Never have I been so moved by a story as I was by Frank Deford's The Toughest Coach There Ever Was (April 30) about Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan of East Mississippi Junior College. Deford has long been my favorite SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer, and the book he wrote about his remarkable daughter Alex proved to me that he is that rare person who has a true grasp of life, its joys and tragedies. To be able to translate that onto paper is a monumental gift—one I envy.
Bull Cyclone's life story was particularly interesting to me because I had a high school football coach who was extremely tough and had similar characteristics. I've no idea where my former coach is now, but I still often think of him and am thankful for the lessons he taught me. Bull Cyclone's life ended tragically, but that ending led to a story that enriched me and, I'm sure, many other readers. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has never had a better story. Deford is a master, and Bull Cyclone was a giant among men.
The Toughest Coach There Ever Was must rank among the finest pieces of sports journalism ever. The structure, compassion and imagery combined to create an amazing portrait of a man I "surely never heard of," but one who I'm just as sure will now become a permanent fixture in my memory.
Next week this essay will form the nucleus of my teaching in my high school English classes. I feel compelled to pass it along so others might be touched by coach Sullivan and the magnificence of Frank Deford's writing. There are many lessons to be learned from Sullivan's life and death, but for me the most powerful is the haunting image of him standing at the foot of his injured star's hospital bed, "bereft of voice and dreams." I'm reminded of the other envious Stumpy Harbours of this world, who contrive to deny great men their proper destiny.
May 13, 1984
I've never written to a magazine before, but then I've never before read a story like The Toughest Coach There Ever Was. I commend Frank Deford and photographer Brian Lanker on their outstanding work.
As a youngster growing up in Shuqualak (10 miles north of Scooba), I spent my Saturday nights in the fall watching Bull Sullivan's Scooba Lions do battle. Frank Deford's characterization of coach Sullivan was accurate and, if anything, understated. My most vivid memory of Bull in action was the night a fight broke out on the field during a game. I remember seeing Bull charge ahead, look back over his shoulder and, like a general leading his army, command his team forward with a wave of his arm. Needless to say, the officials had a problem restoring order that night.
As my old high school coach, Joe Bradshaw, said of Sullivan, "Everything you hear is true."
JERRY A. HAYES
I worked for Dobie Holden as student manager in 1948 at Pearl River Junior College in Poplarville, Miss. Frank Deford did a magnificent job of conjuring up the atmosphere of the Mississippi junior college circuit of that era. The story is an excellent piece of writing; I, too, wanted to cry at the end.
ROBERT F. WARE JR.
Like Bull Sullivan's friends and players, I have no doubt that Sullivan died of a broken heart. Football is that type of game—all-consuming. Only those who've played football know how it can mold your values, strengthen your character and shape your life.
I do hope, however, that an old school coach of mine missed Frank Deford's article. He was a man who, in order to teach his running backs to stay low when they came through the line, would set up a rope 36 inches off the ground. Then, handing a back the ball, he would send him beneath the rope only to be greeted on the other side by two teammates who had been instructed to make the back's arrival painful. To be sure, it was. My old coach certainly could do without any new ideas on how to make his players tough, and I only thank God that there were no pine trees anywhere near our practice field.
Even though I, too, am a middle-aged ex-Marine (and a small-college teacher), I've always disliked and distrusted people like Sullivan. I believe there are better—more gentle, more polite, more humane—ways to motivate and teach young people.
But until I read The Toughest Coach There Ever Was, I believed that such martinets were driven by narrow, sadistic, selfish impulses. Frank Deford's article enlarged my understanding and my tolerance. A magnificent piece of writing by one fine person about another.
Surely Bull Sullivan's dismissal from East Mississippi Junior College was a poorly handled act of jealousy. However, even though he may have been an innovative and winning coach, to canonize a man who couldn't differentiate between Okinawa and junior college football is wrong.
My apologies to Sullivan's family, but if half of the incidents related in Frank Deford's article were true, Bull Cyclone was a twisted man who used his considerable intelligence to physically and, more important, psychologically terrorize and humiliate the young men who were foolish enough to stay in his charge. I can't accept that a few humane acts made coach Sullivan a swell guy. Even psychotics—and I don't mean to suggest that Sullivan was a psychotic—have their good days. The fact that Sullivan was a good parent and read his Bible just doesn't excuse his behavior on the gridiron.
Ann Arbor, Mich.
THE STRIPER AND ACID RAIN (CONT.)
Robert H. Boyle's special report A Rain of Death on the Striper? (April 23) presents a strong case for adding acid rain to the list of suspected contributing causes of the catastrophic decline in the East Coast's striped bass fishery.
However, he overlooks an important point when casting a shadow of doubt over the wisdom of a moratorium on the possession of striped bass along the East Coast, as called for by a House bill, H.R. 4884 (not H.R. 4844, as reported). If, as seems likely, chemical contaminants, including acid rain, are affecting striped bass, they and their sources must be identified and a plan developed to remedy the situation. Then comes the inevitable struggle with industry and officialdom to institute corrective measures. Obviously this will take many years, which raises the question: What happens to the already severely depressed resource in the interim?
Without an indigenous stock, even an immediate return to pristine waters wouldn't benefit the striped bass. Since the brood stock is already viewed as being at a dangerously low level, fishing mortalities must be reduced or eliminated altogether. A moratorium may buy the time needed to address the contaminants problem. In the case of the striped bass, to focus on contaminants and ignore fishing-induced mortalities would be as foolish as doing nothing.
New York State representative to the Interstate Striped Bass
•Boyle's point was not that a moratorium on fishing for stripers would be bad, but that to consider such a moratorium the solution to the problem would be foolish.—ED.
Robert H. Boyle's striped bass piece is the most penetrating and provocative analysis of the topic that has been made. It should define the matrix for all future research and, one hopes, start the bureaucrats and scientists on a course that may save the striper and other species. All of us who care about stripers, and life, owe him our gratitude.
JOHN N. COLE
•Reader Cole is the author of the book Striper: A Story of Fish and Man.—ED.
As a longtime fan of SI, I appreciate the environmental articles you occasionally publish. I agree with the conclusion reached in Robert H. Boyle's article, that acid rain is a major cause of the decrease in the striped bass population. However, I must correct the description of pH. As you stated, pH is a logarithmic scale. Therefore, pH 3.6 is 10 times—not 100 times—more acidic than pH 4.6.
Thank you for informing sports fans about environmental problems that eventually affect every one of us.
I find it very disappointing that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED feels it necessary to enter the political and scientific arena on the acid rain issue. Your special report sensationalizes what is already a national controversy. Granted, restoration of the Chesapeake Bay fishery is an important objective that must not go unaddressed, but I find it difficult to believe that "this magazine has uncovered sufficient preliminary data and circumstantial evidence to offer the hypothesis that acid rain is significantly responsible for the decline of striped bass reproductive success." Who made SI a scientific authority on striper fishery and/or the impact of acid rain?
B. KEITH SIPE
Letters should include the name, address and home telephone number of the writer and be addressed to The Editor, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Time & Life Building, Rockefeller Center, New York, N.Y. 10020.