Trying to figure out how to start this column, a really hard one, and there’s no other way to start but this: Hamp Cook was the best guy I’ve ever known.
Hamp, who died early Christmas morning at 86, checked all the “best guy” boxes: genuinely kind, honest, funny, dependable, tough (in a good way), loving, proud, humble and loyal. He was my dad’s best pal. He became one of mine.
Hamp was an All American football player at Mississippi Southern College back in the early 1950s. He played guard on offense and linebacker on defense. He was under-sized but he was fast and tough and had a heart bigger than Georgiana, Alabama, which is where he was from. I am too young to remember him as a player, but that’s a first-hand account from my daddy, who wrote about Hamp back then and loved him as a brother later on.
I had heard all my life about Southern’s two great, back-to-back victories over Alabama in 1953 and 1954. Hamp was a star player in both and also in victories over Georgia and Florida State and other teams Southern wasn’t supposed to beat. And this will tell you much about Hamp Cook: He sacked the legendary Bart Starr on the last play of the 1954 victory over Alabama and I never knew it until somebody else told me about it 50 years later.
So I asked Hamp about it, saying, “That’s a big deal, man. How come you never told me about it? You sacked great Bart freaking Starr on the last play of one of the biggest upsets in college football history.”
Hamp smiled and thought about it for a long minute. “You know, it was a pretty big deal then, but it would have been a bigger deal if I had known Bart Starr was going to become Bart Starr.”
In many ways, Hamp was the last man standing from a truly golden era of Southern Miss athletics. Reed Green was the athletic director and Pie Vann and later P.W. Underwood were the head football coaches. Lee Floyd was the head basketball coach. Pete Taylor coached baseball. All are Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers. Many of the athletes from that era were war veterans. They were a family, a close and proud family.
Vann would eventually hire Hamp back to coach his offensive line. Southern won mostly with defense and a great kicking game in those days. Vann put his best athletes on defense figuring, “They can’t beat you if they can’t score.” That meant that Hamp was always coaching the second- and third-best athletes on the offensive line. If you weren’t quick and athletic enough to play defensive line, you became offensive linemen. Those were Hamp’s guys. He coached ’em up, as they say in coaching. He loved his guys and they loved him back. They played hard for him. They failed on occasion, but they never failed because they weren’t trying.
Because of his magnetic personality, Hamp became one of Vann’s greatest recruiters. Among the many, many USM heroes he helped recruit were Willie Heidelburg and Ray Guy.
Funny story: In 1970, Southern stunned Ole Miss, Johnny Vaught and Archie Manning 30-14 in what remains the most stunning upset in my more than half century of chronicling Mississippi sports. Heidelburg jitter-bugged into the end zone twice on 11-yard runs on the same reverse play. He wasn’t touched on either.
Said Hamp, “I couldn’t wait to get back to the film room and see how well my guys had blocked on those two touchdowns. Well, hell, we got back and I watched the film and my guys didn’t block anybody. Willie just dodged them all.”
Cook helped coax Guy to Hattiesburg with the promise he could play a position and not just be a kicking specialist. Both Bear Bryant at Alabama and Vince Dooley at Georgia had told Guy he would be too valuable as a punter and placekicker to use as a defensive back.
Once Guy got to USM, P.W. Underwood, the head coach, made one of the great strategical moves ever when he told his coaches, “This isn’t a threat. It’s a promise. The first one of you who tries to coach that Guy how to punt or kick is fired.”
Hamp left USM in the early 70s to become a New Orleans Saints scout. He outlasted many coaches and scouts for two reasons: He was good at what he did, and everybody loved and respected him, including Archie Manning, the star quarterback.
That doesn’t mean Manning wasn’t above playing a joke or two on his pal. Hamp would leave Saints camp on Friday afternoons to head back to Hattiesburg or somewhere else to watch a college football game. Nearly always, before leaving, he would ice down a case of beer using the Saints’ ice machine. Hamp Cook did love a cold beer. Once, he got called to another task in the middle of the beer-icing chore. Archie and Bobby Scott, the other Saints quarterback, finished it for him, but not before exchanging the beer for Gatorade.
Said Manning, “I just wish I had been there when Hamp got to Slidell or Picayune and decided to reach in and pull out a cold beer.”
In 1986, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Finks took over the stumbling, bumbling Saints and turned them into a real, honest-to-God NFL team. Finks pretty much cleaned house, but he recognized Hamp’s talent and loyalty and kept him. What’s more, he assigned ex-Saints player Hokie Gajan to Hamp to train as a scout. They became like father and son.
Hamp had scouted Hokie when the latter was at LSU. “Hokie didn’t have the speed you wanted at that position but I gave him a plus-plus grade because of how hard he played, how tough he was and what a good teammate he would be.”
“Plus-plus” would also describe Hamp Cook as a player, coach, scout, person, friend – and as a husband, father and family man. After a long, long illness, in his final hours, he was with his three grown children, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. As Hamp’s oldest son, Chuck, a USM Hall of Fame football player himself and an NFL scout like his dad, described those final hours, “We all just loved on him. Hamp knew he was loved.”
Services for Charles Hampton “Hamp” Cook will be at 2 p.m. Friday at First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg with interment to follow at Lee Family Cemetery in Purvis. Visitation will begin at 11 a.m. at First Presbyterian.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the M Club Foundation at USM or to the Community of Christ Church in Georgiana, Ala.