Brewer now must choose his words very carefully, and he refuses to utter Sherrill's name. "I was disappointed," he says of the reprimand. "All I was doing was responding to a situation where an individual said he didn't say it, and I know it to be a fact that he did."
But you can't reprimand a man for his thoughts, nor for what his supporters think. On Brewer's desk is a gold-plated .50-caliber bullet on a little stand that bears the inscription GUARANTEED TO CURE A 'HABITUAL LIAR' AT UP TO 1,000 YARDS. It is signed, THE GUYS IN MOBILE.
Sherrill never calls Missisippi "Ole Miss," and the public criticisms he aims there are too subtle to stir the SEC office, yet they stab straight at the heart of Ole Miss recruiting. One of Sherrill's favorite lines is "When the National Guard was on the doorsteps of [the universities of] Alabama and Mississippi, black students were being admitted here."
Careful, Coach. State wasn't desegregated until 1965, after the riots that accompanied James Meredith's registration at Ole Miss in 1962, and following Governor George Wallace's ultimately futile blockade of the doorway at Alabama in 1963. But to the uninformed, Sherrill's line can pass as quite a lick on his two chief recruiting rivals, Alabama and Ole Miss. The greatest obstacle to Ole Miss recruiting, says Rebel assistant coach and top recruiter Jim "T" Thomas, who is black, is the memory of the Meredith episode in the minds of black families.
"Ole Miss has a stigma, and people haven't forgotten," says Thomas. "But if Mississippi State had been the first [university in the state to be integrated], then it would be the school with the stigma."
Of course, there is far more behind the simmering rage that Brewer directs at Sherrill than the mere issue of recruiting slurs. To understand the "Aw,——!" that Brewer uttered after hearing the news of Sherrill's hiring by State, you have to know that Brewer has struggled mightily to build something that he fears could be destroyed by Sherrill. And that goes back to history. Of all the elements Brewer has weathered in his nine seasons at Ole Miss—low budgets, barely adequate facilities, rifts with his chancellor, even a two-year stint on NCAA probation—history has been the most difficult to surmount.
In 1861, the entire Ole Miss student body—then all male—marched off to the Civil War. One company of Ole Miss students, the University Grays, spearheaded Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg at the pivotal moment of the war. On Cemetery Ridge, the Ole Miss boys made one of the deepest penetrations of the North by the South in the entire war, before being wiped out. The scar doesn't simply run deep at Ole Miss; it is literally chiseled in granite. On the square in Oxford, just off the campus, the Confederate monument is inscribed, THEY GAVE THEIR LIVES IN A JUST AND HOLY CAUSE.
Beginning with Kentucky in 1966, the SEC slowly began to admit black football players. In 1972, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss became the last of the league's teams to integrate. But even as Confederate flags were becoming more emblematic of virulent racism than of valor and mourning, the Rebel faithful continued to cling to their symbols. The school's history, to say nothing of the flags, left talented black football players (on which the other SEC members were loading up) less than eager to play at Ole Miss. The era of coach Johnny Vaught, who for more than two decades enjoyed a recruiting lock on segregated Mississippi—where it had been considered the duty of athletic white youths to play for the glory of the state's "way of life"—had finally ended.
Both State and Southern Mississippi opened their doors to black players before Ole Miss did, and recruiting became a helter-skelter, multisided dogfight among the six universities playing intercollegiate football in the state and the national powers who raided annually for top talent. A 1986 study showed that Mississippi, with a population of 2.5 million, produced more NFL players per capita than any other state—and still there aren't enough to go around.
"If Mississippi's university structure were like Arkansas's [with the emphasis on one major university by a similarly poor and sparsely populated state], then that single football program would contend for the national championship every year," says Rick Cleveland, executive sports editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. But alas, whupped-down Mis'ippi, ridiculed from the outside, paradoxically finds solace in infighting.