Anatomy of an Era: George Sullivan, Part 1

Categories: Football No Place
George Sullivan and Doak Ostergard taping up Matt Shaw and Joel Wilks circa 1994

Excerpted from Chapter 42 of No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Volume 1 by Paul Koch

                                        

A timeline:

1966: At the University of Florida, Dr. Robert Cade and Dr. Dana Shires create Gatorade for the university’s football team, the Gators.

1966/1967: Dr. Cade comes to an agreement with Stokely-Van Camp, Inc.(S-VC) to produce the already patented product.

1967: The Gators begin to officially drink Gatorade. They beat Georgia Tech for their first Orange Bowl title. The Tech coach is asked why his team lost: “We didn’t have Gatorade. That made the difference.”

1968: Sports Illustrated writes: “Famous athletic teams rave over a cloudy, lime-green liquid with some strange attributes and an unfamiliar taste.”

1969: The Kansas City Chiefs begin to drink Gatorade, which they attribute to their Super Bowl title of that year.

1970: Elvis Presley drinks Gatorade on stage, taking a sip between songs and saying, “This is Gatorade — in case you want to aid your gator.”

1973: S-VC and Dr. Cade settle a lawsuit with the University of Florida. The university claims they own the rights to the Gatorade formula. From that day on, the University receives well over $80 million in royalties.

-Gatorade Timeline, courtesy of Twoop.com

We now encounter the Ruby of Rockville, Nebraska: George Sullivan, Nebraska Athletic Trainer Emeritus. Why the precious gemstone of a moniker, you might ask? Well, it’s only fitting if you know a little Nebraska history:

You see, there was another notorious George born in late March, 1915, out of Butte, Nebraska. Born George Wagner, most pro wrestling aficionados of the 1940’s and 50’s might recognize his more popularized name: Gorgeous George, the Human Orchid. (known for his luxurious blond locks) Acting every bit over-the-top by conjuring up an incredibly flamboyant ring persona, he packed the house wherever he journeyed and alone had a remarkably grandiose effect on the future public personas of boxer Muhammad Ali and singer/performer James Brown.

Athletic Trainer George Sullivan, more customarily known as “Sully,” played things a little more low-key but had just the same degree of effect on many of the Husker student/athletes throughout the years. To wit, just as we all know about Kool-Aid’s being invented in Hastings, Nebraska, you should know that Gatorade had its own Nebraska-based origins. What’s that, you say? Wasn’t it formulated in Florida, as the timeline above points out? Hogwash! Here’s the real story from a man who had a hand in it, literally stirring the secret sauce. In my mind, the drink should forever be known as Huskerade. Here’s George Sullivan…

Notable quote #1:

“There was not just one who was the sole leader. It was tough to pick a captain, because they were all captains.”

 

George Sullivan

Athletic Trainer Emeritus

Question: Thanks again for making yourself available, George. Like I said, your name comes up quite often as to the effect you had on the organization and the kids and getting your due. And hey, I hear you have a training room named after you now. Is that true?

George Sullivan: Yes, Tom came back and named the training room after me. It really happened when we were at the other end of the stadium over at the South Stadium Office building, old ‘Dollar Bill’ (Byrne), the old A.D. -to get me to retire- (laughs) so he got to building this new training room. And the Touchdown Club, bless their souls, they named a scholarship after me.

Q: That is awesome, George!

GS: It really was. I kind of spun on my heels there for ten days. People were congratulating me and I couldn’t believe that it had happened. I think about a half-million dollars got put into that thing.

Q: You must have rifled through the couch cushions for some spare change to contribute to that fund, eh? (laughs)

GS: They must think I won the big jackpot and contributed to it. (laughs)

Q: So George, what year did you retire from the University?

GS: Well, I retired in ’97. Really, I shouldn’t say that completely, I really retired as head of the whole caboodle in ’94 and I just did half-time so that they could -they needed money at the time to continue, and they wanted to revamp the medical thing, and there was no way they were gonna hire (Jerry)Weber until we got our way – so Tom thought it would be a good deal if he retired, too, but only if I retired. (laughs) So he blessed me by naming the training room after me after he got to be A.D.

