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Headed to Hall of Fame: Lee High years set stage for Brewer's distinguished coaching career

 

Billy Brewer, center, sports a cast on a broken right arm he suffered during his junior season at Lee High School. Brewer, a four-sport athlete at Lee High, went on to play defensive back at Ole Miss, where he was named to the Rebels'

Billy Brewer, center, sports a cast on a broken right arm he suffered during his junior season at Lee High School. Brewer, a four-sport athlete at Lee High, went on to play defensive back at Ole Miss, where he was named to the Rebels' "Team of the Century" in 1993. He returned to Columbus to start his coaching career in 1962 and remained at Lee High through the 1971 season. Pictured with Brewer are Mike McRaney, left, and Tommy McCann. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

James

James "T" Thomas and Brewer grew up together playing sandlot football on Sunday on a sawdust field near the creosote plant on 14th Avenue in Columbus and became lifelong friends. "I ate more meals at T's house than I ate at my own house," said Brewer, who hired Thomas as an assistant coach when he landed the coaching job at Ole Miss in 1983.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Former Ole Miss Coach Billy Brewer is headed to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

Former Ole Miss Coach Billy Brewer is headed to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Photo by: Courtesy photo/hottytoddy.com

 

 

Slim Smith

 

 

During his 40 years as a player and a coach, Billy Brewer was best known for a singular quality. 

 

As a player, he might not outrun or outhit his opponent. As a coach, he might not out-scheme or outman his foe. 

 

But more times that not, he could outlast the other guy -- the classic definition of a grinder. 

 

This week, that quality emerged again. Thirty-four years after his last game as the head football coach at Ole Miss, Billy Brewer has grinded his way into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. 

 

"I thought it had passed me by," Brewer said Tuesday from his home in Oxford. "My attitude was always if it happens, it happens, but the clock is ticking. You better hurry up." 

 

Brewer, now 82, will be joined by former Jackson Murrah High School girls' basketball coach Anna Jackson, Mississippi College basketball coach and current athletic director Mike Jones, world light heavyweight boxing champion Archie Moore, Mississippi Valley State basketball coach Lafayette Stribling and Mississippi College track and field coach Joe Walker Jr. The 2018 Hall of Fame class will be inducted on July 28 in Jackson. 

 

"I'm humbled and appreciative," Brewer said. "My phone has been ringing so much since they announced it (Monday) it's too hot to pick up." 

 

Brewer's credentials will be duly noted during the induction ceremony. 

 

He was a standout four-sport athlete at Columbus Lee (where he graduated in 1955) and at Ole Miss, where he was chosen a member of the Rebels' "Team of the Century" football team in 1993. He played a season for the Washington Redskins before returning home to Columbus to begin his coaching career. 

 

His nine years coaching at Lee culminated with an unbeaten season in 1971, the year Columbus schools were integrated. After a single year at Heritage Academy, he began his college coach career at Southeastern Louisiana, where he served two years as an assistant and six years as head coach, followed by three years as head coach at Louisiana Tech and, finally, 11 seasons as head coach at Ole Miss. 

 

In his 20 years as a head coach, he compiled a 125-94-6 record, including a 68-55-3 record at Ole Miss, the second highest win total in Rebel history. 

 

That's just the raw data, of course. The story of Brewer is far more colorful and interesting than that. 

 

 

 

Growing up in Columbus  

 

Brewer grew up poor and hungry in a small house on Military Road opposite 14th Avenue -- a poor, predominantly black neighborhood both then and now. 

 

As a kid, he grew up playing with the black children in the neighborhood, delivered newspapers in the black communities both there and on Southside. At a time when the races lived strictly segregated lives, he moved easily through the black communities, getting to know the people there in a way that would later benefit him as both a high school and college coach. 

 

"Every Sunday, we used to go down to this sawdust pile next to the creosote plant on 14th Avenue and play football," he said. "I was the only white kid out there. We'd play football until dark." 

 

One of the black kids he met on that sawdust field was James "T" Thomas, who would later become a standout tailback at the city's black high school, Hunt, and eventually became Brewer's first hire when he got the job at Ole Miss. 

 

Brewer and Thomas became friends immediately and that association gave Brewer insight into the lives of black families. 

 

"I ate more meals at T's house than I did my own," Brewer said. 

 

When the boys got into high school, Brewer would go to watch his friend play football for Hunt on Friday afternoons and Thomas would sit on a hill above the Magnolia Bowl and watch his friend play for Lee High. 

 

Frank Griffin, one of Brewer's teammates at Lee, remembers Brewer as a natural athlete. 

 

"He played four sports: football, track, basketball and baseball," Griffin said. "But the thing I remember most is that he was just one tough dude. Tough as nails." 

 

Brewer rode that athleticism and toughness to Ole Miss, where he became a star defensive back. 

 

 

 

Coaching career begins at Lee High 

 

In 1962, Brewer had just returned home to Columbus after interviewing for the head football coaching position in Natchez. As he considered the offer, he had misgivings about moving away from home. That decision was made easier when he was offered the job at Lee High despite never having a minute of coaching experience. 

 

Brewer jumped at the chance, recognizing what he believed was great untapped potential at his alma mater. 

 

"There was a lot of interest in football," Brewer said. "There were 300 kids playing football. The Y had a team and all the elementary schools had teams and played Saturday mornings. But there was something missing, I think. 

 

"First, the kids at Lee High didn't know how to win," he added. "Second, they needed to get tougher." 

 

Brewer figured the latter would take care of the former, so he revived the long dormant tradition of taking his players to a one-week training camp at Camp Pratt. 

