Linda, George, Genie and Greg Sullivan
Photo by Richard Voges/Nebraska Communications

Why George Sullivan Became an Iconic Nebraska Figure

By Randy York

Nebraska has lost George Finley Sullivan, one of the Huskers’ greatest and most popular athletic heroes who died at age 91 last week after complications following foot surgery. Sullivan, also known as Sully, was a former Nebraska football player and a renowned physical therapist and head athletic trainer at his alma mater.

Services are Thursday evening and Friday morning (details at the end of this column), giving those in attendance the opportunity to mourn and affectionately reminiscence why Sully became such an iconic Nebraska figure.

Sullivan came to Lincoln in the fall of 1948 as a student trainer. “Sully helped mold me and hundreds of other young men that set foot in the training room with him and Paul Schneider,” recalled Tom Ruud, an All-America Husker linebacker who played in the NFL.

“Sully let you know when you were a dumb ass. He mentored many of us when we needed a father figure to grow up,” Ruud said. “I truly believe that Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and George Sullivan were the three most influential people to me in the last 50 years of Nebraska football. I am proud to call Sully a good friend, and I will miss his old stories.”

The same beliefs ring true with Pat Clare, a former NCAA Academic All-American who became a Nebraska freshman football player in 1958. “Paul Schneider was our gravel-voiced head trainer and gentle George Sullivan was our assistant trainer,” Clare said. “They made a great team.”

After Schneider died, Sully became Nebraska’s head trainer. In many ways, he became a father figure and a friend to all athletes. “Everyone knew they better comply with his rules,” Clare said. “George had a special way of operating during games.”

Clare recalls tearing a thumbnail off during a football game. He also remembers Sully coming into the huddle and pushing the thumbnail back before he taped it, then kissed his thumb and winked.

Who can forget a game at Iowa State when Sullivan felt the opponent’s hotel kitchen was dirty?

Sullivan had a unique way to solve the problem. He gathered the hotel staff and threatened to change the venue unless someone cleaned it. To this day, Clare remembers watching all the washing and all the scrubbing. It was indeed quite a sight the night before a Big Eight Conference football game.

“I still remember George with his pants rolled up while he helped everyone mopping the floors,” Clare said. “What a guy! Seriously, as a physician, we worked with George for more than 20 years, which made our work easier since he was always there and always prepared. Sully was just a wonderful person to have around you. We will all miss him. Rest in Peace George.”

Osborne Remembers Sully
Include the legendary Tom Osborne among those who view Sullivan as a material asset to several generations of Nebraska athletes. “George and Paul Schneider were the lead trainers during Bob Devaney’s years at Nebraska,” Osborne pointed out, adding that Sully and Doak Ostergard were the main trainers for football for most of his time as the Huskers’ head coach. 

“George was almost always in the stadium before 6 a.m. and often was in the training room until late in the evening, plus weekends as well,” Osborne said. “George offered the best of care. He listened to a lot of complaints and hurt feelings, and almost always responded in the way that was most helpful.”

Sully’s approach was empathy, sympathy, humor, a tough exterior and a genuine concern for all the student-athletes he served.

“George could and would come down on athletes when necessary,” Osborne said, but underneath it all, “he cared deeply.”

Yes, Sullivan was highly valued across the board. “Sully spent more time with you individually, often during times when you were hurting the most,” Osborne said. “It’s sad to see so many people who meant so much to the program and are no longer with us. George is one who would be very proud.”

Former Huskers Share Memories
Longtime Lincoln East High School Football Coach and former Husker football player, Lee Zentic believes Sully’s accolades were earned.

“If you played sports for Nebraska, you knew Sully was an unsung hero,” Zentic said. “Sully knew the players so well that he could tell whether you were really injured or you were just faking it. When you were scheduled for treatment, you better be there on time. He also was always there to pick you up when you were down or injured. Sully was as important to the success of the program almost as much as the head coach.”

Former Husker, Preston Love Jr. agrees. “George was more than just a trainer,” Love said. “He was a father figure, a psychologist, a motivator, a confessor and above all, a friend. Whenever I reflect on my days at NU, Sully was there. He will always be present and may he rest in peace.”

Mike “Red” Beran describes Sully as a renowned former Nebraska football player, physical therapist and head athletic trainer.

“Almost anyone who played football at Nebraska from the late 1940s until the early 2000s would be a good candidate to describe George,” said Beran, a former Husker offensive lineman who walked on at Nebraska and started on a national championship team. “George was among the greatest men who ever worked for Nebraska’s Athletic Department. In my opinion, he really was the personification of what Nebraska football represents.”

Following in Sully’s Footsteps
Just ask Jake Denell and Bob Hill. Both are former Husker football players who followed in Sully’s footsteps and became physical therapists. 

“My relationship with George began in the fall of 1963,” Hill said. “I was recruited by Bob Devaney. George was the athletic trainer and became a surrogate father for me and so many other players. We spent more time with George over the next four years than we did with our own fathers. My relationship with Sully did not end after playing football. We had talked about my future as a physical therapist, and Sully was instrumental about my decision.”