Q: So we have Osborne Field and the Sullivan Training Room, huh?

GS: That’s right. That’s right. (laughs) We had to keep it going. There’s always time for change. (laughs)

Q: Where did you grow up?

GS: I grew up in the little town of Rockville, Nebraska. But during the war years they closed the school down because of a teacher shortage and I went to Loup City High School and I became a Red Raider there.

Q: My college roommate was from Loup City: Lance Kizer. His Dad was a teacher there.

GS: He sure was: Lonnie Kizer. I’ll be darned.

Q: And we used to go fishing out there…

GS: Sherman Lake! I had a cabin out there for 28 years.

Q: So what road did you travel to end up at the University?

GS: Well, I was in the service and played some football overseas on a couple teams right at the end of the war and came back. I was in the Army and we were over in Germany. Went into France and north into Germany, but I didn’t see any real first class action. It was right toward the tail end. So I went to go to the University here and I went out for football. And we just didn’t have very good teams… and I was even worse.

And I was up on the table getting taped by Blain Rightout, the trainer at that time, and he says, “Are you sure you want to go out there?” And I said, ‘I don’t have any other druthers, do I?’ (Of course, we didn’t have scholarships in those days… we had jobs if we wanted them) “Well”, he says, “I need some help.” I said, ‘Hand me the scissors.’ And damned if he didn’t do it! So I cut the tape off. And he says, “Well, you have enough tape on you… I think you understand how to do this.” (laughs)

I went along with it. I was in Engineering at that time, and I switched over to Physical Education and the sciences and went to Physical Therapy school. And they came over to Iowa where I was taking my Physical Therapy school and -Paul Schnieder was the head trainer at that time- and they wanted me to come back over and head up the student health and physical therapy department and the football program. So I did it. That was in ’53 and I’ve been there ever since.

Q: What year were you playing football?

GS: That would have been ’47, ’48 and the first part of ’49.

Q: Who was the head coach during those years?

GS: Bill Glassford. I played under him and then I came back and worked under him. He wanted somebody other than Paul Schneider.

Q: And the advances athletic training has made since your early beginnings?

GS: Oh, fantastic. Really fantastic advances! From the time I became a trainer, there couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 physical therapists in the field of training at that time. (All the trainers had double-duty at that time: they were track coaches and baseball coaches and equipment managers, so they didn’t really have a background in sciences at that time.) Nebraska kind of became the leader of advancement and Dr. Sam Fuenning, who managed student health, was the promoter of many things, promoting student health. He was one of the first to become a member of the Athletic Trainers Association. Sam Fuenning was an innovator of health care for young people.

Q: I remember Doc Fuenning. So all of a sudden this guy, Bob Devaney, walks through the door…

GS: First, we had Bill Jennings. When Glassford left they hired Elliott, then Jennings, then Bob Devaney arrived. Bill Jennings had really recruited quite a class, so Bob had a real good bunch of athletes when he came in. Both speed and size; that was that early ’60’s bunch and those guys became very, very close knit. Prior to that it was mostly old veterans; they liked the game, but they were more concerned about their families, so it was no big situation to them.

Q: So then in ’73 Coach Devaney hangs ’em up and decides to hand things over to Coach Osborne. You were the head trainer at that time?

GS: I was the head football trainer at the time. They didn’t give me the head trainer over the total department until about the time they built the Bob Devaney Sports Center, and then Schnitz went over there with Jim Ross. And I was seeing all the players over at Student Health, anyway. And I was fortunate enough to have a real good bunch of students and assistants: Roger Long, a former baseball player, Jack Nickolite, if you remember him, Jack was a tremendous kid, and we got him into Physicians Assistant school and then Doc Clare swiped him from me. He was too darn good. (laughs) Jerry Weber, we brought him back, he’s been here over thirty years now.

Q: Jack was telling me about one of his first athletic training classes, that Jerry was teaching it…

GS: Yeah, he taught a full-time class. We just had a one hour thing with PE before. I had it and Jerry taught it a little bit, and so did Roger Long, and we put in a full curriculum.

Q: And the rest is history, huh? And speaking of Dr. Pat Clare, he was a player too, right?

