Mike Sullivan, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-year offensive coordinator, initially made the leap from the college coaching ranks to the NFL in 2002 when Tom Coughlin came calling. At the time, Coughlin was entering what would be the final season of an extremely successful eight-year run as the first head coach in Jacksonville Jaguars history. Sullivan joined Coughlin's staff as a defensive quality control coach, and when Coughlin was replaced by Jack Del Rio in 2003, he was made an offensive assistant.
Coughlin got the head job with the New York Giants in 2004 and came calling again, bringing Sullivan in as his wide receivers coach. After six years in that post, which included a Super Bowl championship season in 2007, Sullivan took over as the Giants' quarterback coach and became a key figure in Eli Manning's continuing development into an NFL star.
This offseason, Coughlin gave Sullivan official permission to interview for the Bucs' coordinator position under new Head Coach Greg Schiano, and the former Army Ranger realized his NFL dream when the Schiano gave him the job.
As thrilled as Sullivan is to have taken the next step in his coaching career, he remains indebted to Coughlin for his professional guidance. Those feelings will have to be put aside for one afternoon, however, as Sullivan's Bucs travel to the Meadowlands to take on Coughlin's Giants this Sunday.
"Coach Coughlin is a great mentor, teacher, and someone who has given me so many opportunities," said Sullivan. "I'm very appreciative to everything he's done for me. I will always value those memories and will always have a great deal of respect for him. This three-hour window on Sunday, he's going to be wanting to do the same thing to me that I'm going to be wanting to do to him. I don't think he would want it another way. I have a great deal of respect but certainly we're focused here on bringing back a victory to Tampa."
Sullivan has been credited with helping Manning take his game to a new level during their two years of working closely together. Manning, who threw for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns last year, said the two had a "great relationship," and that Sullivan helped him become a wiser player.
"I think [it was] just trying to make great decisions, trying to prepare very wisely, understand circumstances that might come up throughout a game," said Manning of Sullivan's teachings. "Whether it's a certain situation or a defense that comes up, have a plan, have an idea, and say, 'Hey, if I see this look, this is what I'm going to, and if they do something different then we'll adjust.' It's kind of, 'Here's the look, here are the rules, this is what we need to do, and go and do it and trust in your instincts.'
"We worked hard together and committed. We always had a good plan for each week and great preparation and great study. I only had good things to say and I know he was looking forward to getting to work with him."
In that regard, too, Sullivan has gone from a mentoring relationship to an adversarial one, at least this Sunday. The Bucs' coach knows firsthand what a difficult challenge his team faces this weekend in the Meadowlands, and that has to be his focus this week, despite the good feelings surrounding his "homecoming."
"I know that [Manning] has committing himself and working hard to prepare to beat the Buccaneers just as I'm preparing, doing everything I can, to help the offense to get ready and prepare and go beat the Giants," said Sullivan. "The emotions, the respect, the type of memories don't change, but the type of vantage point, the mission changes. It's a completely different mission. That's the focus right now - getting this offense ready for a great defense."