What started as a whisper in the back of Bubba Sullivan’s head gradually grew into the realization he had a decision he needed to make.
After 32 years in charge of the Northfield football program, Sullivan officially stepped down from his coaching responsibilities Wednesday, ending a long and successful tenure that started when he first took over the Raiders as a fresh-faced 22-year old straight out of college.
Since that time, Sullivan constructed a dynasty in the 1990s that eventually claimed the program’s only state title in 1997, and built a dedicated football fan base in a town that previously was largely apathetic to what happened Friday nights. He finishes his coaching career with a 208-134 record, with the 208 wins ranking 47th all-time in Minnesota high school football history.
“It probably entered my mind a few years ago once I hit the 30-year mark, but really just in the last year it got to be a stronger idea,” Sullivan said. “Several things, one is that 32 years coaching is a long time — and it’s been great and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve been blessed to have talented players and coaching staff and a school and community that have been super supportive. It’s been wonderful, but 32 years is a long time.”
Through the last couple months, Sullivan started calling around to those he has previously coached with and against to act as sounding boards for whether or not he wanted to return for a 33rd season. One of the pivotal conversations, Sullivan said, was with Dave Nelson, who coached a combined 36 seasons between Blaine and Minnetonka.
“I talked to him a couple months ago and said I was thinking about it because he just retired a year ago,” Sullivan said. “I said, ‘Dave, what pushed you over the edge?’ His quote, and I agree with him, was ‘Nothing specific, you just know.’ That’s the way I felt, too. It’s just time to turn over a new leaf, and I think the program is ready for some new energy, too.”
Thank you Coach Sullivan for leading a football program with so many quality men in it to mentor your student athletes! I was so fortunate to have been part of what you built! You and your coaches changed my life by demanding my by best and investing in me. #OldRaider #CountOnMe https://t.co/2jooE6pA50— Cullen Nelson (@cnelson5598) April 1, 2021
Sullivan also acknowledged part of the reason he felt ready to move on were the recent departures of a number of his longtime assistant coaches. Among those is Mark Woitalla, who after nearly 30 years with the program himself took a teaching a coaching position at Lakeville South High School prior to the 2020-21 school year.
Woitalla first joined Sullivan’s staff in 1991, and was promoted to defensive coordinator at the start of the 1997 season, when the Raiders proceeded to win their only state championship.
What Woitalla said he was impressed with most through his years coaching alongside Sullivan was the ability to connect with every player on the roster and every coach on the staff.
“Everybody was important,” Woitalla said. “That’s what I learned from him. We had some kids that weren’t very talented, but he made them feel important and got them on special teams and they all got to play.
“He did such a great job with the whole staff of making you feel so important no matter where you’re at if you’re a volunteer, a freshman coach, a middle school coach, that you were part of the Raider football program.”
Part of the reason for Sullivan’s continued support and acknowledgment of his staff is because that’s largely who he credits with the success he’s enjoyed the past 32 seasons.
After he made the decision to retire, and started looking back at some of the highlights from the past three decades, many of the memories that popped up revolved around time spent off the field with coaches and players and away from games. One of his favorite days, and perhaps his favorite practice, was in 2020 when Northfield practiced through a fall blizzard.
“When I started coaching, I was really excited about the relationship building with kids, and that’s still the highlight, but what I didn’t realize as a young coach is the football coaching staff is so close,” Sullivan said. “You go through these highs and lows together, so that bonding of a coaching staff really makes them your closest friends. That’s certainly a highlight, and then just the way the community would rally behind our team. Overall, the feeling that for 32 years we gave a ton of kids in this town a great experience and they had the opportunity to learn a lot about themselves and grow up a lot during their time with Raider football.”
He’s also quick to credit his wife, Julie, for the support during the long hours he worked during football season, as well as the guidance he received from his father Bob, the longtime football coach at Carleton College who’s worked in a volunteer role with the Northfield High School football program the past several seasons.
In terms of on-field memories, Sullivan points to the 1997 run to the state championship, but also the 1993, 1994 and 1996 teams that advanced to the Prep Bowl, as well as the 1992 squad that kick-started that run of success with its upset of undefeated and top-ranked Lakeville.
“Our town was so excited about the success we were starting to have and those kids that got it turned around,” Sullivan said. “That was a really memorable time. After that, our 2008 season was one that had that same kind of magical feel at the end. We just seemed to be firing on all cylinders and just peaked at the right time, and that happened with a lot of our teams, frankly.
“Sometimes just as rewarding were the teams that went 4-4 but you got everything out of them that you could. There’s a lot of that pride in the way our teams played, whether we were a championship-caliber team or not.”
For the first time in more than three decades, there will be a new coach running the show for the Northfield football team.
Northfield Activities Director Joel Olson said the position will be posted next week, but that a hire might not be imminent, so that some potential candidates can also apply for teaching positions once those open up closer to the summer.
Olson said the school will also take a long look at any in-house candidates interested in applying for the position.
“We’ll post it and just like every other one of our coaching hires, we put a committee together to pick out people to interview,” Olson said. “It’s going to be hard to replace him and what he’s brought to this community and these kids.”
As for Sullivan, his days as a head coach might be over, but he might not be totally down helping the Raiders won in Friday nights.
“That’s the next decision to make,” Sullivan said. “One option is just to enjoy free time and see what that’s like, and this is one of the things that pushed me to make this decision. It’s also, depending on who takes over the program, I mentioned that I might be around to help depending on who needs it. We’ll see, I don’t know what that next step is, but I’m excited for the next chapter and whatever that might be.”