As children, Leigh and Randy Morris always felt like they had a lot of brothers and sisters despite being the only children of Pat and Sherry Morris.
Their house was always bustling with kids — which made them feel quite popular because, well, why else would all these kids be at their house but to see them?
Turns out the crowded Morris household was because their father, Pat, was Poplarville’s football coach — and a darn good one at that. Over the course of 19 seasons — from 1975 to 1989 and then from 2001 until 2004 — Morris racked up a 106-89-4 all-time record, tops in the school’s history. He helped lead the Hornets to the Apache Conference championship in 1976, 1980, 1982 and 1984, with playoff berths in 1981-84, 1988 and 2002.
He died Monday surrounded by family and loved ones at the age of 77 after a four-year battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — but not before having a deep impact on countless lives from New Orleans all the way to Mobile.
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“Growing up here in small town Poplarville, it was just (Randy) and I and we always said we didn’t just have each other; we had all these brothers and sisters who showed up at our house. Every day there were kids who would come by,” Leigh Morris Greer said Tuesday. “We laugh because we thought they were coming to see us, but they weren’t, they were coming to see him. He always had a meal on the table or a bed for them to sleep in. We knew he was touching peoples’ lives then, but it probably wasn’t until we were in our 20s that we started meeting people all over Mississippi and New Orleans.”
Nowadays, sometimes when she least expects it, Greer is reminded of her father’s impact.
Seven months ago Greer was at the Academy Sports in Hattiesburg with one of her sons, Jake Greer, who’s a St. Stanislaus quarterback. The cashier, a Purvis native, struck up a conversation and asked their names.
“He immediately said, ‘is your dad Coach Pat Morris?’ There’s been a lot of those types of moments,” Greer said. “He could tell us exactly what plays he ran. It was amazing.
“Everywhere we go, people knew about him and what he’s done.”
A 1958 Poplarville High graduate, Morris attended Pearl River Community College and later Southern Miss. He coached at schools including Picayune, Hancock North Central and Harrison Central before helping to lead Brother Martin in New Orleans to a state championship as the team’s offensive coordinator. Then came the calls — and there were plenty — to return home. The Hornets were in a funk and needed direction.
“This was his hometown,” Greer said. “He grew up with nine brothers and sisters here in Poplarville and wanted to be the head football coach.
“He just felt like it was the best place for him to be because this is where he grew up.”
Joey Howard was Morris’ first quarterback on the 1975 Hornets, a team that bounced back from winning three games over the previous two seasons to going 7-4 in Morris’ debut season.
“He turned us around,” Howard said. “At that time, when you had 1-9, 2-9 years, small towns live and die by their football programs and I just think he was an extraordinary man who was at the right place at the right time.”
His first year in Poplarville, Morris used the wishbone triple option before incorporating the veer and even run-pass options. Eventually he changed once more and was one of the first adopters of the dreaded wing-T in Mississippi.
Morris immediately built a reputation for demanding a lot from his players.
“He would push you and challenge you on the practice field, and challenge you to go farther than you ever thought you could. That was the only way we had a chance to win because we were so undersized,” Howard said. “If he told us to run through that brick wall, we’d probably fight to see who would be the first in line.”
Current Picayune coach Dodd Lee grew up around Morris, who was once an assistant on his dad’s Hancock North Central staff. Once he was older, Lee played against Morris’ Hornets — Poplarville beat Picayune 6-2 in Morris’ 1975 debut — and they eventually faced off on opposing sidelines.
“He was an outstanding man,” Lee said. “I remember him loving what he did. He loved football, the hard work and the discipline that went along with it.”
Morris admired and respected Lee. The two carried similar beliefs — which transcended the football field and crept into their daily lives. He still called Lee after big wins. He did the same with current PHS coach Jay Beech, who has taken the Hornets to heights not seen since perhaps Morris roamed the sideline.
“He was always supportive of everything we were doing,” Beech said. “It’s almost every day someone mentions him. I think his legacy is he created champions in life.”
Greer said her father reveled in the Hornets’ consecutive MHSAA Class 4A South State Championship berths.
“He was so proud. It was hard for him because he loves Stanislaus and everything they’ve done for my boys (Jake, Will and Pat), but he was so proud of Poplarville,” she said. “He was their biggest supporter.”
Over the last couple of years, Morris had seen an uptick in visitors and word spread about his health. Former players from all over the country returned to “small town Poplarville,” to reminisce. Last year the 1976 team was honored and 27 of the 32 players still alive made it for the reunion — which was largely a testament to Morris.
Just the other day a former player stopped by to see his former coach. While talking with Greer, he broke down.
“He changed my life,” the man revealed.
The constant stream of visitors has been rather therapeutic for Morris’ family.
“We’ve met so many people who just admired him. We have been (in Hattiesburg with Morris) for three days and athletes just kept pouring into the room,” Greer said. “I miss him desperately, but I’m so excited about Saturday at the Brownstone because people are coming from all over just to honor him and get up to speak about him.”
Because of the outpouring of support from the community, Morris’ visitation and service have been moved to the Brownstone Center for the Arts on PRCC’s campus. Visitation is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Saturday with the service set to start at noon.
“I can’t say enough for the people who came by the hospital or called,” Greer said. “Our hearts are full because he touched so many peoples’ lives.”
When: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday
Where: Brownstone Center for the Arts at Pearl River Community College