Unlike the parade of hot take artists that currently litter the sports media landscape, Jerry Sullivan has never seemed particularly invested in steering readers over to his side of an issue. His column in The Buffalo News often reads like the start of a conversation you might have with him at a local bar. He thinks he’s right about the Sammy Watkins trade but remains open to the possibility he could be proven wrong.
Along with the acknowledgement that his opinions aren’t facts, accessibility might be Sullivan’s finest trait as a columnist. Longtime TBN readers know very little about the people behind the bylines at the paper, but almost everyone in this town feels like they know “Sully”. He’s the obnoxious neighbor at the block party who tells you he’ll walk down Hertel Ave. in his underwear if Ryan Fitzpatrick throws more than 30 TDs; he’s the cousin who embarks on a borderline obsessive quest to break 100 on a golf course; he’s the friend who returns home for a month and writes his columns by his mother’s bedside as she battles through the final stages of cancer.
Recently, Sullivan was kind enough to sit down and reflect on his career, the current state of the Buffalo Bills, and why it’s never wise to watch "It's A Wonderful Life" without a box of tissues nearby.
Q: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but someone actually created a change.org petition a couple of years ago to have you fired from The Buffalo News. The petition has 27 signatures and begins, “For years the people of Buffalo, NY, have been disgusted with the often negative and vulgar "journalism" of Jerry Sullivan…”
Is there anything you’d like to say to the 27 individuals who took time out of their day to sign the “Demand The Buffalo News Fire Jerry Sullivan” petition?
I'm actually a little disappointed to hear that only 27 people signed the petition. It makes me feel I'm not penetrating as much as I would like with the audience. Bills fans are passionate people. They're fans, which comes from fanatic. When you criticize them, it's like questioning their religion. They call me negative. I call it critical. I say I'm paid to be the Bills' biggest critic. It's hard to hear the truth sometimes.
I think I've been too kind at times, too willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I suspect most of the harshest critics don't have a fully informed view of me. When I was roasted by WGR a few years back, Jeremy White read all my glowing words about Trent Edwards. I was kind to Donahoe when he started. Same with Losman and most others. When they prove to be less than average, I speak the truth.
Q: On matters related to being a columnist, is love and hate from your readers largely the same thing? Positive feedback to a column is always nice, but there must be something oddly flattering about someone taking an hour or two out of their day to create a petition demanding your termination.
A columnist is supposed to provoke a strong response. In today's media environment, there are going to be all manner of critics, many of them ignorant or crazy or mean-spirited. Many have reasonable arguments. But again, they're fans. When I mention Trump, I get the predictable response that I should keep politics off the sports pages, which I find insulting and weak. I have a voice and will use it. I actually like tweaking those people. They act like sports writers are too dumb to know about other things. I'm probably more informed about politics and literature than I am on the NFL, an institution which I don't particularly care for.
The worst thing is to be irrelevant. It's like the woman -- I think her last name was Forrest -- in the movie "Fatal Attraction." She cooked the family's pet bunny on the stove and said, "I will not be ignored." I guess for some Bills fans, I'm the guy cooking their pet team on the stove.
It amazes me how many people rip me and tell me to retire but still read my columns and tweets. I'm flattered by that. I don't have all the answers. I take all comments seriously and incorporate other people's opinions into my overall understanding.
Q: Your face is pretty visible around town. When you are recognized by one of your readers out in public, how are you usually treated?
People are usually very kind to me in public. Almost invariably, they say "I love your stuff," often adding that they don't always agree with me. It is sort of humbling to be reminded I'm a public figure around town. I think of myself as a regular guy.
Q: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?
It's hard to say what exactly inspired me. But I grew up following sports in Newport, Rhode Island, mainly the Red Sox and Providence College basketball. This was the 1960s, early 70s, and I listened to games on one of those old transistor radios. I remember lying in bed listening to Ned Martin do the Red Sox or Johnny Most on the Celtics or a local legend from Newport named Chris Clark on the Friars.
I wanted to be one of those announcers and make a living watching games. I began subscribing to The Sporting News in eighth grade and devoured that paper every week. I remember reading Larry Felser's column on the AFL and then the AFC East. I took a journalism class as a high school senior, following the lead of my good friend Jeff Jacobs, who was one step ahead of me back then. We wound up both attending Missouri, which was the No. 1 journalism school in the country. It was a great move. Mizzou was highly regarded in sports journalism and had a great school newspaper. The J school also put out a competing daily paper in Columbia and I worked on that as a junior and senior.
