While the game is obviously the reason for showing up on Saturday, it’s also an opportunity for Sullivan to catch back up with the man he recommended to run the show at Auburn just two years ago. Part of the selection committee that ultimately led to Gus Malzahn being hired by the Tigers, Sullivan has connections to this current staff that run deep.
“I knew him beforehand, even when I was at Arkansas,” Malzahn said. “First year in 2006, got to visit with him, and just got to know him well over the years. He's one of the true class guys in college football. He's respected by everyone. I've never heard anybody say a bad word about him. He's definitely helped me. I lean on him from time to time with advice. He's an Auburn legend.”
Sullivan is so well thought of by Malzahn that last season before the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta against Missouri he spoke to the team and provided them with a pep talk before the win. It was just another connection for Sullivan back to the Tigers, a program that has been near and dear to his heart since his playing days.
“He was our honorary coach at the SEC championship and he did a great job of speaking to our team,” Malzahn said. “He was on the sideline with our team. At halftime, he was there with us. Adjustments, advice. It was a real special moment.”
Sullivan’s connections to the Tigers don’t stop there. He also hired Rhett Lashlee as his offensive coordinator at Samford for the 2011 season after he served as the offensive graduate assistant for Auburn. Coaching the Bulldogs for one year before joining back up with Malzahn at Arkansas State, Lashlee said his admiration for Sullivan goes much deeper than just the football field. Learning on the job under the legendary quarterback and offensive mind, Lashlee said the year was one he’ll never forget.
“I have so much respect for Coach Sullivan,” Lashlee said. “He obviously gave me my first full-time opportunity, instilled a lot of confidence in me and gave me opportunities that I will never be able to show my appreciation for. He's a great man, obviously he's a great Auburn man. I'm excited. I think he was just his fourth straight winning season.“He's the winningest coach at Samford, and he's done so much there. He impacts so many lives, not just his players, but everyone he comes in contact with. I've never met a more positive person who just instills that positiveness and confidence in with everyone he comes in contact with.”
Sullivan is carrying on the tradition of hiring Auburn graduate assistants this season with former standout quarterback and wide receiver Kodi Burns coaching running backs for the Bulldogs. With the personality and football knowledge to have a very successful career in the profession, Burns has already made an impact on Sullivan in his short time with the program.
“Kodi is a great young coach,” Sullivan said. “He has the players’ and other coaches’ respect. I think Kodi will be a great head coach one day.”
This Saturday, Sullivan and Burns will be on the opposite sideline trying to beat the Tigers and go home victorious. There’s no question it’s an uphill battle, but it’s all that is on the mind of Sullivan. The time to talk with old friends will be before and after the game because when it kicks off it’s all business for the heavy underdog Bulldogs..
“Auburn is very talented and well coached in every area,” Sullivan said. “You can see why they were ranked in the top five for most of the year. They are one of the premier teams in the country.”