Billy “Dog” Brewer was a helluva football coach, but he wasn’t the best football coach I have covered. He didn’t win the most games. He wasn’t the most cerebral. He surely wasn’t the most polished.
But here’s what he was: Dog Brewer was the most beloved coach by the people who count the most: his players.
Brewer, who died Saturday, was the quintessential players’ coach. He loved his guys. They loved him back. They played hard for him. The last thing they wanted to do was disappoint him.
Don’t take it from me. Listen to College Football Hall of Famer Wesley Walls, who became emotional Sunday morning talking about Brewer.
“Everybody who played for him loved him,” Walls said. “He always had your back. He made you feel like you could do anything. He treated you with respect. He wanted the best for his players, all his players, no matter their abilities or their race or how highly they were recruited. At different times, he was like your father, like a close friend, like your brother, or like your head coach.”
Walls paused to compose himself and continued, “I’ll tell you this. He had so much to do with the player and man I became – whatever that is.”
That is plenty. Walls was an All American at Ole Miss, a player so talented, durable and tough he played both ways at tight end and both defensive end and linebacker. He played 13 seasons in the NFL, despite numerous injuries, and was named All Pro four times.
Said Walls, “I always say I wish I could be as tough a man as Coach Brewer was. We lost a warrior yesterday. He embodies and epitomizes what an Ole Miss Rebel is. He played at Ole Miss on some of the greatest teams and then came back to Ole Miss when it was down and turned the program around.”
Brewer didn’t just have that kind of relationship with his star players. Indeed, he seemed to have a special kinship with all players – and especially with African-American players.
Take Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins, a lightly recruited defensive back from Russellville, Ala., who essentially talked Brewer into giving him a scholarship.
Most will know the rest of that story. Mullins suffered a neck injury, three broken vertebrae in a game against Vanderbilt. The injury eventually took his life. I wasn’t at that game but called Brewer the next day. I asked about Chucky. Brewer started to respond, but could not. From that day forward, he became emotional any time he talked about Mullins.
And he made sure that Mullins’ legacy at Ole Miss was – and is – lasting.
Said John Darnell, quarterback on that 1989 team, “I always thought Coach Brewer saw a lot of himself in Chucky.”
There were similarities. Both came from poor backgrounds. Brewer grew up in one of the poorest parts of Columbus. His closest friends as a child were the black children in his neighborhood. He once confided to author Willie Morris that he believed he had “a black soul.”
I don’t remember the score of the 1989 Liberty Bowl, played two months and one day after Mullins injury, but I remember what happened before the game. About 45 minutes before kickoff an ambulance backed into the end zone at the south end of the field. The doors swung open, and there was Chucky, on an inclined stretcher, wearing his Ole Miss jersey. His eyes caught Brewer’s and a blank expression became a wide grin. Brewer smiled back, his eyes glistening. Brewer leaned down where Mullins could hear him and said, “You’re a fighter Chucky. We all love you.”
Believe this: You did not need to be told how much the moment meant to both men.
As a freshman at Ole Miss, Brewer had suffered a neck injury in a freshman game. He suffered three cracked vertebrae, eerily the same three that were shattered in Mullins’ neck. It was an injury that bothered Brewer the rest of his life. But Brewer never let on to coaches how bad his neck was hurting because he was scared he would be dropped from the team, and, as he put it years later, “I had no place else to go.”
Brewer returned to Ole Miss in 1983 after the Rebels went 20-34-1 in five seasons under Steve Sloan. Sloan’s last Ole Miss team finished 4-7 and 0-6 in the SEC.
Brewer came from Louisiana Tech and quickly infused a certain grit into the Ole Miss program. His first Rebels won just one of their first six games and seemed destined for another dismal season. But they then reeled off five straight victories, beating TCU, Vanderbilt, LSU, Tennessee and Mississippi State in succession, which put them in the Independence Bowl, the Rebels’ first bowl game in a dozen years.
Funny, the things you remember. Of that cold, damp, dismal night in Shreveport (Air Force beat Ole Miss 9-3), I remember athletic director Warner Alford grabbing Brewer around the neck, bringing him in close and saying, “Thank-you, Dog, for putting Ole Miss football back on the map.”
I always thought Brewer’s nickname “Dog” might as well have been short for underdog.
He was the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who became at one time the dean (longest tenure) of coaches in the SEC. He was a coach whose teams played best when given no chance. He was SEC Coach of the Year three times in 11 seasons at Ole Miss. His 1988 team became the first Ole Miss team to win at Alabama. His teams also won big upsets at LSU, Arkansas and against Georgia and Auburn. This was all before Ole Miss joined the SEC facilities race and got on a more equal footing with SEC heavyweights.
Said Darnell, the lightly recruited quarterback who became a star, “Coach made sure we went into every game believing we could win, no matter who we were playing.”
That included the 1988 game with Bama, one that included a scoreless first half.
“Ole Miss had never won at Tuscaloosa, but I wish everyone could hear the speech he made at halftime,” Walls said. “He made us believe we could do what we eventually did.”
Final score: Ole Miss 22, Alabama 12.
Yes, Brewer’s tenure at Ole Miss ended badly. A second round of NCAA sanctions led to his dismissal before the 1994 season. The record will show his Ole Miss teams won 68, lost 55 and tied three.
But how best to remember and judge a football coach? By his record and the way his career ended?
Or by the way he is remembered by the guys who played for him?
No question, in my mind, it’s the latter.
A memorial service is scheduled at the Pavilion at Ole Miss on Saturday, May 19 at 1 p.m. A private family service will be held at Gunter-Peel Funeral Home in Columbus on Sunday May 20. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Palmer Home in Columbus, Oxford-University Methodist Church, or the M-Club Scholarship fund at the University of Mississippi..