Once I began working on newspapers, I was hooked. At one point, I was writing, editing and even delivering the campus paper at 5 a.m in the morning.
Q: Why did you choose to leave the comfort of your hometown in Rhode Island and attend college 1,300 miles away at the University of Missouri?
It was Jeff Jacobs -- who became the sports columnist in Hartford and many times Connecticut's sports writer of the year -- who told me about Missouri. It was cheap and highly regarded and had an easy application. I liked the idea of moving far away from home. That was always my idea of college, being on your own in a faraway place. I loved it.
Q: Years ago, I remember hearing you talk about quitting a job at a newspaper early in your career because you preferred to gamble on games instead. How deep were you into the gambling culture? What led you to quit betting on games?
I actually quit newspaper jobs twice. Once, I was 24 and basically reading too much Jack Kerouac. I felt stifled and wanted to get away from the business and went to LA, where I pumped gas and drank for three months. I tell people I went searching for myself, but no one had seen me.
I returned to the Binghamton paper, where I had bolted in June of 1979. I called myself the Grover Cleveland of the paper, two terms with a break in-between. I again quit Binghamton in 1985, when I was a news writer. I was sort of burned out. My future (now ex) wife had moved to New York City. I quit halfway through the day. I didn't feel like working in the afternoon.
But yes, I was in the later stages of sports gambling then and decided to devote more time to that and playing basketball at the YMCA. I basically ran out of money. In retrospect, I felt I was gambling to compensate for not being a sports writer and having action and being a so-called "expert." Of course, there are no experts at sports gambling, or very few. I was hooked, as most gamblers are. I understand how it feeds on the same brain centers as drug addiction. I was glad to stop, but I still felt the urge, like someone who had kicked cigarettes or booze. I now get my fix through fantasy sports and Strat-o-Matic. It's a lot cheaper.
Q: You had the good fortune to work alongside two members of the Mount Rushmore of Buffalo sportswriters. I think fans would love to hear any stories or experiences you’d care to share on working with Larry Felser and Jim Kelley.
I admired and looked up to Felser and Kelley. I never forgot that Larry had a devoted following and I was seen as following in his footsteps. He was always helpful to me and there was never any sense of rivalry between us. He called me before I started work in 1989 to welcome me and let me know there was plenty of room for everyone. I always appreciated that.
Kelley was more a personal friend, since he was closer to my age. I was always amazed at how calm he was under pressure at games. I would be frantic, trying to figure out what I would write. He would smile and say, "I think I'll do something off the game." He was so dedicated to his work. I used to say, when he was really disillusioned with the paper, he wouldn't work as hard on his days off.
Q: You strike me as someone who has always paid close attention to changes and developments in your profession. What are your thoughts on the new subscription-based content models like The Athletic? Do you think that type of business model is viable in the Buffalo market?
As you know we've gone that way with our Bills Blitz. It's too early to tell how popular it will be, and there's a lot of discontent among people who are used to getting content for free.
This is people's livelihoods. Newspapers are dying. The business has to find ways to sell the work of journalists or the work will suffer. Smart readers have to know this. My fear is that educated, decently paid jobs will disappear and reporting will be done by bloggers and lowly paid free-lancers with an agenda.
I worry more about the real news, the jobs that represent our freedom of the press and keep politicians accountable by doing good, in depth investigative reporting.
Q: Over the years, several of your co-workers have left the paper to work for online content providers. Why have you always chosen to stay at The Buffalo News?
I moved here from New York, where I was a national NBA writer at Newsday whose peers were Tom Verducci and Peter King. I wanted to be a columnist at a smaller city paper, where I could feel a sense of community, write about all subjects, and live among friends I knew from previous jobs. I've never regretted it.
There were a couple of newspapers that were interested along the way. The National, a short-lived national sports paper, wanted me in 1990 soon after I moved to Buffalo. I was flattered, but wanted to live here.
Q: Last time I checked, this is a Buffalo Bills site, so let’s talk a bit about the team. There has been a tremendous amount of turnover at One Bills Drive over the past 10 months. As we steer toward the remainder of the 2017-18 season, what is your greatest cause for optimism when you look at management and the current roster? What is your greatest concern?
My greatest cause for optimism is that the new coach and GM appear to be on the same page and have a long-term vision for the team. I would have gotten rid of Tyrod Taylor, but I understand McDermott wanted to be competitive early and establish a winning mindset. I'm encouraged by the play of the first-round pick, Tre’Davious White, because the new scouts are very key in this. It was an inability to identify talent in the draft that got them in this fix -- along with rash moves by GMs to create excitement among fans.
