Sullivan not about to stand pat
After 30 years of teaching, thousands of hours coaching and an incredible resume of success, Pat Sullivan has decided it’s time for a change.
The 55-year-old St. Catharines native is retiring at the end of the school year ending one of the most successful high school basketball coaching careers in Niagara history.
“I think it is time,” Sullivan said while chatting on a bench outside of St. Francis where he has worked since 1995. “I’ve reached that point in my career from an age and experience point where I can retire.
“I’m excited about doing some different things. I still enjoy teaching, I definitely enjoy coaching, but it is more challenging with age and with change and at some point you just don’t want to keep changing and you just want to do something different.”
A quick look at Sullivan’s accomplishments reveals a staggering amount of consistent achievements: 19 Zone, 17 Southern Ontario Secondary School Association championships and 10 Ontario Federation of Secondary School Associations medals (two gold, four silver, four bronze) with the senior boys program at St. Francis as well as three Zone and two SOSSA championships with the Phoenix junior girls program. Toss in two SOSSA titles with the senior girls program at Denis Morris and two more with the senior boys program at DM with Kevin McKenna and it’s hard to think of a more decorated head coach.
Sullivan said the championships are nice but were more a byproduct of doing things the proper way.
“It’s just too hard to think that far into the future,” he said when asked if he ever envisioned so much success. “It was one day at a time trying to get better each day and provide a good experience for the kids and care for them like I was cared for by my coaches and give back.
“I’m proud of that but I never had any illusions of the type of success we had.”
Before teaching, Sullivan played two years at Guelph and then transferred to Brock where he was part of the Badgers national championship squad under coach Ken Murray in 1996.
Murray said Sullivan exhibited traits that led him to believe he was coaching material.
“Sully was a huge part of our first national championship team,” Murray said. “A very aggressive, hard-working, intelligent player. You could tell he was going to be a great coach. In addition, he helped contribute to our offensive system by designing two very important plays.
“I am so proud of all that he has accomplished, not only as a coach, but as a person.”
Sullivan coached for a year with Mike Sheahan at Holy Cross before moving to DM for a couple of years where he coached with two of his mentors, McKenna and Mike McGinnis.
He moved to St. Francis in 1995, a change admittedly he didn’t take well at the time.
“I’ll be honest in saying I never really wanted to come to this school. I wanted to go to Denis Morris. I was a grad there and they had an established program I was part of as a player and coach.
“Obviously, coming here was very fortuitous for me. From the beginning, I just wanted to build something special for the kids. I wanted to build something like I had been provided for.”
St. Francis senior boys basketball coach Jono Marcheterre said Sullivan has done just that.
“Pat has meant everything to the program,” Marcheterre said. “It is his vision that many of us have taken up and continued. He hasn’t directly coached the team on a day to day basis since 2015 and since then we have gone to OFSAA every year but two (excluding COVID shutdown) and medalled each time. I can only imagine as a builder, seeing what you built sustained, and thriving after you are done is the truest form of satisfaction.
“But I can tell you, that while he isn’t in the gym coaching the guys every day, our program is impacted by him daily. The values and foundations Pat built are still what informs us daily.”
Marcheterre has also witnessed the other side of Sullivan.
“For me, Pat has meant the world. He is family (my wife’s oldest brother), and when I started at St. Francis that was the extent. But over time he became my friend and mentor. Everyday I have the opportunity to bounce ideas and plans off him, ask for help or guidance. Every year Pat will come in to the gym when it is time to polish up our press and watch quietly for a few minutes, then in a simple succinct way make an adjustment and fix the entire thing.
“But it is the little things. It’s seeing him pull a player to the side in the hallway to talk about the game the night before. It’s the calls after practice to ask me how it went, or after games to offer advice or consolation.”
Sullivan will miss that aspect of his job.
“I’ll miss the relationships with the kids and the coaches,” he said. “I had a chance to coach with my brother (Dan), Mike McGinnis, former players. Being in the gym with the guys, I will miss. I’ve met so many cool people through basketball that I’ll miss those experiences.”
What he won’t miss, he said, is the stress of winning and losing.
“I don’t miss the pressure of big games and do or die situations. That is sort of a relief. I don’t think I ever handled that as well as I would have liked to, especially when I was younger. I tried to get better at understanding that life will go on and sometimes it doesn’t feel like that.”
He also admitted all the time in the gym wasn’t always easy on his family (wife Denise, son Michael, daughter Rachel).
“There was a ton of sacrifice. I had to reflect at certain times to make sure I wasn’t sacrificing too much,” he said. “Every time I was here I wasn’t at home. We put in a lot of time, we travelled at lot, I did my best to bring them when I could. I was very conscious of that.”
Sullivan conceded early in his career he was obsessed about not being outworked.
“I am still obsessed about it,” he said. “I just didn’t ever want to think someone was doing more than I was but that comes at a cost.
“I think I’ve grown and I think I’ve become better at making sure there is a balance between what’s really important and trying to give back to the program as well.”
Sullivan said he leaves teaching a much different profession than when he began.
“I think discipline and accountability,” he said when asked for the biggest differences. “I believe in a lot of changes that we made in terms of equity. We’ve made a lot of positive growth into acceptance, but at the same time, I think some of the other values that were important when we were in high school and when I started out, have dropped off. I think we can have both. I think we can push for understanding and empathy and equity but we don’t have to sacrifice discipline and accountability.”
Sullivan, who has also coached at Brock and with Niagara Prep, doesn’t plan on becoming a couch potato.
“There are some things I would like to do continuing on in basketball,” he said. “I really enjoy working with young kids and helping them. I think I’m going to officiate, which will be interesting. I did that a long time ago.
“I’m just excited about being available to opportunities that come up but I want to stay active and I want to stay working. I’m too young to sit and do nothing but I don’t have an entire plan layed out for myself. I don’t have any regrets about leaving. I’m just excited about new opportunities.”
Marcheterre is happy for his brother-in-law, but can’t envision what the school will be like without Sullivan.
“I have been dreading this day since I arrived at St. Francis,” Marcheterre said. “Not because of how it will impact the program, it will, but his legacy is that he hasn’t been the coach for most of the last decade and we still represent his vision. I have dreaded this because Pat is truly my mentor, friend and brother and I’m going to miss him giving me grief with a smile every morning when I walk in the building.”
The school will fete Sullivan Wednesday at Coppola’s Restaurant in St. Catharines with proceeds to the St. Francis basketball program.
“I’m grateful, I’m thankful,” Sullivan said. “I’m doing it because it’s an opportunity to support the program.
“I’m more thankful than anybody. I think I’ve learned through the process more than anybody. I’m excited about moving on to the next chapter and proud of what we’ve been able to do and happy it’s in really good hands now, the school and the program.”
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