Ole Miss Legend Billy Brewer Passes Away

Rebel great played for Johnny Vaught and later served 11 years as head coach

Chucky Mullins (38) and head coach Billy Brewer prepare to lead the Rebels onto the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss file photo

OXFORD, Miss. – Homer E. “Billy” Brewer, 83, who played on three of Johnny Vaught’s greatest teams at the University of Mississippi and then returned years later to become the second-winningest head football coach in school history, passed away late Saturday afternoon (May 12) at Tresevant Manor in Memphis, Tennessee, following a brief illness.

A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday (May 19) at The Pavilion at Ole Miss. A private family service will be held Sunday (May 20) at Gunter-Peel Funeral Home in Columbus. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Palmer Home in Columbus, Oxford-University United Methodist Church or the M-Club Scholarship fund at the University of Mississippi.

In addition to his parents, Brewer was preceded in death by his wife of 51 years, Kay Gunter Brewer, and brothers Robert “Bobby” Brewer and Richard “Red” Brewer. He is survived by his sons Brett (Susan) of Memphis, Tennessee and Gunter (Rhonda) of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and grandchildren Keaton (Kate), Blaine (Tara), Lauren, Bailey and Brogan.

“As a coach and player, Billy Brewer shared a love for Ole Miss that was unparalleled,” Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke said. “He was greatly admired by his players and his teammates and will forever be engrained in the history of Rebel football. Our prayers go out to the Brewer family and all of Rebel Nation during this time.”

During his 11 years at the helm of the UM football program, Brewer’s 67 total victories placed him second behind Vaught. His 11 seasons as head coach also represented the second-longest tenure coaching Ole Miss football, more years than anyone with the exception of Vaught, who had 190 victories during his 24-plus campaigns as leader of the Rebels.

When compared to the Vaught era (1947-70; 1973), Brewer’s coaching career at Ole Miss may not seem long. However, a closer look reveals an interesting fact: In his tenure at Ole Miss, which began before the 1983 season, Brewer became the dean of Southeastern Conference coaches, a position he inherited in 1993 when Auburn’s Pat Dye retired and Tennessee’s Johnny Majors left the Vols for Pittsburgh.

When Brewer was selected to succeed Steve Sloan in December 1982, he did so with high hopes of turning around a football program that had fallen from the nation’s elite. Ole Miss had not been to a bowl game in 12 years, was nowhere to be found in the national polls and coming off five straight losing seasons.

Brewer promised to once again make Ole Miss competitive, and time would tell that he remained true to his word. He took the Rebels and their fans bowling five times, becoming the only Ole Miss head coach to guide five of his first 10 teams to a bowl game.

During his playing days, Brewer was on teams that went 3-0 against in-state rival Mississippi State. That success continued during his stretch as head coach, as the Rebels were 8-3 against the Bulldogs, including seven wins in his first eight seasons.

Under Brewer’s direction, Ole Miss won for the first time ever at Alabama, won at LSU for the first time since 1968, gained its first victory over Georgia since 1976 and earned its first victory over Arkansas in Little Rock since 1960. Although there were peaks and valleys during the Brewer era, the Rebels returned to being nationally ranked multiple times by the various polls.

In his 11 seasons at his alma mater, Brewer compiled a 67-56-3 record and was selected Southeastern Conference “Coach of the Year” three times: in 1983 by the Associated Press, in 1986 by United Press International and in 1990 by the Birmingham News and Nashville Banner.

Brewer’s success as a player and coach brought other individual honors as he was inducted into the Independence Bowl Hall of Honor in 2000 and the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. He also will be inducted posthumously into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame on July 28.

Brewer’s first Ole Miss team was the surprise of the Southeastern Conference in 1983. After going 7-4 overall and finishing 4-2 in league play, including a dramatic 24-23 win over Mississippi State, the Rebels then lost to Air Force, 9-3, in the Independence Bowl. It was the first postseason trip for the Rebels since the 1971 Peach Bowl when Billy Kinard’s team defeated Georgia Tech 41-18.

Following 4-6-1 finishes in 1984 and 1985, the Rebels entered the 1986 season ranked no higher than seventh in most preseason SEC polls, and one national publication even picked Ole Miss last. When the regular season ended with a 24-3 victory over Mississippi State, Brewer’s squad was 4-2 inside conference play and only one victory short of possibly representing the SEC in the Sugar Bowl.

The 1986 campaign, which included a 21-19 win over eventual SEC champ LSU in Baton Rouge, was capped with a 20-17 victory over Texas Tech in the Independence Bowl, giving the Rebels an 8-3-1 overall record.

Consecutive losing seasons followed the success of 1986 as the Rebels went 3-8 in 1987 and 5-6 in 1988 before rebounding in breathtaking style in 1989.

Success came hard during the 1989 campaign as Ole Miss produced several heart-stopping victories on their way to an 8-4 overall record and a 4-3 mark in the SEC. While the year was capped with an impressive 42-29 victory over Air Force in the Liberty Bowl, the season was bittersweet with the loss of defensive back Chucky Mullins, who suffered an injury in the Homecoming game with Vanderbilt that left him paralyzed.

Mullins died May 6, 1991 from complications from his injury, and Brewer gave the eulogy at the funeral service in the C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum.

Following the Mullins injury, it was Brewer who decided to honor Mullins each season by having a deserving player wear his uniform number 38. Chris Mitchell was the first recipient in 1990 when the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity at Ole Miss initiated the annual Chucky Mullins Courage Award.