 

"We did things down there you can't do today," he said. "When the lights went out, if there was one peep, everybody got a lick. Everybody. We'd take that paddle to those bare butts. We'd toughen 'em up. You ask any of those guys, even all these years later, and I'll guarantee you they remember Camp Pratt." 

 

It paid off, too. 

 

"That Lee High bunch, we hardly ever lost at game in the Magnolia Bowl," he said. "We were terrors. We would get after you and stay after you. Nobody wanted to play Lee High at that place, I guarantee you that." 

 

 

 

Billy Brewer: Restaurateur 

 

Brewer loved his job at Lee High, but with his wife, Kay (nee Gunter) and two young boys to take care of, money was always tight. It was the same for his friend Willie Menotti, who was trying to support a wife and three kids selling used cars. 

 

Brewer and Menotti met though their wives and began plotting ways to make money. 

 

That led to a brief, but memorable foray into the restaurant business. 

 

"We found this old place out in the middle on nowhere on a lake," Menotti recalled. "I can't even remember how to get out there now. But we opened up a little steakhouse, me and Billy. We didn't have two nickels to rub together between us, but somehow we got together enough money to open up this little place." 

 

Menotti's dad was a butcher at a Columbus grocery store, so the two would buy rib-eyes, fillets and t-bones, along with potatoes, for their limited-menu. 

 

Both men would rush out to the steakhouse after work. 

 

"It worked out pretty good," Brewer said. "Willie would cook the steaks one night and I'd cook them the next." 

 

Menotti quickly learned that it was probably a better arrangement for Brewer to stay on the grills. As a maitre d', his friend was more of a maitre don't, Menotti recalls. 

 

"He absolutely wouldn't take any crap off anybody, no matter who you were," Menotti said laughing. "One night some colonel from the Air Force Base came in and ordered a steak. He ate about half of it, then brought it back to me and said it wasn't right, so I got him another steak. Well, he ate about half of that one and brings it back, too. Billy hears me and calls me over and asks me what's going on. So I tell him. Billy comes over, grabs that colonel around the collar and just about pulls him over the bar. I about died. But that's the way Billy was. He was a great guy. People loved him. But don't mess with him. You'll be sorry." 

 

The restaurant lasted only about a year, Menotti said. 

 

"We had a lot of fun and made some money, but Billy will probably tell you I stole it all," he said laughing. 

 

Brewer said the restaurant business was initially hampered by its inability to sell alcohol. They soon figured out a way around that. 

 

"John Williams, who worked for the school district, made a bar for us, but we couldn't sell alcohol," Brewer said. "A few guys started bring in a bottle in a paper sack and we'd put it in a closet so they could have a drink when they came in. 

 

"Well, people would come up and say, 'I'd sure like a drink, you know,'" he added. "I'd say, 'Well, let me see what I can do.' Then, the guy who had brought the bottle in would realize about three-quarters of the bottle was gone and want to know what the hell was going on. ... Neither one of us knew what the hell we were doing. But we sure had a lot of fun."  

 

 

 

Integration 

 

Not long after the restaurant closed, Brewer faced what might have been considered a challenge for most white coaches of the era. The Columbus schools were fully integrated in 1971, which meant the arrival of black players. 

 

Among the new players to arrive after integration were two black students, now Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, a defensive end, and Robert "Fats" Hinton, a running back. 

 

The two were game-changers, Brewer said. 

 

"Robert Smith ran about a 4.5 40 (yard dash)," Brewer said. "Nobody could block him. When we played Tupelo that year, they ran a veer. Robert would take the dive play, the quarterback and the pitch all on the same play. They never had a chance." 

 

Hinton, meanwhile, was just as dominant on the offensive side of the ball. 

 

"I remember when we played Jackson Provine at the Magnolia Bowl," said Brewer's friend Griffin. "They brought in extra bleachers from (MUW) and put them in the end zone. There must have been 10,000 people there, the biggest crowd they ever had." 

 

Columbus won 7-0, with Hinton carrying the ball 36 of the team's 40 plays from scrimmage. 

 

"The next day, I told Coach Brewer he had made a terrible mistake giving the ball to Hinton all those times," Griffin said. "He just looked at me and said, 'You're right. I should have given him the ball all 40 times.'" 

 

Smith said Brewer made the transition into an integrated school easier for him and his black classmates. 

 

"He treated everybody the same," Smith said. "If you had talent and worked, you played. It didn't matter if you were black or white." 

 

Smith said Brewer intervened in race relations away from the field, too, helping end a walk-out by black students who felt they were being passed over when the school announced its homecoming court. 

 

After Lee finished its season undefeated, Brewer was approached about playing in a postseason bowl game. 

 

"I wasn't about to do that," Brewer said. "All my life, I had heard about that 1936 team at Lee that finished undefeated. So I just decided, I'm not going to fool with any bowl game. I'll let what we did speak for itself." 

 

Coaching stints at Heritage (one year) and Southeastern Louisiana University (eight years) and Louisiana Tech (three years) finally brought him to his dream job at Ole Miss in 1983. 

 

Even then, Ole Miss had trouble recruiting black players, a residue of the university's contentious civil rights history. 

 

As it was at Lee High during integration, Brewer's familiarity with black athletes helped him bridge that racial divide. 

 

Brewer said he drew on his childhood experiences playing with an associating with his black neighbors to make those connections. 

 

"What I learned way back then was pretty simple," Brewer said. "I always knew that these black kids had a lot of ability and loved to play. They just needed an opportunity. It was the same in school too. Over the years, what I've seen is that competing and winning cures a lot of ills when it comes to race relationships. That's true everywhere, and all over the country."

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

 

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