GS: Yes, he was in the early ’60’s. He was a good running back for us. His dad had a business out on Cornhusker Highway, but we talked him into coming back to us.

 

Trainers Jerry Weber & George Sullivan in Miami
Trainers Jerry Weber & George Sullivan in Miami (Joe Mixan photo)

 

Q: So, fast forward to Coach Osborne taking the reins. You had the ’70’s, ’80’s and then the ’90’s, and from my recollections (I joined the athletic department in 1987 as a student assistant) it seems to me that the football team, once we hit the mid-’90’s, something happened as far as team cohesiveness. What stands out to you?

GS: I think it really kind of gelled and everything came together. All of the staff that were working for Tom, especially, were good teachers. If they fell off on anything at all, it might have been that they had so many good friends around the country, and all those good friends were telling them a few good stories about how a good a recruit might be. But if they hadn’t have been such good teachers I don’t think we would have been as strong in that overall department.

Q: So it’s not just that fact that we possessed great, hard-working athletes, it was that the staff also did such a wonderful job coaching them up?

GS: Exactly.

Q: What were your first impressions of Coach Osborne, meeting him as a young Grad Assistant?

GS: He’s changed a lot. He was really kind of a meek person, in a way, he wasn’t able to really jump out and jump on things. But he could read right off the bat… you could see that he could read a person’s values and their mind. And if they accepted him they were 100% his. It was like they were his kids, his sons.

Q: A pretty quick study in people?…and a judge of character?

GS: Exactly. Bob picked that up right away, too, and took him along with him. And Bob had some guys with him from way back: Jim Ross was with him even in high school up in Michigan. One coached basketball and the other coached football and they were assistants to each other. Jim was more of a First Sergeant, and Bob thought everybody was great people. Jim could handle coaches and everything else. He was one of the only, really, assistant athletic directors.

Q: So Coach Osborne as a young assistant… a pretty quiet fella?

GS: He was the kind of a person who wouldn’t just jump up over something. You needed something drastic to get him going, not like Mike Corgan would. I guarantee you, Mike Corgan was different. He believed in making a person’s nose snotty or putting it on ’em. He was very intense.

Q: I hear stories of Corgan’s spunk and his pluck…

GS: Oh yeah, all of his players loved him, though. He’d have some of the damnedest things for them, and they still talk about him when they get together. And I tell you what, I don’t know why it makes me think of him all the time, but he’d keep it away from Bob: him smoking his pipe. He’d try and sneak a little puff on the sidelines when they’d have a break -look and see if Bob was watching him- and he’d sneak the pipe back in his pocket. That is, until it caught fire one time. (laughs) He was so intent on what he would do: he was a great cook, gardener and all that type of thing, and he was a great winemaker. He had ‘The House of Corgan’ labels on his wine.

Q: A self-sufficient, modern-day, Renaissance man, eh?

GS: Oh yeah, but that old nose was tough. You didn’t cross him.

Q: Do you suppose Coach Solich picked up a thing or two from him?

GS: Oh, definitely. (laughs) He tried but he was too small. (laughs) No, just kidding, he really listened to him. He thought he was a really great innovator of plays and that whole deal. Frank really learned a lot from him.

Q: In essence, George, you had a great view of Coach Osborne’s growing into being a Head Coach?

GS: Oh, I think so. Just following him and seeing his ability and leadership, and his thoughts and his relationships with the professors and so forth, how he wanted his kids to have the grades and everything? He filled a lot of shoes there by himself before he became head coach.

Q: He was Johnny Rodgers’ shadow for a while there, wasn’t he?

GS: Oh, yeah. (laughs) He was taken by surprise when Bob put him onto that case. Bob was really the one that was the old Chief of Police, so to say, and handled it all with expertise.

Q: Your witnessing Coach Osborne’s growth throughout the years…anything stand out as to major hurdles that he may have overcome?

GS: Oh, especially in the conditioning program, he was very, very instrumental. That was one of the things Roger Long and I started, because all coaches didn’t believe in any kind of weights. And Bob let me go down and buy out a health store that went kaput downtown, with the University Purchasing Agent. We went down and made bids at the sale.

