Time & Change: Mark Sullivan

Undersized wild man has mellowed into a father and coach at prep football power

Updated: September 10, 2012, 5:22 PM ET
By Brad Bournival | BuckeyeNation

Time and Change is a series at BuckeyeNation in which we chat with former Ohio State athletes.

Mark Sullivan was a walk-on at Ohio State and played under Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce from 1978-80.

A Woody Hayes Memorial Trophy winner in 1980 for his play at middle guard against Michigan, Sullivan was a true character. Stories of his pet alligator and bar fights are legendary, but so was his play on the field. With a partial scholarship as a wrestler, Sullivan made Ohio State's football team and finished a three-year stint with the Buckeyes before earning a degree at John Carroll University, where he became a two-time Division III national runner-up in wrestling.

He trained for the 1984 Olympic Games under Dan Gable and finished fifth at the trials.

Sullivan, 52, now lives in Mentor, Ohio, where he is the prevailing wage officer for the Northeast Ohio Sewer District.

The head wrestling and defensive line coach at the all-boys St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Sullivan helped the Wildcats to their 11th Division I state title on the gridiron and coached the school's first national champion on the mat last year.

BuckeyeNation caught up with Sullivan and talked to him about his relationships with Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce, wrestling and becoming a coach.

BN: What was it like to play for Woody Hayes?

Sullivan: It was the greatest experience of my life. Every day was eye-opening, just the way he commanded respect. I'll never forget the first time I met him in a setting with the whole team. I went down to report. He didn't care for walk-ons -- that was a known thing -- but I was a walk-on and he let me report with the scholarship guys. I'm in this room.

At first I thought I made a mistake because I was shorter than the kicker. I was tiny and these guys were huge. They're all joking around, pushing each other like a bunch of little kids on recess. Then, all of a sudden you could hear a pin drop and I'm like, 'What happened?' You see Woody Hayes walk in the room. The first thing he does is talk about those bastards up north and talk about Patton and these military quotes. Everybody's jacked up and I've got goosebumps to go on the field then and there.

As the season progressed, it was tough. He started Art Schlichter as a freshman against Penn State and he had five interceptions. It was kind of a frustrating season for Woody, but he kept his demeanor in practice. Everything he said, you just wanted to run through a wall for the guy.

The other side was I found out my mother was dying. He came into my room and I'm a homesick freshman and there's Woody Hayes in my room because he knew I couldn't sleep and he's talking to me for an hour, half hour at a time. Here's the guy that's running the biggest college program in the country and he's taking time out to talk to me about it and to work me through that situation.

BN: You had the reputation of being a little crazy. How have you mellowed in the years?

Sullivan: It's funny how kids will help you mellow. I have four kids, one kid is in medical school at Columbia. As soon as I started having kids and realizing that it was time for me to settle down a bit, that's what I did. My priorities changed.

When I was younger, that was a part of my makeup. I was a very undersized Ohio State football player. People would just kind of challenge me. They would challenge me, I would reciprocate and the next thing you know, it's on. Me against five guys. It was kind of a nightly thing. There were no weapons involved, but that's just the way it was back then.

BN: For these juniors and seniors on Ohio State's team going through this coaching change, what do you tell them?

Sullivan: Anytime there's a coaching change, it normally comes because there's a problem. Woody Hayes, I think was defending himself and struck this guy from Clemson and obviously with [Jim] Tressel, with Coach Tress everyone knows what happened. I would just tell the guys to train their hearts out and do the best they can.

BN: As a coach, what little things have you taken from Woody and Earle that you use at St. Ignatius?

Sullivan: Every day I think of both of them. Woody had the reputation of being the motivator, but Earle had his way of motivating guys. They were both great. There are techniques to motivating kids. You have to relate to them. You have to be consistent. The biggest thing with kids is consistency. You can't come out there fired up one day and then the next four days be down in the dumps. You have to be fired up every single day. I try to bring intensity to the practice, offseason workouts and the games. They know anything dealing with sports, I'm intense.

I think I also bring a unique side because I was coached by Dan Gable, some say the best wrestling coach ever. He just so happens to be as an intense a competitor as Woody Hayes.

BN: You left Ohio State and finished up at John Carroll, where you took second in the nation in wrestling twice. Where did that come from?

Sullivan: In between there I had a tryout for the Olympics, that's where I trained under Gable. I trained in Iowa City at Hawkeye Arena with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. I always stayed in shape. I was ready to go, had little tryouts with the Michigan Panthers (USFL) and the Browns timed me in the 40, so I was always trying to get back into sports. But it came down to the point where I wanted that degree.

BN: What can we expect from the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer?

Sullivan: I've been watching a lot of tape whenever I can about his practices. His intensity off the field will translate onto the field. When you have a leader the quality of Urban Meyer, they get the best out of the kids. I always say it's a fifth gear. Normal athletes have one, two, three, four and they're going at 100 percent. The true athletes that have a coach that pushes them past that point, they have an adrenaline that pushes them to a fifth gear like a Michael Jordan, a LeBron James. Those are the people that go beyond their normal capabilities just because of motivation.

BN: What's next for Mark Sullivan?

Sullivan: Right now, I'm comfortable coaching high school football. I've had offers from small college football programs, but I like Coach [Chuck] Kyle. He's been great to me. He's been great for the program. As far as the wrestling program at St. Ignatius, we had our first ever national champ in George DiCamillo, so there are good things happening. After this year, I will have three kids that have graduated from St. Ignatius. Now that my boys have gone here and I see what the value of education has brought them, blood is thicker than water. My loyalty is to St. Ignatius. I'm here for a while.