Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: 'Boothead' overjoyed for coach who put Arkansas basketball on the map
Arkansas guard Ron Brewer dribbles around Memphis State defenders during a game Saturday, Dec. 31, 1977, in Memphis.
A fun game is to match the nicknames with the all-time greats in the annals of Arkansas Razorback sports.
In basketball, there is Sidney “Super Sid” Moncrief, Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, Dean “The Tree” Tolson and Dwight “Big Dog” Stewart.
In football, among my favorites: Clyde “Smackover” Scott, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Wayne “Thumper” Harris, Dennis “Dirt” Winston, Gary “Peanut” Adams and Larry “Earthquake” Jackson.
The root of most of those is pretty obvious. If you watched Harris tackle, thumps were easy to see. Williamson dunked and played the low block with nastiness. Alworth ran like a deer.
Then, there’s Ron “Boothead” Brewer, the All-American from the 1978 Final Four basketball team, one of the famed Triplets with Marvin Delph and Moncrief.
The purpose of phoning Brewer on Monday was primarily to discuss Eddie Sutton’s selection into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The former Arkansas coach won 806 college games, including a 260-75 record with the Razorbacks from 1974-85.
“I’m so happy,” Brewer said of the Sutton honor. “He’s so deserving. The people who played or coached under him all are overjoyed. We feel like we are a part of him, because he created a family bond. We all feel good.
“I wish it had happened sooner so he could stand and accept it.”
Sutton’s health has declined to the point that he’s confined to a wheelchair. A stroke has limited his speech to just a few words.
There was no limit on the way Brewer described his coach and mentor. He called him “pure genius,” and said, “It’s about time that reality set in, that he’s in the Hall of Fame. But you know how I feel, because he’s my coach and I’m certainly biased. I just know what he meant to all of us.”
By that, Brewer was referring to “the whole state of Arkansas, every sports fan, every graduate of the University of Arkansas, because Coach Sutton brought a whole different era of basketball to our state.”
Brewer said there is pre-Sutton basketball in Arkansas and post-Sutton basketball.
“Let’s face it, Arkansas was a football state until Coach Sutton came in 1974,” Brewer said. “Yes, we had it, but it was not on the same level. I played for a great coach in (Gayle Kaundart) at Fort Smith Northside and Westark (Community College), but our entire state wasn’t as fortunate to have that kind of basketball.”
Brewer credits the vision of Frank Broyles, then the UA athletics director and football coach, for hiring Sutton from Creighton.
“We had football, but there wasn’t that much support for basketball until Coach Broyles hired Coach Sutton,” Brewer said. “There is a big difference between before that happened. When I came to the U of A, there just wasn’t much and all at once, Coach Sutton had three local boys in me, Marvin and Sidney. It all changed, just major different.”
The trip to the 1978 Final Four changed that forever. But it began for Brewer much earlier than that. It was on the playground across the street from the Fort Smith project housing that he learned to play, taking lessons from Almer Lee, another Fort Smith Northside great basketball player and UA star.
That’s where Brewer got the “Boothead” nickname, from some playground joking during his elementary days.
“I wasn’t very old,” Brewer said. “I got it from Jerry Jennings and Almer Lee. They were playing around with me and I think Jerry said it. I didn’t like it then, but it stuck. It’s been ‘Boothead’ ever since.”
Brewer confirmed a story told by Gary “Sweet P” White, apparently a witness. White later became the first UA mascot, known as the “Dancing Razorback.” He saw Jennings and Lee pick up Brewer by the ankles and dangle his head just above the concrete playground.
“That’s a true story,” Brewer said. “One of them said, ‘Look, his head is in the shape of a boot. Let’s call him Boothead.’”
Generally, that eventually just shortened to “Boot.” It was common during Brewer’s nine-year NBA career to be just “Boot.” If he heard “Boothead,” that meant someone knew him from his Arkansas days.
“One of my favorite stories was when I was playing with the (Portland) Trail Blazers,” Brewer said. “We were leaving the arena to the bus. You had to beat the equipment manager to the bus or you got fined. He had to pack everything so he would be well behind us.”
Brewer always made sure to beat the equipment manager.
“You generally had fans lining up outside the arena for autographs as you went to the bus,” Brewer said. “I was near the back of the group of players signing autographs, then here came the equipment manager. I quit and headed to the bus. I didn’t want a fine.
“Then, from the group of fans, I heard a lady yell, ‘Boothead, please sign for my kids!’ I looked at the equipment manager and said, ‘You need to stop. These people are from Arkansas and I’m going to take some time with them.’ He went down on his knee to tie his shoes and buy me some time.
“The lady was from Morrilton. I knew it. They were big Razorback fans.”
The 6-4 Brewer was Southwest Conference player of the year in 1978, his senior year at Arkansas. He was famous for leading a tenacious pressure defense coached by Sutton. He had the wing span to deny passes on the wing, but sure ball handling as the point guard to allow Delph to man the wing for his deadly long-range shots and Moncrief patrol the baseline and rebound.
“Coach Sutton gets a lot of credit for how he built our team, but he also should get credit for hiring great coaches,” Brewer said. “Yes, he was the genius behind building our system, but he was like Coach Broyles; he hired great coaches.