And the same time, very soon after that Boyd Epley was sent over to me. And after a little tough time right at first (because he thought he wanted to be body-beautiful and oil up his body and show off) we got it squared away. And we were lucky enough to have Bob Brown there about that same time, and Bob moved the weights. He would work those things over. And Boyd would see that, and what little bit of weights we had got bigger and bigger and bigger, so we got more room and Boyd built a well-known program around the country and everybody wanted to come in and copy it.

Q: I spoke with Boyd and he has a lot of respect for you, George.

GS: Well, bless his buttons. He and I would get in a few arguments when I‘d tell him I didn’t want him to do things because I didn’t think that’s what we needed -like when a knee got hurt because of squats- because we didn’t think that was what everybody needed. I was on him pretty big and had a few discussions, but they were good ones.

 

 


A tip o’ the hat from George “Sully” Sullivan, athletic training pioneer (Unknown/Uncredited)

 

Q: I remember there were always a few guys on staff who you didn’t want to make angry: Coach Osborne, Charlie McBride, Milt Tenopir and George Sullivan. You didn’t want any of those guys on your bad side…

GS: (laughs) They (the coaches) all would laugh, because at the Dining Hall they didn’t have much control over things and I guess they left it to me because I ran the whole thing. And when I started slapping even the girls on the back of the neck? They thought that was pretty tough.

Q: George, that’s so funny! I was talking to a former player a week or so ago and they mentioned how you would quietly sneak into the training table area and spot some athlete eating at the dinner table with his cap on… and you’d scare the living hell out of them with a quick slap! on the back of the neck! (laughs)  Then every head in the room would be on a swivel and they’d rapid-fire rip their own caps off and throw them to the floor! (laughs)

GS: That’s the way I was brought up. If I’d have walked in the house and kept my cap on, my mother was right there to give me a good whack on the fanny. I thought it was probably better not to whack these guys on the fanny, so I did it on the neck there, instead. (laughs)

Q: And from what I understand, you had quite a bit to do with the concept of the pregame meal…

GS: Well, we put it together and it was on a national basis with the American Medical Association, and they had a big display going around to all the meetings about how Dr. Rose and Dr. Fuenning put together a liquid pregame meal.

And fact of the matter, I took the liquid pregame meal to the Pan-American Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Kramer Company made drinks for us and it really went over big. And I forget how many more gold medals we’d won in those Pan-American Games than we’d ever won and have done since. That was in about ’63, because in ’64 were the Olympics, it was usually a year before them.

Q: I swear somewhere along the road someone said Gatorade was actually invented at Nebraska?

GS: Well, we know it was.

That was another thing. The doctor in Omaha -the head of the Neurological Department- was giving a lecture down here on sports. And we had a program going for the coaches where we put something together for hydrating these kids, and we gave it to the coaches. So we put it together, (and all we had to do was use what they call a ‘normal saline’ in it, only took a tablespoon of salt to a gallon of water). Well, we’re playing in the Orange Bowl against Auburn and the doctor at Florida was at that game and he came over to the sidelines and asked the kids, got into the backside of the sidelines, “What are your trainers doing there?” and they said, “You can talk to George.” And so they hollered and called me over here to talk to this guy and I told him and he says, “I never heard of such a thing!“

Well, it wasn’t long before he went back and his trainer was calling me, and he says, “What were you using?” And I said, ‘Saltwater.’ And he says, ”We’ll never get our kids to drink that.” I said, ‘Well, throw some Kool-Aid into it.’  And he says, “What do you call it?” And I says, “Huskerade.” (laughs) What you never heard later, the doctor was sued by the Gators for using the name Gatorade, and they settled for $50,000. And he sold out to Stokely-Van Camp and received a 5 figure retainer fee for the rest of his life. We got nothing out of it. I talked to Gatorade and Gatorade knows the history. But of course, we never did use it. We were doing it for the kids, but this sucker goes out and makes a million dollars, you know?

Q: And Kool-Aid was also invented in Nebraska, right?

GS: That was invented in Hastings, Nebraska. It was a big thing going in TomOsborne-ville. I think it’s funny two famous things came out of Hastings, Nebraska: Tom Osborne and Kool-Aid. (laughs)

To be continued

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