8-0, with notable wins against Kentucky, Georgia Tech, and Florida before the annual showdown with the University of Georgia. At Georgia's Scott Stadium, Sullivan threw for 248 yards and four touchdowns, cementing his claim to the Heisman Trophy as college football's outstanding player. The Auburn commentator's cries of "Sullivan to Beasley" became part of Auburn's football lore. Sullivan edged out Cornell University's star running back Ed Marinaro to capture the Heisman Trophy, college football's most prestigious award (named for former Auburn head football coach John Heisman). Ironically, Johnny Musso, Sullivan's childhood friend from Birmingham and star of the rival Alabama Crimson Tide, was fourth in the Heisman voting. On Thanksgiving Day, during halftime at the Georgia-Georgia Tech game, a representative of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, which gave out the award, announced that Sullivan had won in what remains the closest Heisman vote in history.
In 1969, Sullivan had married Jean Hicks of Birmingham, with whom he later had three children, and he chose to remain at home with his family during the Thanksgiving holidays. A week later, he traveled to New York and was formally introduced as the Heisman winner. In Sullivan's humble acceptance speech, he gave special thanks to his parents and wife, head coach Jordan, the assistant coaches, and his teammates. Auburn closed the season with a loss to rival UA and to the University of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but these setbacks did little to tarnish Sullivan's career. He was once again honored as SEC Player of the Year and was All-SEC athletically and academically for the second straight year. Never consumed by his sporting success, Sullivan remained focused and graduated from Auburn in 1972 with a degree in business administration.
After graduation, Sullivan played in Mobile's 1972 Senior Bowl, in which he was named most valuable player, and in the College All-Star Classic against the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys, the 1972 Super Bowl champions. Selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 1972 NFL draft, he had four seasons with the Falcons followed by one season split between the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers. At six feet tall, Sullivan was considered too short for a pro quarterback, however, and he played in only 30 games. He returned to Birmingham in 1977 and worked in the insurance business and as an executive at a tire company. For five years, he worked as a radio color commentator alongside Auburn play-by-play broadcaster Jim Fyffe on the Auburn Football Network. In 1986, he was named quarterbacks coach at Auburn under head coach Pat Dye. Auburn won three SEC titles during Sullivan's six seasons at his alma mater.
In 1992, Sullivan left Auburn to serve as head coach at Texas Christian University (TCU). Under Sullivan, the TCU Horned Frogs showed great improvement. After two losing seasons, TCU amassed a 7-5 record in 1994 and played in the Independence Bowl, its first post-season appearance in 10 years. After the 1994 season, Sullivan agreed to accept the head coaching job at Louisiana State University (LSU) but a buyout clause in his TCU contract kept him from taking the job. After a winning 1995 season, TCU suffered two losing years, and Sullivan resigned in November 1997, with a record of 24-42-1. He accepted the position of offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 1999 and remained for six seasons. In the fall of 2003, Sullivan underwent surgery for cancer at the base of his tongue and in the lymph nodes in his neck, likely from his longtime use of smokeless tobacco. Sullivan underwent chemotherapy and radiation and was declared cancer-free in April 2004. Although he lost 50 pounds during the ordeal, Sullivan missed coaching in only one game. Since that time he has been an outspoken critic of smokeless tobacco products. On December 1, 2006, Sullivan was named head coach at Birmingham's Samford University, where Sullivan's father Jerry played in 1949 and 1950 with then-teammate Bobby Bowden (now college football's second-winningest coach). Sullivan's Samford team held a 15-18 record entering the 2010-11 season. He continues to coach at Samford.
Bolton, Clyde. War Eagle: The Story of Auburn Football. Tomball, Tex.: Strode Publishers, 1987.
Fitzgerald, Francis J. Sullivan to Beasley: Memories of a Special Time. Birmingham, Ala.: Epic Sports, 1999.
Griffin, John C. Auburn vs. Alabama: Gridiron Grudge Since 1893. Athens, Ga.: Hill Street Press, 2001.
Housel, David. Auburn University Football Vault: The Story of the Auburn Tigers, 1892-2007. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, 2007.
———. From the Desk of David Housel: A Collection of Auburn Stories. Auburn, Ala.: Auburn Network, 1991.
Auburn University Libraries
Published April 23, 2008
Last updated May 30, 2013