A 9-3 record in 1990 helped the Rebels compile back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1970-71 and represented the most wins for an Ole Miss team since the 1971 squad went 9-2. At 5-2 inside the SEC, the Rebels tied Alabama for second place and rose to as high as 15th in the Associated Press poll before ending the season 21st after losing to Michigan in the Jan. 1, 1991 Gator Bowl.

Ole Miss slipped to 5-6 in 1991 as the Rebels lost their last five games. Three-point losses to both Vanderbilt and LSU late in the season spoiled any chances of another bowl trip and the Ole Miss offense struggled when quarterbacks Russ Shows and Tom Luke sustained injuries.

Brewer got his Rebels back on track in 1992. After being picked last in the SEC Western Division during preseason, Ole Miss completed the year with a 9-3 record, finishing second in the Western Division to national champion Alabama. A 13-0 shutout of Air Force in the Liberty Bowl was rewarded as most final polls had Ole Miss 16th and the New York Times rated the Rebels 10th.

The university celebrated its 100th anniversary of fielding a collegiate football team in 1993, and Ole Miss fans selected Brewer to the “Team of the Century” as a defensive back. However, a 5-6 finish was especially disappointing since it came during a season when the Rebel defense led the nation by allowing only 234.4 yards per game.

The Rebels got off to a 4-2 start and were nationally ranked at one point, but dropped four of their final five games as the offense had trouble putting points on the board. Probably the toughest setback of the year came against defending national champ Alabama, as the Tide slipped past the Rebs 19-14 on the Oxford campus.

When Brewer became head football coach in 1983, he was searching for a way to allow his team to experience the atmosphere and pageantry Rebel fans enjoyed in the Grove while tailgating on game day. Taking a different route two hours before kickoff of each home game, Brewer would walk with the team from Kinard Hall, the athletics dormitory, across campus to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

In 1985, Brewer started going the same route each Saturday as the team would enter the Grove on the east side of the Student Union building and then proceed down a sidewalk that runs through the Grove. That traditional team entry point took on an added significance in the fall of 1998 when a “Walk of Champions” arch was donated to the university by members of the 1962 football team, which is the only undefeated squad (10-0) in Ole Miss football history.

Ole Miss fans arrive early in the morning on game days to gain prime positions available on both sides of the sidewalk and then greet the players with loud cheers and the “Hotty Toddy” chant. Brewer’s vision in 1983, which became one of the most unique college football experiences in the South and nationwide, continues under Coach Luke.

As a youngster growing up in Columbus, Billy Brewer always had a desire to play at Ole Miss and even had visions of one day coaching his beloved Red and Blue.

His first goal became a reality when he signed to play football for Ole Miss following his senior season at S.D. Lee High School. He went on to earn three Rebel letters while playing on three of John Vaught‘s greatest teams, including the 1959 squad that earned “SEC Team of the Decade” honors after going 10-1 and winning the Southeastern Conference.

During Brewer’s three-year varsity career, the Rebels compiled a 28-4-1 record. After earning All-SEC defensive honors his senior year, he played in the College All-Star Game in Chicago and then played two years of professional football before entering the coaching profession.

He returned home to Columbus to begin his coaching career and became one of the state’s best prep coaches. His Lee High and Heritage Academy teams were 70-17-2 when he made the decision to move up in the coaching ranks.

Brewer’s first coaching experience on the collegiate level came at Southeastern Louisiana, where he served two years as an assistant coach before being named head coach of the Lions in 1974. In six years at the Southeastern helm, Brewer’s teams went 38-24-2.

Next came the challenge of rebuilding at Louisiana Tech. He led the Bulldogs to a 19-15-1 record in three years, including a 10-3 showing in 1982, when Tech won the Southland Conference crown and reached the semifinals of the NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs.

Overall, Brewer’s head coaching career record on a collegiate level was 124-95-6. Counting high school, he was 194-112-8 as a head football coach.

Name: Homer Ervin “Billy” Brewer
Born: Oct. 8, 1934
Wife: The former Kay Gunter (deceased) of Columbus
Married: Dec. 20, 1959
Children: Brett and Gunter
Grandchildren: Keaton, Lauren, Blaine, Bailey Katherine and Brogan

Lee High School, Columbus, graduated 1955
University of Mississippi, B.S. in Physical Education, 1961

Lee High School: Football, Basketball, Baseball, Track – 1951-55
University of Mississippi: Football (Quarterback, Defensive Back) – 1958-60
Washington Redskins (NFL) – 1961
Vancouver (B.C.) Lions (CFL) – 1962

1955 – Mississippi High School All-Star Game
1959 – All-Southeastern Conference
1960 – College All-Star Game
1993 – Ole Miss Team of the Century
2000 – Independence Bowl Hall of Honor
2011 – Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame
2018 – Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame

Army National Guard, six years

1974 – NAIA District 30 Co-Coach of the Year (Southeastern Louisiana)
1982 – Southland Conference Coach of the Year (Louisiana Tech)
1982 – Kodak District 7 Coach of the Year (Louisiana Tech)
1983 – Associated Press Southeastern Conference Co-Coach of the Year (Ole Miss)
1986 – United Press International Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year (Ole Miss)
1990 – Birmingham News Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year (Ole Miss)
1990 – Nashville Banner Southeastern Coach of the Year (Ole Miss)
1990 – Kodak Region 2 Coach of the Year (Ole Miss)