AUBURN, Ala. – For Jean Sullivan, Thanksgiving Day 1971 began in the married student apartment she shared with her husband, Pat, and ended with a celebration at what was then named Memorial Coliseum.
“The first turkey that we had ever cooked ourselves,” remembered Jean, who prepared the holiday meal with Debbie Speigner, whose husband, Auburn offensive lineman Danny Speigner, blocked for Pat from 1969-71.
After the meal, the Sullivans and Speigners planned to watch the Heisman Trophy announcement on ABC during halftime of the Georgia-Georgia Tech game.
When the TV signal at their apartment went out, sports information director Buddy Davidson procured a room at the Heart of Auburn Motel.
Pat’s parents decided at the last minute to drive down from Birmingham. “I think more just in case he did not win it,” Jean said.
When Downtown Athletic Club president John Ott announced that Pat Sullivan from Auburn University was the most outstanding player in college football, Davidson suggested the Sullivans go from the motel to the coliseum, at the time the location of Auburn’s football offices.
“It was packed,” Jean recalled. ‘The whole town and student body had turned out. It just erupted when he got there.
“What was wonderful was that all of his teammates were right there. It was very, very special that they shared in the feeling of their participation in him winning the trophy.”
In an era before cell phones and social media, Auburn fans congratulated their quarterback by telegram.
“Western Union telegrams just poured in by the hundreds,” Jean said.
In the fall of 1971, David Housel worked in the ticket office while assisting in sports information.
“Buddy brought Pat in, everybody went wild,” said Housel, who would succeed Davidson as sports information director before serving as Auburn’s director of athletics.
One person who did not attend the coliseum celebration was head coach Shug Jordan, who was concerned about the impact the impromptu emotional gathering would have on Auburn’s Iron Bowl matchup two days later.
Jordan’s fears were well founded. In a clash of unbeaten teams, Alabama defeated Auburn 31-7.
“There was so much emotion that night,” Jean said. “Our team, they’d already played their game. So much emotion was put into Thursday night. They were kind of down. I don’t know if it would have made a difference or not. Alabama had a great team.”
“Auburn people were sorely disappointed,” Housel recalled, “but in the long view of history, it might have been more important for Pat Sullivan to win the Heisman than for Auburn to have beaten Alabama.
“Pat winning the Heisman proved you can go to Auburn, and you can win the biggest trophy, the biggest awards, in the land. Long-term, Pat winning the Heisman added more value to Auburn’s growth as a football program than a one-year win over Alabama or a shot at the national championship.”
For the Sullivans, the Heisman whirlwind was just beginning.
On Monday, they flew to New York City where Pat and Terry Beasley were part of Bob Hope’s All-American TV special.
Then came two Heisman Trophy dinners; the first featured former winners, the second was the official award presentation. The Sullivans met the first Heisman winner, Jay Berwanger, and the previous year’s winner, Jim Plunkett. John Wayne was there, receiving an award from the Downtown Athletic Club.
Throughout the season, Davidson, Auburn’s SID, sought to walk a fine line between promoting Pat Sullivan without alienating some media members who felt Ole Miss and other reporters had gone overboard the previous season promoting Archie Manning.
Anti-Archie backlash, Housel contends, cleared the way for Stanford’s Plunkett to win the 1970 Heisman.
“Buddy’s job was to promote Pat, but not overdo it,” Housel said.
Fifty years later, Pat Sullivan still epitomizes everything an Auburn guy ought to be.
Backlash came anyway in 1971 in the form of media who felt players from smaller schools should be considered for the award. They rallied behind Cornell’s Ed Marinaro, who would finish second to Sullivan.
Auburn’s Gator Bowl matchup with Manning and Ole Miss to conclude the previous season, a 35-28 Tigers victory, placed Sullivan in the spotlight leading up to his senior season in 1971.
“That clearly set up Pat as a frontrunner going in,” said Housel, noting that Sullivan did his part early in the ’71 season by leading Auburn on an 89-yard fourth-quarter drive in a 10-9 comeback win at Tennessee.
“One of the greatest drives I’ve ever seen in Auburn football history,” Housel said.
Auburn’s 31-14 victory at Georgia Tech provided ample storylines, with trophy namesake John Heisman having coached at both schools.
Sullivan solidified his case by leading Auburn to a 35-20 win vs. Georgia in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, giving the Tigers a 9-0 record.
“That was the big one,” Housel said.
Auburn commemorated the 50th anniversary of Pat Sullivan’s Heisman Trophy during the Mississippi State game, reuniting many of Sullivan’s former teammates.
“A special team, and he was close to all of them,” Jean said. “Pat felt like they participated in this award as much as he did. They had a really special bond and it carried on throughout his life. I’m excited that a lot of former players are coming back and renewing friendships.”
In the ensuing decades, the Sullivans have remained connected to Auburn, first as part of the radio broadcasting crew, then as an assistant coach before Pat became a head coach at Texas Christian and Samford before passing away in 2019.
Three of their grandchildren are current Auburn University students, and one grandson graduated from Auburn in May.
“It continues,” Jean said.
A half-century has passed since that historic Thanksgiving night, but Pat Sullivan’s popularity on the Plains remains undiminished.
“Fifty years later, Pat Sullivan still epitomizes everything an Auburn guy ought to be,” Housel said. “Doesn’t that speak well for him? Fifty years later, you still see kids wearing No. 7. His legacy has lived on.”
When Jean sees those No. 7 jerseys, she thinks about Auburn’s affection for her husband, and his affection for Auburn.
“It makes me feel wonderful,” she said. “He loved the fans. The fans were always supportive and very caring and loving to him. He loved the Auburn people. He loved Auburn.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer