P.W. Underwood: A force of nature

The date was Oct. 17, 1970. It was a muggy day, unseasonably warm. I was a just-turned-18-year-old USM freshman writing sports for the Hattiesburg American, and I had just seen a miracle.

Southern Miss, coached by second-year Golden Eagle coach P. W. “Bear” Underwood, had just stunned mighty Ole Miss 30-14 on the new artificial turf at then-Hemingway Stadium. USM fans were flooding onto the field, as I hurried to midfield to be the first to interview Underwood.

Two USM players, obviously tired and sweaty and with help from others, lifted Underwood on their shoulders and headed to midfield for the traditional coaches handshake. The USM players began to wobble and then they dropped the then-rotund Underwood to the ground almost at Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught’s feet.

Hell Bear,” Vaught drawled, “you couldn’t expect two miracles in one day.”

They parted ways and I asked Underwood about the upset.

This wasn’t an upset,” he boomed back. “We took it to their butts and we whipped their butts.”

At least that’s the way it appeared in the Hattiesburg American. Forty-two years later, I can tell you, I cleaned it up considerably for a family newspaper.

P.W. “Bear” Underwood died today (Feb. 4, 2013). He was 81. He should be remembered as one of the greatest defensive coaches in the history of Mississippi or anywhere else.

The Golden Eagles did take it to Ole Miss and beat Rebels that day back in 1970. But it was an upset, the biggest of that season and still the biggest I have ever witnessed. Ole Miss had defeated USM 69-7 the year before. Archie Manning, a senior Ole Miss quarterback, was the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy and a recent Sports Illustrated cover boy.

The Rebels had just defeated both Alabama and Georgia on back to back Saturdays. USM had just been pummeled 41-14 by San Diego State. One newspaper ran a dressing room photo of Manning taking off his socks and the caption read: “Archie, is today’s game even worth suiting up for?”

Twenty-five years later, Underwood laughed when I asked him about his “no upset” quote.

What I mean is that it wasn’t a fluke,” Underwood said. “I meant we were the best team on the field that day and we deserved to win. I meant we took the fight to them and that the best team on the field that day won the game.”

Underwood had been a fantastic lineman for USM under Coach Thad “Pie” Vann, whom he succeeded as head coach. He had been a defensive coach under Vann and produced some of the best defenses in history of the school. In those days, the best athletes went on defense because Vann figured the other team couldn’t win if they couldn’t score.

I particularly remember one season in which USM played three straight 3-0 games, beating VMI and Auburn 3-0 before losing to William & Mary 3-0. Underwood’s defense allowed only one touchdown in the team’s last five games. His defenses swarmed to the football and hit viciously. Three of his USM defensive units led the nation in least yardage allowed. If one his linemen wasn’t doing his job correctly in practice, Underwood would move him aside and show him how, without pads or helmet. He seemed a force of nature.

As a player, Underwood had teamed with fellow Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Don Owens to form no doubt the best defensive tackle tandem in school history — or in the history of most schools for that matter.

My dad Ace Cleveland, the long-time USM sports information director, described them as “immovable.”

Sad Ace, “Nobody could block them. You couldn’t double-team one because the other would kill you.”

I was too young to remember Underwood’s playing days, but I well remember him as a coach, both as a defensive coordinator and then as a head coach.

He left USM for a short period to become a defensive assistant at the University of Tennessee but returned in 1969 to become USM’s head coach.

Most people called him Bear or P.W. My dad called him Percy, and Underwood called Dad “Dub.” In fact, Underwood called most everybody Dub in that deep gravelly voice of his. I can’t tell you how many times he playfully grabbed me around the neck and almost brought me to my knees. He wasn’t trying to be mean, mind you. He was just brutally strong and sometimes didn’t know his own strength. He once ripped the locked door off a burning car to rescue the driver.

His head coaching record over six seasons at USM was average at best. His teams won 31 games, lost 32 and tied two. But he should be remembered for much more than that.

Borrowing on his experience at Tennessee in “Big Orange” country, he brought a big-time approach to Southern Miss football. He created the term Big Gold Country and began the Big Gold Club. USM began to schedule more ambitiously and claimed some huge victories under Underwood.

The Ole Miss victory in 1970 was certainly the biggest and led, in this writer’s opinion, to the expansion of then-Faulkner Field into M.M. Roberts Stadium and what is now known as The Rock. He recruited the first African American players to USM and also recruited some of the greatest players in USM history, players such as Ray Guy, Ben Garry and Fred Cook.

He left the program far better than he found it and set the stage for what it has become. More than that, following his coaching career he returned to USM and has been one of the school’s biggest boosters.

Little known fact: P.W. Underwood recruited current athletic director Jeff Hammond to USM.

I’m at Southern Miss because of P.W. Underwood,” Hammond said. “I was going to play baseball at Ole Miss but then P.W. Underwood offered me a football scholarship. USM was the only school that offered me.

He was a tough coach but I have never seen a group of former players more loyal to a coach than P.W.’s players are loyal to him. They loved him because he taught them that character does matter and it’s not for sale.”

 

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