Hugh Laurin Pepper was a legend in many ways and to many people.
At Southern Miss, he was a star on the football field and a member of the baseball team. His baseball career included a four-year stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
At Ocean Springs High School, he became the most prominent football coach in the school’s history.
Pepper, a native of the Vaughan community in Yazoo County, died on Sunday at age 88.
He hadn’t walked the sideline at Greyhound Stadium as head coach since 1991, but Pepper’s coaching career remains a popular topic of discussion for those who played for him, worked with him and watched his teams play.
“It’s kind of hard to believe he’s gone,” said David Ward, who was a standout as a player for Pepper and later coached alongside him. “He meant so much to so many people. I’ve been reading so many testimonials on Facebook. He had an impact on so many players’ lives, including my own.”
Pepper was the head football coach at Ocean Springs for 28 seasons, leading the Greyhounds to 191 victories. He served as head coach from 1963-81 before leaving his post to become athletic director. He returned in 1984 to coach eight more seasons after the football program saw a downturn.
Ward was an assistant at Ocean Springs when Pepper returned to lead the team.
“We had high expectations because Coach Pepper was back, but Picayune came out and demolished us in our own stadium in the first game,” Ward said. “We go to Biloxi the next week with not a lot of hope, but we went over there and beat them 12-6. We came back to Ocean Springs that night and I bet you 1,000 people were at the stadium waiting on us. It was a high for me. I assume it was a tremendous high for him. We went on to beat Biloxi three of the next four seasons.”
‘Master of behavior’
Pepper had a way of turning an average high school athlete into a standout.
“He could make you feel an inch tall or 10 feet tall simply by the way he talked to you,” said Ward, who was a standout Ocean Springs running back in 1968-70. “He was a master of behavior. He seemed to touch all the right buttons. He knew when to be heavy-handed and he knew when to put a hand on your back. Everybody just highly respected him. I feel kind of privileged to play for him. I feel like I’m in an elite group that got to call him coach.”
Pepper’s legacy won’t soon be forgotten in Ocean Springs.
In 1998, the playing surface at Greyhound Stadium was named “Hugh Pepper Field.”
When you walk in the main entrance of the Ocean Springs fieldhouse, there’s a photo of Pepper and two other former coaches, Billy Hubbard and Dan Brown, hanging on the wall. Ocean Springs head coach Ryan Ross had the picture redone after he took over seven years ago.
“It’s just amazing the amount of people that really loved Coach Pepper for what he did for them,” Ross said. “It’s a weekly deal where you hear stories from his former players. I kind of embraced (Pepper’s legacy) when I got here because you saw right off the bat how much he meant to folks.”
Those same former players often returned to visit their old head coach and Pepper greeted them not by their name, but by calling them by their old jersey number.
“He always knew kids by their numbers,” said Mike Tosch, who was an assistant for Pepper late in his career. “Even 30 years later, a player would walk in and he wouldn’t call him by name. He’d call them by their number. I could never do that. I don’t know how he did that. It didn’t matter whether he was a star player or the last player on the list.”
Quite the athlete
Pepper was an exceptional athlete at Mississippi Southern. He had a combined record of 16-1 on the pitcher’s mound in 1953-54. As a halfback for the football team, he was named a Little All-American in 1953.
He is a member of the Southern Miss Sports Hall of Fame and USM’s Legends Club.
In his junior season in 1952, Pepper rushed for 1,191 yards and 10 touchdowns. His average of 8.3 yards a carry that season is still a school record.
USM issued a statement on Sunday:
“We are saddened to learn about the passing of former Golden Eagle baseball and football player Hugh Laurin Pepper, who arguably is the greatest all-around player ever at Southern Miss. He went on to enjoy a professional baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and, following his playing career, gave back by serving as a long-time coach which included 29 seasons leading Ocean Springs High School. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”
Pepper was drafted by the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, but instead chose to enter professional baseball.
“Baseball had a better pension program and the NFL back then wasn’t anything like it is today,” Ward said.
Pepper pitched in 44 games for the Pirates, registering his first win on Aug. 26, 1954. He played professional baseball until 1963.
“There will never be another one,” Ward said. “He was an amazing person, an amazing character. He could wow you with stories not only about his football career, but there were a lot of stories about when he was with the Pirates. He was quite an athlete.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.