Into the gutted mansion of Ole Miss football in 1983 walked Billy Brewer, seemingly the only man with a chance to reconcile Ole Miss's tradition with its need for black players. Brewer grew up among blacks on the tough side of Columbus, Miss.—Thomas was one of his closest friends—and once confided to another friend, author Morris, that "I think I have a black soul." But Brewer, who had been a Rebel quarterback and defensive back under Vaught, was also a symbol to Ole Miss fans of past football glory.
Brewer aches for his black players at the bugle-call tempo of Dixie and at the sea of Confederate flags, though he has never publicly decried the continued embrace of those symbols. He writes simple messages on the locker room blackboard before his teams go out to play—such as "I love you."
By the end of the 1990 season, Brewer had steered the Rebels to a 9-2 record and an invitation to the Gator Bowl, their biggest postseason berth since the Vaught era. And Brewer had his ongoing safety net: For seven of the last eight years, even in bad seasons, he had whupped Mis'ippi State. Then came Sherrill, with not only his murky past but also his 105-45-2 record as coach at Washington State, Pitt and Texas A&M. Sherrill walked in and told State people, "Stick your chest out."
"And the only way they'll stick their chests out and put their heads up," he says now, "is if they get rid of their frustrations." Though the Bulldogs haven't won an SEC title since 1941, their fans could live with that. Their singular frustration was Ole Miss, which held a 51-30-6 edge in the football rivalry.
Sherrill had just enough Mis'ippi background—born in Duncan, Okla., he had moved to Biloxi in time to play his high school football there before signing with Alabama—to understand the whupped-down syndrome. And he is just enough of an outsider, he believes, to encourage the people to stop belittling themselves. In rebuttal to Brewer's "habitual liar" outburst, Sherrill politely thanked Brewer for bringing State people together.
Sherrill perceives about himself "a mystique," and enjoys pointing out, "There's no question that I'm the most publicized coach in the last 10 years."
"I sat on the stage with Jackie, when both of us had to choke back tears in paying tribute to Rodney Stowers," says State president Donald Zacharias, referring to the Bulldog player who died in October of complications from a broken leg suffered in a game against Florida. "The real Jackie Sherrill was sitting beside me on that stage—not the one that somebody may have created years ago, or something that was brought on by intense rivalry."
Tragedy is the only common ground Sherrill and Brewer have shared lately. Brewer sent his condolences after Stowers's death. He knew the feeling; one of his players, Chucky Mullins, was paralyzed from the neck down in a 1989 game. Mullins died last May. Among Ole Miss boosters, there are rumors that Sherrill is merely using State as a springboard back to the big time. Sherrill says he isn't going anywhere and that he will release contract details to prove it.
"I don't know Jackie Sherrill," says Morris, a former writer-in-residence at Ole Miss who now lives in Jackson. "But my friend Dog [Brewer's nickname] has paid his dues to this state.... He cares affectionately about it, suffers a lot, suffers about Ole Miss, probably would be better off going elsewhere. But he can't, you see. Dog can't go elsewhere, because his heart is in his state and his alma mater. As much as his alma mater pisses him off, he's got to stay and sec it through."
In Mis'ippi, says the Clarion-Ledger's Cleveland, "one of these guys is going to survive, and one is not." Morris says that "there's a lot of pride in Dog, under adversity." But on Saturday in Starkville, when Brewer led his Rebels into football hell on Scott Field, more than his pride was at stake. Just before kickoff, the two coaches had what Brewer calls "a good visit." Brewer added that, should further differences arise, "we probably won't wash it in public. We'll probably pick up the phone, and meet halfway with dueling pistols, or whatever."