Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Sullivan began his athletic career as a three-sport star at Birmingham's John Carroll Catholic High School. Although a talented baseball and basketball player, he chose to play football for Auburn University where he would become the starting quarterback in 1969 under the tutelage of head coach Shug Jordan.
Over the next three seasons, the 6 ft , 190 lb would break school and NCAA records for passing while leading the team to a 26-7 record. In 1970, he led the NCAA in total offense with 2,856 yards and set an NCAA record for most yards per play with 8.57. In his career, he was responsible for 71 touchdowns (53 passing/18 rushing) to tie the NCAA record. In his senior season, Sullivan completed 162 passes on 281 attempts for 2,012 yards and 20 touchdowns. This performance was enough to edge out Ed Marinaro for the 1971 Heisman Trophy. Also an excellent student, Sullivan was named an Academic All-American and graduated with a bachelor's of science in business administration in 1972. Sullivan finished his college career with 6,284 passing yards and 57 touchdowns, along with another 18 touchdowns on the ground.
Auburn's star quarterback, Pat Sullivan, won a two-man race with Cornell running back Ed Marinaro, capturing the Heisman with a 152-point margin. Sullivan won in the South, the Southwest and the Far West and Marinaro, who went on to become a television star following his National Football League career, took the East and Midwest. Running backs took the second, third, fourth and fifth slots in the balloting.