Former Murray State football student-athlete and head coach Jim Cullivan celebrated his 100th birthday Thursday surrounded by family and friends at First United Methodist Church in Paris, Tennessee.
Not only is Coach Cullivan one of the oldest figures in Racer Athletics history, he might be the oldest living Murray State University alumni. He played for MSU coach Jim Moore and Fred Faurot from 1946-1949 and later became assistant coach for Faurot in 1951. Cullivan went on to serve as Racer head coach from 1956-59.
Cullivan came out of Henry County, Tennessee, where he played at Grove High School. According to the Paris Post Intelligencer, Cullivan’s senior season at Grove High School saw him play left guard on a team that outscored its opponents 266-51 on its way to winning the West Tennessee Championship in 1940.
As it did for every American, World War II put a stop to a lot of things, and Cullivan put his football career on hold while serving three years in the U.S. Army. After the war, he recalls wanting to play college football.
“Murray was ideal for me,” Cullivan said. “I’d go over as a guest and watch games at Cutchin Stadium. I liked everything about it. When I came home from the war, I knew I wanted to play football, and I really wanted to play at Murray State. Almost every player on my first team at Murray were former GI’s, the ones lucky enough to get to come home. There were tryouts before every season because there were no scholarships and you certainly didn’t have a guaranteed spot ... nobody did.”
Cullivan’s era was far different than today’s college football landscape. Before a player decided on a school, there were open tryouts before a player enrolled for classes. Cullivan said he was accepted at six different universities when he chose Murray State. But that wasn’t the end of the rugged competition of football.
“The competition was tough, and training camp went about a week to 10 days of two-a-day practices, and it seemed like they sent players home every day,” Cullivan said. “You were either a scrub or a starter. There was no in between like we have today. You hoped you would be there at the end and have a spot on the team. That part was enjoyable, if you made it.”
Cullivan was also part of the early years of the Ohio Valley Conference.
“I don’t know how the OVC came about because I was a student, but I knew it was a good thing to have a league to play in and it was pretty tough early,” he recalled. “Some teams were in it and kind of outgrew it. And now I see teams listed in the OVC that I never know about.”
Cullivan played on one of the greatest teams in Murray State history in 1948 for Coach Fred Faurot when the Racers won the inaugural OVC championship. The Racers went 9-1-1 and played in what is still the only bowl game MSU has ever played in, the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida, where they tied Texas’ Sul Ross State 21-21 on New Year’s Day 1949.
Cullivan still loves to talk football. He offered up these thoughts on the evolution of the helmet.
“Coach Mouse Wilson, a retired service member, looked at me and said ‘Where’s your helmet?’ ” Cullivan said. “I said I didn’t have one, and he reached into his pocket and unfolded a strap of leather and two ear pieces held together by elastic and that was your helmet, good gracious! When they put a face mask on a real hard helmet later, it was just a bar and sometimes first contact would crack that bar, and it was dangerous. I watched helmets get better and better and now you can’t even see their faces.”
Cullivan’s degrees in agriculture and physical education from Murray State set him on a teaching and coaching career that spanned 38 years.