He is far too humble to admit it, but Pat Sullivan would have been the guest of honor Saturday.
In his place, an expected 50 — 50! — members of Sullivan’s 1994 TCU team are scheduled to be present and honored at halftime of the Horned Frogs’ season opener.
Sullivan, who began a battle with throat cancer 11 years ago, is recovering from complications that have followed a back surgery he underwent in April. His doctors have advised the head coach not to accompany his Samford team to Fort Worth.
Sullivan’s wife Jean and family members, which include eight grandchildren, will take Pat’s place during the halftime ceremony.
It’s likely to be an emotional homecoming. The 1994 Frogs, co-champions of the Southwest Conference, deserve a pivotal place in the story of TCU’s football renaissance, and Sullivan had to wade through the daunting early steps of that.
He had no masterfully restored Amon Carter Stadium to offer recruits. He had no indoor practice facility, no Meyer-Martin Athletic Complex to even sit and talk with athletes. During Pat’s tenure, the SWC was disbanded and TCU was left to fend for itself in a 16-team Western Athletic Conference.
But as TCU trustee Malcolm Louden said Thursday, “He never complained. We let him down on some things, and it made his job here more difficult.
“But down to the end, he remained one of the nicest, classiest people I’ve ever known. I would have loved to have seen what would have happened if we had supported him the way we did the coaches that followed.”
Though he laughed them off later, Pat and I had our prickly moments, as football coaches and the media sometimes do. In the beginning, I offered the opinion that Sullivan, who won the 1971 Heisman Trophy at Auburn, could never win in the SWC with a run-heavy, Southeastern Conference-style attack.
I accused him of “trying to run an Auburn offense with Vanderbilt-type players,” and he bristled at the comparison.
With a pro style offense in 1994 and a talented quarterback, Max Knake, to run it, the Frogs led the conference in total offense and earned the school’s first bowl bid in 10 years.
Knake is among the many former players with whom Sullivan has remained in contact.
“It’s always been as the same, warm kind of conversation as the first day I met him,” Knake said. “He remains as selfless, as extremely humble, and as generous a family man as I’ve ever known.”
The 1994 team provided one of the most memorable mornings in TCU football history — that’s right, mornings.
The CBS network moved the season-ending Texas Tech-TCU game to 10 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. All the Red Raiders had to do was win and claim the conference title outright. But with running back Andre Davis dominating the final minutes, the Frogs pulled a 24-17 upset, prompting a mocking, mini-hailstorm of tortillas on the field.
“I think one of the common denominators with all these successful coaches,” Knake said, “is that it’s not just a job with them. It’s more of a family, and they’re showing a concern, teaching their players to be men and be accountable, and trying to treat them as if they were their own sons.
“Would coach Sullivan have been successful today at a place like TCU? Absolutely. I think he would have done great.”
At his weekly press conference this week, coach Gary Patterson paid tribute to the man whose team he will face Saturday.
“Pat Sullivan is an unbelievable man,” Patterson said. “A great football coach. I know he’s been struggling with his health. I’ve been thinking about him for a long time.”
It was Sullivan’s idea two years ago for Samford and TCU to play in this, the 20th anniversary of Pat’s best Frogs team.
“Maybe,” Sullivan told Jack Hesselbrock, TCU associate AD, “we can get some of those guys back.”
Dozens of them responded.
Get well, coach.