Hundreds pay tribute to Underwood
We lost a Hall of Famer this past week in P.W. “Bear” Underwood, who first gained fame as a Mississippi Southern defensive tackle and later as a Southern Miss defensive coach and then head coach.
He was a legendary character, P.W. was — legendary for his strength, for his gruff voice and for his ability to make his players overachievers. Those who knew him well — and I count myself among those — knew that beneath that gruff exterior was a huge, kind heart.
His funeral, attended by hundreds, was a testimonial to his lasting impact on both USM and the Hattiesburg community. His ex-players and teammates and coaching buddies, by the scores, came from all over the United States. Among them was Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix.
“P.W. taught me so much about the game of football and especially about the players and how to handle them,” Nix said. “He had a unique feel for the players; he cared a lot about them and was tough on them. But they always knew he had their best interests at heart.
“Even after they finished school, he was always there to help them in any way he could,” Nix continued. “That’s why so many of them kept in touch with him after they left.”
And that’s why so many came back to pay tribute to him this week.
Willie Heidelberg, USM’s first African American football player, was among those. Underwood recruited him to USM in 1970 from Pearl River Junior College. Heidelberg was a 140-pound scatback from Lumberton. He was all of 5-foot-5.
“Coach came down to Pearl River and got me to stand up on a table, so he could measure my calves,” Heidelberg said, chuckling. “I’m not sure why he did that, but he did.
“I will always be grateful he gave me a chance to play Division I football when nobody else would. He was always there for me, like he was for all his players. He made you better than you thought you could be.”
Heidelberg rewarded Underwood by scoring two touchdowns in USM’s 30-14 conquest of Ole Miss in 1970, a victory that last fall in the 100th year of USM football, was selected as the biggest in USM history.
Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Jeff Bower, who played quarterback for Underwood, was another who came to say good-bye.
“The two things I most admired about Coach was one, what a great family man and what a great father he was to his two sons,” Bower said. “Two, the fierce loyalty he had for this university, both as a player and a coach as well as a supporter.”
Bower’s words speak volumes. Underwood was a fiercely loyal man, loyal to his church, to his family, to his players (whom he considered family) and to his university.
I’ll give you this perfect example.
Underwood departed USM after the 1974 season to be replaced by Bobby Collins. Flash forward to the 1977 season when Collins took his Golden Eagles to Auburn, where Underwood was the defensive coordinator. Auburn had soundly defeated Arizona in its opener, while Southern Miss was coming off a lopsided home loss to Florida State.
Auburn was heavily favored, but USM, led by Jeff Hammond (a quarterback recruited by Underwood to USM), pulled off a 24-13 victory. I covered that game for the Hattiesburg American. Rarely in all my sports writing career did I cover such a boisterous post-game locker room scene.
USM players were hugging, back-slapping and more. And I’ll never forget this: Into the USM locker room came P.W. Underwood, where, one-by-one, he embraced his former players and told them how proud he was of them.
He had just suffered a bitter loss, yet he was man enough to go congratulate his former players.
Said Hammond of Underwood, “He taught us about character and moral courage and to always do the right thing. . . He was larger than life.”