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Anybody Here Seen John L.? : Fighting Sullivans May Be on Last Patriot Victory Tour

January 23, 1986|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Right from the pages of "The Last Hurrah" come the Sullivans of Boston, who with their bedraggled little football team fight their way to the forefront of society, until the wolf gets inside the door, forcing them to put the family treasure up for sale . . .

And then, just as the curtain begins to fall forever, their Patriots, who hadn't won a playoff game in 22 years, win three on the road and gain their first Super Bowl.

If this is such a heart-warming story, why is everyone giggling?

In Miami, where the Patriots had just won the AFC championship, writers joked that the Super Bowl was in trouble, the Sullivans having already proven that they could lose money with an NFL franchise and Michael Jackson.

The Sullivan patriarch, Billy, received his trophy from Lamar Hunt, recalling the day he took his $8,300 life savings, borrowed another $16,700 and became the final charter member of the American Football League.

"Billy took $8,300 and parlayed it into $30 million in debt," said a writer, laughing.

What can't a Sullivan gum up?

Billy's oldest son, Patriot Vice President Chuck, Harvard educated, a partner in the prestigious law firm of O'Melveny and Meyers, tried to run the Jacksons' Victory Tour--and took a personal bath, estimated at $5 million to $20 million.

Billy's youngest son, Patrick, became general manager at 30 and ended years of player unrest by running their payroll into the top five. He put aside the family's long-standing feud with the Boston Globe and introduced an era of tranquility.

And then, with the Patriots about to record their greatest victory, against the Raiders, Patrick began needling Howie Long from the sideline. Afterward, he went up to Long, engaged him in an argument, got decked by Matt Millen and was ridiculed anew in the Boston press.

Said Eddie Andelman, the host of Sports Huddle, a radio call-in show in Boston: "As you saw in the sideline incident, no Sullivan can stay away from show business or the cameras."

Billy was born for the spotlight, even if he leaves something to be desired as a performer. The Irish are supposed to be grand story tellers. Billy's stories are best known for their length.

With interview requests mounting here, the AFC arranged a press conference for him.

Billy entered beaming, sat down, pronounced himself happier than everyone in the room put together and talked for nine minutes before anyone got a question in.

He was still talking away 81 minutes later. By then the room, which had been packed, was half empty.

Billy persists. It's what he does best.

He was a publicist under Frank Leahy at Boston College and Notre Dame, then for baseball's Boston Braves.

"That's where some of the resentment may have come from, among the older guys," a Boston writer said. "They remember when they'd say, 'Hey, Billy, get me a cup of coffee' "

By the late 1950s, Billy was in business. He was making a nice upper-middle class living, when Leahy, then with the Los Angeles Chargers of the new AFL, suggested him as the man to run a Boston franchise.

Billy had no money to speak of, and no place lined up to play, but then the AFL had no choice, either. It had seven franchises and wanted eight.

Billy jumped at the opportunity. He lined up nine partners--they also sold stock to the public--and looked for a stadium. They kept looking for it for the next decade, it turned out.

He dragged his team all over town. The Patriots played at Boston University, Fenway Park and Boston College, where a fire broke out in the stands during an exhibition game, forcing the little crowd onto the field, there to mill around with the players.

They played at Harvard, which had one dressing room, forcing them to dress at a nearby motel and to hold their halftime meetings under the stands.

They finally found their little piece of heaven, Foxboro, halfway down the road to Providence, and built a no-frills facility.

With a new stadium, they decided it was time for a new name, so they became the Bay State Patriots.

It stayed that way, for 24 hours.

Billy said: "A commentator said we were calling them the Bay State Patriots because Billy Sullivan's initials are BS and it wouldn't be too bad to have them known as the BS Patriots. I went to the board of directors the next day and forcefully suggested that we change the name."

In the mid-'70s, Billy was forced out as president by the other owners, who repossessed his company car, canceled his life insurance policies and moved him out of the front row of the owners' box.

But Billy wouldn't go away. He was 57 and he could have sold his stock for $3 million, but he regained his presidency after a long fight, with help from Pete Rozelle and several NFL owners.

Then he borrowed another $8 million and bought his partners out. He wasn't going away, so they had to.

Said a former employee: "There are about 100,000 people who are like me--exhausted. He wears you down. He has a tremendous constitution. He's the same today at 70 as he was at 55."

The operation became a family affair.

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