At 21Club, 21 W. 52nd St., New York, Archie Manning was hosting a luncheon for some of his friends, which included Ole Miss buddies and current and former head coaches -- a genial group relaxing in a festive, pre-Christmas atmosphere.
Phillip Fulmer, the former Volunteer coach, and David Cutcliff, now head coach at Duke, were there. Mack Brown, the boss of the Texas Longhorns, was in his usual upbeat mood even on the eve of the announcement that three assistants were retiring or moving on.
You come to expect this kind of social from Archie. He cares about his friends, and he keeps in touch. You call him, he will call you back. Ask him a favor, and he will do his best to deliver. Some of that has to do with the fact that he is a small town Mississippi boy who was influenced early on that good manners are as important as hitting a receiver in stride on a slant pattern. Success has never turned Archie's head. His life today is pretty much one of speaking and making appearances and finding time to watch his sons Peyton and Eli compete for championships in the National Football League. Archie is president of the National Football Foundation which adds to his crowded schedule. College football could not have a greater ambassador.
Across the table sat his youngest son, Eli, the quarterback of the New York Giants, engaged in conversation with David Cutcliff, Eli's college coach at Ole Miss. As a casual and unhurried lunch -- a staple of the New York scene just like it is for Sunday brunch in Archie's hometown of Drew, Miss. -- played out, Eli and Cutcliff reminisced about their days at Ole Miss and the nuances of the passing game. As they talked, there were gesticulations as one or the other sent imaginary receivers down the field with a wave of a hand and covered his route with the other -- a former player bonding with his old coach who also coached Eli's brother Peyton at Tennessee when Cutcliff was the Vols' offensive coordinator.
One table away was a group which included Larry Lacewell, an advocate of the wishbone offense which he used at Arkansas State to achieve noteworthy success. Lacewell was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma in the Seventies when the Sooners used the wishbone to run over everybody in the old Big Eight confer-ence. "The wishbone might not work in the NFL -- nobody wants to get their quarterback killed -- but for small colleges, it is still a viable offense. I like it because it was good for me," Lacewell said. He coached Arkansas State to the playoffs four consecutive years. His best team lost to Erk Russell's Georgia Southern in the finals in 1986. "Erk was a fine football coach," Lacewell said. "He knew football, but he also knew how to relate to his kids. That is unique -- when you can motivate kids like he did late in his career."
Lacewell is an accomplished raconteur and has stories for everywhere he coached and for every coach he worked with -- from Bear Bryant at Alabama to Bill Parcells of the Dallas Cowboys. "I get a kick out of telling people what Coach Bryant and I have in common: We both played for the Fordyce (Arkansas) Redbugs."
It was a gladsome occasion with the conversation spiced with recollections of the past along with updates on current events like the the Giants' playoff possibilities. "The challenge is you gotta be up every week," Eli said softly. Never given to flamboyance or overstatement, Eli is the second Ole Miss quarterback to lead Giant teams to a championship which forever makes him a hero in this town. Before Eli, it was Charley Connerly in the '50s. While Connerly was given to hanging out at P.J. Clarke's and other popular watering holes, Eli moves about town quietly and unassumingly. He still addresses his dad's peers as "Mr." When the luncheon broke up, there was Eli hugging his dad goodbye, which is not an everyday occurrence for many NFL stars. For Archie's old friends, nothing could be finer than seeing this gentleman of the South having two sons with Super Bowl rings. No father is more deserving.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.