My biggest concerns are a lack of overall roster depth, aging out of key veterans like Williams, Alexander, Incognito and Wood, and of course the lack of a franchise quarterback. Without one, they have no shot at being a legitimate contender.
Q: If Terry Pegula lost a bet and was forced to give you control of the Buffalo Bills for 24 hours, what are the first changes you’d make to the team if the season ended today?
1.) Release Tyrod Taylor
2.) Start shopping LeSean McCoy, preferably for a young Wide Receiver or Defensive Lineman
Q: You’ve had the opportunity to interview hundreds of people down at One Bills Drive over the past 28 years. If you had to pick a favorite player, coach or administrator you’ve interviewed over the years, who would it be and why? Who stands out as the most difficult member of the team you’ve ever had to cover?
As far as players are concerned, Kent Hull was the most honest and insightful guy in my time here. George Wilson is a close second.
Among coaches, Marv Levy was always quotable and literate, but also had an edge.
A.J. Smith would have to be the best administrator to interview. Colorful, talkative, a good judge of talent — also from Rhode Island, which helped.
Mario Williams hands down as the most difficult guy to cover. He was a creep who tried to avoid the media on Wednesdays and had zero to say about anything. No depth to the guy. That gives him the edge over Bruce Smith, who was a self-absorbed asshole who kissed the national media's ass, and John Fina, who was condescending and liked to think he was smarter than everyone else.
Q: Looking back over your career, what’s the most fun you’ve ever had covering the Bills?
The Super Bowl years, of course. It’s always more fun when the team is winning. The players are more engaging, the town is alive, you feel like your stories mean more. I got to know a lot of the players back then and even though we butted heads, we have a good relationship as older men. Thurman Thomas and I didn't talk for over a year once, but he appeared at my roast for WGR and we're friends— though he's still a nut job.
Q: You’ve been very generous with your time. Let’s wrap up with a lightning round:
What’s the first, the worst, and the best concert you’ve ever attended?
First concert? Wow, I didn't go to many as a kid. I remember seeing the Eagles in 1974 at the old Boston Auditorium. It was 95 degrees and no air conditioning and at one point all the guys in my row were asleep.
Best concert? I'd have to say Steve Earle at the Tralf. We were up close and when I heard a recording of it later, I could swear I heard myself.
Worst? Hmmm. The Beach Boys.
Q: In your estimation, what is the percentage of owners in your Strat-o-Matic baseball league who have actually kissed a girl?
I'd say about 63 percent of Strat-o-Matic players have yet to kiss a girl.
Q: I’ve heard you say that you’re a very sentimental guy. Give me a scene from a movie that chokes you up every time you see it.
That’s an easy one: It's the scene with George and Mary on the stairs in "It's A Wonderful Life." My wife and I often say to each other, "I don't want any plastics…"
Q: Please share one or two book recommendations with our readers.
"A Fan's Notes," by Frederick Exley and "Straight Man," by Richard Russo.
Q: You recently went public with a searing hatred for cats (the species) and “Cats” (the musical). Where does all this feline fury come from?
My hatred of cats largely stems from being allergic. It kills me that people would even have them in their house, knowing how bad it could be for a visitor. I also don't like their slovenly, slinking demeanor.
Q: If you could go back in time and play one season for one coach, who would it be?
I would play one season for Billy Martin, assuming he didn't get fired.
Q: I’m sorry, the correct answer we were looking for was “Coach Eric Taylor and the West Dillon Panthers”. If you replaced Roger Goodell as NFL Commissioner, what are the first three changes you’d make to the league?
No preseason games, make overtime one full period, and stop shoving military patriotism down our throats every week.
Q: A bomb is set to go off in your house and your family and pets are safely outside. You have time to carry three items out of your home. What are they?
The computer with my Strat-o-Matic game on it; my electric guitar; my Catherine Zeta-Jones poster.
Q: Tim Graham, Mike Harrington, Vic Carucci and Bucky Gleason have dinner together. Who is the most likely candidate to pick up the check? Who is the least likely candidate?
Bucky would be the first to pick up the check. But he's wrong when he always accuses me of being cheap. Last to pick it up? Maybe Harrington because he'd be distracted on Twitter.
Many thanks to Jerry Sullivan for carving time out of a busy Bills season to answer our questions. You can read Jerry’s work at The Buffalo News and follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan
Follow Tim Hirschbeck on Twitter @TimHirschbeck — 65 followers can’t be wrong.