Local sports legend Brewer dies at 83

May 14, 2018 11:53:32 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Billy Brewer, who made a habit of getting what he was never really supposed to have and going places where he was never supposed to go, is coming home. 


Most widely remembered for his 11 seasons as the football coach at Ole Miss, Brewer died Saturday in Memphis at age 83, almost 46 years after leaving his hometown of Columbus, where he remains a legend as both a player and coach at Lee High School. 


Although he remained in Oxford after being fired as the Rebels' coach in 1993, Brewer maintained close ties with many of his former teammates, fellow coaches, players and friends in Columbus. When his wife of 51 years, Kay (Gunter) Brewer died in 2010 and was buried at Friendship Cemetery, there was never any real doubt that he would return some day. 


On Sunday, a private family service will be held for Brewer at Gunter-Peel Funeral Home, followed by his burial next to his beloved wife. 


News of Brewer's death spread quickly Saturday, evoking memories and stories of Brewer's more than 65 years in sports, as a player and coach at Lee High and Ole Miss. 


Frank Griffin, who met Brewer when the two were in the eighth grade and played sports together for the next five years, remembered something from the day after Brewer was fired at Ole Miss. 


"The day after he got fired, the headline in the Clarion Ledger said, 'Dog Gone,'" Griffin recalled. "That was Billy's nickname, 'Dog.' I'm not sure exactly how he got that nickname, but I always took it to be short for 'under-dog,' because that's what Billy always was." 


Indeed, those most familiar with Brewer's life find his achievements all the more remarkable for the odds he defied along the way. 




The player 


Brewer grew up poor and hungry in a part of town where his closest neighbors and first playmates where the black kids along 14th Street North. Brewer later said those experiences -- he was the only white kid who played football on a sawdust field near the town's creosote plant -- helped him relate to the black athletes he would eventually recruit and coach. 


Little more than a street urchin, Brewer barely made it out of junior high, landed a scholarship at Ole Miss, then a football power, despite his small frame (5-foot-10, 150 pounds) where he excelled as a defensive back, then landed his first head coaching job at Lee High without any coaching experience or even a college degree. 


He was selected as the Ole Miss coach despite having no major college coaching experience, a surprising choice in some circles. When he guided Ole Miss to its first bowl game in 12 years in his first season, he again defied conventional wisdom. 


And when last October, Brewer was announced as a 2018 inductee in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame - 25 years after his career ended - he defied time and fading memory to claim his spot among Mississippi's sports legends. 


Somehow, through grit, guile, good timing and wringing every ounce of talent from his small frame, Brewer consistently beat the odds in a life of sports than spanned six decades. 


The ragged kid from the poor part of town became a star athlete, married the prettiest girl in town and ascended to one of the top college coaching jobs in America, where he became the second longest tenured and second winningest coach in the program's history, behind only legendary coach Johnny Vaught, whom Brewer played for and emulated when his own coaching career began. 


"Billy was two years older than me when I met him in eighth grade," Griffin said. "He got started off behind. There was a man in town that had a harness racing business and Billy was learning to be a groomsman. He missed a lot of school and fell behind, but by eighth grade he was in school and started playing sports. I think sports is what really got him back in school." 


For the next five years, Griffin and Brewer were teammates, not only on the football team, but basketball as well. 


"He was an outstanding athlete," Griffin said. 


More than that, said Griffin, Brewer was a fierce competitor and a great teammate. 


"He was tough as nails," Griffin said. "And he would do anything for his friends. He was very loyal." 




The coach 


After his years at Ole Miss, where Brewer was named to the Ole Miss "Team of the Decade," and after a one-year stint with the Washington Redskins, Brewer returned home, unsure of his next step. 


"He had a hard time finding a job," Griffin said. "But Harold Wesson, who had come down from Corinth to be football coach at Lee High, had just left. Billy didn't have any coaching experience. He didn't even have a degree -- he got a degree a couple years later by taking correspondence courses -- but he got the job at Lee High, I think, mainly because of Carl McKellar, who was the president of the school board and was the national Ole Miss alumni president. Billy was pretty fortunate to have had that Ole Miss connection." 


As it would be later at Ole Miss, Brewer inherited a program that had struggled. 


"He came at a time when the school was down," Griffin said. "We hadn't won many games." 


That changed almost immediately. 


"That first year, Lee had a winning season for the first time in I don't know how long," said Bobby Lancaster, a sophomore on Brewer's first team. "We went to the Red Carpet Bowl in Vicksburg that year. We had a winning season again the next year, but we were really good my senior year. We won the North Big 8 that year, but lost to Gulfport in the Big 8 championship game, 9-7. We probably should have won that game." 


For nine years, Brewer's teams continued to win. In 1971, the year Lee High was integrated, Brewer's Lee High team went unbeaten, drawing enormous crowds at the Magnolia Bowl. 


"When we played Provine at the Magnolia Bowl, they had to bring in extra bleachers from (Mississippi University for Women)," Griffin said. "There were well over 10,000 people at that game. 


"Really, Billy made football a social event," he said. "If you wanted to get into a game, you had to buy your tickets at 8 in the morning on Friday unless you had a season ticket. If you didn't, you wouldn't get in. I think Magnolia Bowl seated about 5,000 people. It was full every time we played. He took Lee High from the bottom to the top of the ladder." 


Lancaster said Brewer relied heavily on what he had learned from his playing days at Ole Miss to make up for his lack of experience. 


"He brought in people he played with at Ole Miss to help coach and, basically, we did what they did at Ole Miss," he said. "We practiced the same way, ran the same offense and defense. He did what he knew. It worked pretty well." 


During his coaching career, Brewer was never considered much of an innovator, not at Lee High, Southeastern Louisiana (head coach from 1974-79), Louisiana Tech (1980-82) or Ole Miss. What set him apart was his ability to relate to players, including black players, something he learned from his childhood. 


That was a quality Griffin recognized long before Brewer coached a game. 


"When we were in high school, they sent Billy and me over to Franklin Academy to run a P.E. Class for the younger kids," Griffin said. "He was great with those kids." 


Lancaster agreed. 


"More than anything else, Billy was a great motivator," Lancaster said. "He knew people and he could motivate you, especially athletes. He could convince you that whatever it was, you could do it." 




Hometown hero 


After coaching one season at Heritage Academy in 1972, Brewer left for Southeastern Louisiana to begin a college coaching career that ultimately led him to Ole Miss. 


When Brewer learned he would be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, he was clearly moved. 


"I thought it had passed me by," he said. "My attitude was always if it happens, it happens, but the clock is ticking. You better hurry up." 


Brewer will now be inducted posthumously during the ceremonies in Jackson on July 28. 


For a kid who might never have made it out of junior high, it was a place no one might have expected him to be. 


But that's always the way it seemed to be where Brewer was concerned. 


On Sunday, Billy Brewer will come home to be buried next to his beloved wife at Friendship Cemetery -- the hometown hero home at last. 


It is right where he belongs.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]