Hill was accepted in the 1974 academic class at Nebraska. His practice was in The Dalles in Oregon. “It was all because of George,” Hill said. “I have been blessed to work 40 years in a profession that I truly love, and I owe it all to George Sullivan. Thank you Sully!”

Jake Denell also remembers Sully fondly. “Sully helped me during a challenging time in my life. ACL rehab was not like it is now, and he was both supportive and encouraging in helping me recover physically and emotionally,” Denell said. “Because of him, I try to treat my clients with empathy, passion, professionalism and confidence … all of which Sully displayed.”

Yes, George Sullivan was a unique asset for student-athletes. Nebraska’s fabled physical therapist and head athletic trainer always delivered in legendary style. He will be missed and remembered by many.

Funeral Services
A Celebration of Life Service for the late George Sullivan will be held Friday, January 4 at 10:30 a.m. at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, located at 8550 Pioneers Blvd. in Lincoln. A reception will follow the service in the church gymnasium, giving all Husker letter winners, athletic trainers and staff a chance to visit with family and friends.

The visitation is Thursday, January 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Roper & Sons South Chapel in Lincoln, located at 3950 Hohensee Drive (on the West side of 40th St., South of Yankee Hill Road).

Longtime Husker Athletic Trainer George Finley (Sully) Sullivan (age 91) passed away peacefully with family by his side on Tuesday, December 25 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sullivan served as Nebraska’s Head Athletic Trainer from 1977 until 1995. He was an Assistant Athletic Trainer and Head Physical Therapist for the Huskers from 1953-1977. His 42-year career at Nebraska Athletics began as a student trainer in 1948.  Sully played football for Nebraska in the late 1940s and earned his bachelor’s and masters’ degrees from Nebraska.

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"George felt like an extension of the coaching staff. He offered a tough love, no nonsense approach to care. We always felt we were in good hands and received proper direction even when it was not what was wanted nor was expecting at the time. I remember fondly my days at Nebraska and appreciate George’s presence and positive impact on my athletic career. He will be missed in body but will live and love for eternity in spirit." - Patrick Tyrance, MD, UNL ’90 Husker Blackshirt ‘89-‘90

"Thanks for the blog about George. I want to share my moments with GS, as I had them frequently throughout my career at Nebraska. What I remember the most about Sully is the way he would stop me under the North Stadium and taking a moment to talk with me to see how I was doing, encourage to me, and or to make sure I was adjusting well to country/college life. Since I had just moved from the East Coast to Lincoln, there was a bit of an adjustment period for me. George would remind me of the people who have come and gone that were from my area and or background and would encourage me to hang in there. He would promise me that Nebraska was the Good Life if I gave it a chance. I did exactly what he told me, and he was right. I will always have those summer moments under the North Stadium where George would take the time to chat. I will miss him, and always hold on to those “Good Life” chats. Thanks Sully!" - Tony Ortiz

"The memories flood my mind with great things from my time as a trainer with Paul and George. What a great experience for a guy from Sidney. Sully was a boss, a mentor, a substitute dad, a friend, a teacher and a resource. George and Genie provided Christmas dinner when we couldn’t get home because of traveling to a bowl game. We remained friends for 45 years. George also became a friend to my daughter, who was with HuskerVision for four years. It was an honor to be part of the great athletic training group that George helped direct. The University of Nebraska and all Athletic Medicine are better for his life’s work. Rest in Peace my friend, George Finley Sullivan." - Scott Cook, Las Vegas

"George was our outdoor track trainer who traveled with the team on the circuit. His daily training room visits were privileged for me to know him as the person he was. The epitome of a small town, hard-working Nebraskan who carved a great career for himself and brought the University national recognition. He made those around him better, was a fine family member, and was a master sports psychologist the way he handled athletes and coaches too as needed. I was lucky to visit him when I was back for the Colorado game this past season. We talked as if we were both on campus yesterday. I will miss him deeply with great respect." - John Korky, Long Valley, N.J.

"Great article on George. Sully and Snitz were a perfect pair. I remember one spring when I hurt my wrist in practice. I went to Snitz and told him my wrist hurt when I move it back and forth. Snitz said don’t move it back and forth. God did everyone in the training room laugh, myself included. Sully sent me for X-ray and it was broken. We laughed about that all year. They called me their favorite Pa. Guinea. RIP Sully." - Dave Morock, Parkville, Mo.

"Thank you for the article about George Sullivan. It brings back many memories about growing up in Lincoln. My parents are Jerry and Shirley Svoboda. My mom worked as a secretary at the UNL football office when it was in the old Coliseum under the South stands of Memorial Stadium. She introduced my brothers and me to Paul Schneider, George Sullivan and all the coaches working for Nebraska at that time. Thank you for a great read." - Troy Svoboda, Mitchell, NE, Northfield Physical Ed. Instructor


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