The story in this issue by Frank Deford on the extraordinary football coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan is among the longer one-part articles we've ever run. Deford happened on the subject accidentally—or perhaps providentially. When he boarded a plane for New York in Birmingham, Ala. one day a few years ago he had never heard of Sullivan—nor, for that matter, had most people outside the state of Mississippi. Deford chanced to pick up a rumpled newspaper left behind by someone who had deplaned at Birmingham and read a story by Rick Cleveland of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. It spoke of Sullivan as a "legend [that] won't ever die." Outlandish anecdotes about this obscure coach, particularly the incredibly rough way he treated his players, made Deford's eyes widen. In New York he showed the newspaper story to managing editor Gil Rogin, who agreed that Deford should try doing an article on Sullivan. Various circumstances kept him from starting on the piece at the time, but last December Rogin reminded him, and Deford went off to Mississippi to learn what he could about the near-mythic Bull Cyclone.
"What I had in mind," Deford says, "was an anecdotal article about a very tough football coach. But when I began talking to people who knew him—his players, his friends, his family—I found far more than I ever dreamed I would. It was almost as though they had been waiting for me, as though I were some sort of messenger from the gods sent to hear and pass on the word about this man. They seemed to want me to know everything about him, and they spoke of him with awe and affection and emotion.
"It was like turning the pages of a novel. There was the obvious story: this huge ex-Marine, brutal, foulmouthed, demanding, rough—almost a cliché. And then I discovered...." Well, turn to page 44 and read on.
After Deford finished his story, Rogin asked photographer Brian Lanker for suggestions on how to illustrate it. "When I started reading the story I didn't think I'd like Sullivan," Lanker says. "But I was pulled in by Frank's writing, and then I couldn't put the story down. I've read it six times now, and every time I finish it I have tears in my eyes.
April 29, 1984
"I told Gil the story was so strong it really didn't need illustrations and that we ought to keep them to a minimum. I wanted to show in one photograph what Frank was saying about Bull—he was so multidimensional. I felt we might be able to put together little artifacts from his life that would not only give information about the man but also paint a portrait of him. Then we could single out separate elements from the photograph and distribute them through the text, and the reader who wondered about them in the opening photograph would begin to understand what they mean."
To collect the mementos he needed, Lanker visited Sullivan's friends and family. "I drove 500 miles around Alabama and Mississippi in one day," he says. "The weather was frightening—thunder and lightning, heavy rain, hail, tornado warnings. It was the storm that went on into the Carolinas and killed so many. I didn't get to one man's house till almost midnight, but the people couldn't have been kinder or more cooperative. Then I took all the material back to Los Angeles to photograph it."
There were still problems. The skull Bull owned had fragmented. The family tried to glue it together but the adhesive didn't hold, and when Lanker got to Los Angeles it was in pieces again. He sat up all night fitting it together, using gaffer's tape to hold the pieces in place. "The next morning," he says, "I went out on a glue run and brought back four or five different kinds. I took everything to the studio, removed the tape bit by bit and epoxied the pieces together. It held.
"The whole thing was an odd assignment for a photographer, but I felt honored to be associated with a story like this. I may be a photographer but lord, I love good writing."