The year was 1957. The Auburn Tigers won the National Championship and did so with a lock down defense. Just as Auburn won a national championship in 2010 behind the play calling of an offensive guru named Gus Malzahn, the Tigers of ’57 won it behind the play calling of another guru, but that time it was on defense.
It was a different era. It was a time when players went both ways and games were defined by who was the toughest. Hand to hand combat might better describe what took place on the gridiron. It was a game where (unlike today’s offenses that put up big numbers) defenses choked the life out of offenses.
It was in that environment that a former SEC and NFL star player had become the defensive coordinator for Auburn. Having a separate coach just for defense had been an almost unheard of practice. Up to that time, coaches like players had gone both ways. The name of that early defensive guru? … Former Tiger great, Hal Herring.
He was a pioneer in coaching defense exclusively. He was also one of the best. In fact, he may have been the best to ever coach the ‘D’ at Auburn. He coached on The Plains for 13 years and all of those seasons his defenses were in the top 10 nationally including a No.1 ranking six times. Auburn’s reputation over the years as being a tough defensive team is due in large part to Hal Herring.
The 1957 National Champions surrendered the fewest points in modern history (28) and one of those touchdowns was an interception and the other three TD’s came against the second team. The Tigers won four games in that championship season, scoring seven points or fewer and six times Auburn shut out their opponent.
Many would say yeah, but that team couldn’t do that today because the game is more sophisticated. Well Hal was asked before the 2010 BCS Championship game if his players could match up today. His response was, “Easily … Back then, you kicked somebody’s a- – or you got kicked. It was for men only.”
But it wasn’t exclusively about out-manning the other guy. Like Auburn’s current offensive genius, Herring was an innovator who was constantly adjusting his defensive alignment; something that was ahead of its time in the 1950′s and 60′s. Many of the following generations of defensive coordinators owe their craft to Coach Herring. He (like Malzahn on offense) wrote a book about defensive football. He knew from which he talked. He coached for the great Shug Jordan and against some of the best in the game – guys like Bobby Dodd, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula.
Herring didn’t just make his mark in life as a football coach. He was a husband, a father, and a teacher. A member of America’s greatest generation, he chose to leave college to help defend his country as an infantryman in World War II. After the war, he returned to Auburn and was named the Tigers’ Most Valuable Player in 1948. That same year he was selected All-SEC both as a center and linebacker. He went onto play professionally for the legendary Paul Brown, helping the Cleveland Browns win an NFL World Championship in 1950.
In 1965 he left Auburn to coach defense for the Atlanta Falcons and later coached for the San Diego Chargers. In 2002, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. But perhaps his most cherished honor came in 2001 when he was given the highest recognition Auburn can bestow on student-athletes who have distinguished themselves as alumni, The Walter Gilbert Award.
Sunday night Coach Herring passed away in Cuming, Ga. just two weeks shy of his 90th birthday. The funeral service will be at 2 p.m. at Ingram’s Funeral Home in Cuming. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.
He will be missed. He was an Auburn Man. He was a man’s man. He was a football coach through and through. And he was the last of an era.
Tags: Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, AubTigerman, Auburn blogs, Auburn Football, auburn Tigers, Cleveland Browns, Gus Malzahn, Hal Herring, Paul Brown, sec blogs, Shug Jordan's assistant coaches, Track 'em Tigers, Walter Gilbert Award