“I know the story of Coach Broyles well. He was brilliant in the way he built his staff. But Coach Sutton was the same way. Pat Foster and Gene Keady were great assistants and would become great head coaches.
“I’m not sure if Coach Sutton understood the importance of hiring an Arkansas man like Coach Foster or if Coach Broyles pointed him to him, but it was brilliant. Coach Foster knew the coaches in the state and his way around and that was important because three great players were coming out at the same time.”
In an interview last week, Foster explained part of the Sutton formula was the denial defense, especially the guard-to-guard passes that Brewer and Moncrief stopped.
“So true,” Brewer said. “What he did was change the way the game was played. No one was doing that then. You had old-school defense, then new school. Coach Sutton created the new school, denying the passes to the wing, guard to guard. Sidney and I were talking about that last week.
“Most teams had a game plan to start your offense with a guard to guard pass. I still see that. But what’s interesting, I don’t see the denial today as much for the guard-to-guard passes. Coach Sutton would never allow that.
“We had drill after drill to simulate that in practice. It was part of our everyday routine. You can’t run an offense if you can’t pass guard to guard. That was the specialty of what we did.
“I do think we had two of the best defensive guards to play college basketball. We denied everything and we had the quickness to jump to the ball. Then, it was fastbreak.”
If Brewer had it, there would be a pass for a Moncrief dunk. An example of that was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a vicious slam after Moncrief left the floor near the foul line. It came after a pass from Brewer.
“It did,” Brewer said. “That’s correct. It was the way we played. Everyone talked about our defense, but it led to transition points and we scored more points than some remember.
“It started by denying guard-to-guard passes. That type of pass was forbidden in our defensive system. We were methodical on offense, but our defense gave us so many points.
“Then, our offense with so many passes wore down the defense. We were going to make someone play defense for four or five passes, then they’d break down and we’d get something easy.”
The dunk was illegal when the Triplets came to Arkansas, but that didn’t stop dunks in scrimmages. It sometimes upset Sutton.
“The dunk came back in 1977,” Brewer said. “So when we first got there, Coach Sutton didn’t want us dunking in practice. We did sometimes.
“There was a practice when Marvin kept dunking every time we’d get a transition situation. Coach Sutton got on him and said, ‘We are running if Marvin dunks again.’ Almost immediately Marvin got loose and dunked.
“We were on the line running. We said, ‘Marvin, no more dunks.’ We went back to the scrimmage and the next play, Marvin stole it and dunked one of those big-time rattlers. We were back on the line.”
Brewer said it was a mental game between Sutton and Delph.
“Marvin could get under Coach Sutton’s skin,” Brewer said. “We all knew it. And, we all knew that if we got another transition, Marvin was going to dunk again. I got a steal and I never looked at Marvin, who was out in front. I just layed it up.”
Delph was not the best defender on the team, but didn’t seem to care. In fact, he’d use that to infuriate Sutton at times.
“Oh, yes, he did,” Brewer said. “Marvin was not a bad defensive player, but we sometimes had to cover for him. It’s OK because Marvin brought something. He was a big-time scorer, a great, great shooter and everyone knew it.
“We’d talk about his defense and Marvin would say, ‘Well, you all know why Coach Sutton brought me from Conway and it wasn’t to play defense.’ It got to the point that he said it all the time and it would upset Coach Sutton.
“It got to where it was almost a running joke. Marvin would start to say that line and we’d all say together, ‘Marvin, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t say it.’ He’d laugh and said it anyway, ‘You know why Coach Sutton brought me here, right?’ It was really funny.”
Brewer said that’s not really why anyone came to Arkansas to play for Sutton.
“It was to win,” he said. “We knew we were going to win. He convinced us we’d win with his style, his system and we won.
“We all wanted to be a part of winning. We did anything he said because it was going to bring us together to win.
“Winning brought the entire state together and it sure bonded us as a team. Everyone knew they would give up something to win. That’s the message we got from Coach Sutton, that winning would bond us and it has.
“What happened in Arkansas during that time is that you forgot about your problems for a moment because of the Razorbacks and the winning. You enjoyed the winning and the way we played as a team. Everyone saw it and it made you happy. If you had a problem, it went away while you watched the Razorbacks win in basketball.
“The state had fun and we sure had fun doing it. You have to give Coach Sutton for that as it relates to Arkansas basketball. It was so much fun.”
It can happen again.
“It may be about to happen with Eric Musselman,” Brewer said of the new Arkansas coach. “Now he’s not Coach Sutton, but he has a lot of Coach Sutton in him. His defense is why they were having some success last year.
“I thought they got away with the defense late, maybe trying to win with scoring late in the year. You have to maintain that good shot selection.
“That’s one thing you didn’t have to worry about us with Coach Sutton. The shot selection was always at a premium. It was in his philosophy, wear the other team down because there was no shot clock.”
The winning might be just around the corner.
“I think so,” Brewer said. “The winning can help our state so much. It can bring everyone together. I look back and it brought a lot of people together. You were going good or going bad and you could be all together because of the Razorbacks.
“I didn’t realize the significance then. It took me a few years into my NBA time for it to hit me.”
Maybe it hit home big time when he heard someone outside an arena on the way to the team bus yell “Boothead.”
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