Jan. 8, 2011
By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
LARGO -- In the warmth of a new morning, the old coach sat quietly and stared at yesterday.
Hal Herring, Auburn man, held the photograph tightly in his worn hands. In it was the image of a forever-young athlete, his hands on his hips, his chin regally high, his chest covered by jersey No. 20.
The player's eyes were focused somewhere to his left, looking beyond the frame and beyond the moment. In the snapshot, the athlete looked bold and strong, as if he was certain time could do him no harm.
The black-and-white image is six decades old now, and for a long time it has stood next to family photos and an open Bible on a shelf in Herring's home in Largo. As he sat on his couch next to a stuffed tiger and looked at the picture of himself as a young man, however, it was as if he had not considered it for a long time.
After a long pause, Herring looked up, laughed softly and talked about what the man in the photo looked like.
"He looks to me like a prissy a-?-," he growled.
Then Herring laughed, and the sound seemed to carry him across the decades to a different time and a different game and a different set of Tigers.
Herring turns 87 next month, and he isn't sure he'll watch when Auburn, his alma mater, plays for the national title against Oregon on Monday night. Herring has watched Auburn throughout the season, but when he talks about modern football, his upper lip seems to curl, and his tone carries the disapproval of a preacher talking about pornography.
Ah, but if you want to talk about another Auburn team, the national champion Tigers of '57, then Herring is your man.
In those days, his days, Herring was Auburn's defensive coach, a newfangled notion in itself. In those days, players went both ways, and by golly, so did most coaches. Working under head coach "Shug" Jordan -- whom Herring considers to be "like George Washington on the dollar bill" when it comes to coaching -- Herring was one of the first, and one of the best, coaches who worked exclusively on defense.
In his 13 years at Auburn, the Tigers led the nation in defense six times. All 13 years they ranked in the top 10.
But in '57, Herring's bunch was at its best. The Tigers gave up only 28 points all year, and one of those touchdowns came on an interception return. Six times in 10 games Auburn shut out its opponents. Four times it won games in which it scored seven points or fewer.
At the end of the year, Auburn was voted No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. A 9-1 Ohio State team was voted No. 1 in the United Press International poll.
Yes, Herring said, he would have liked to have played Ohio State. Yes, he said, he believes Auburn would have won.
"Today's game is too fancy for me," said Herring. "It's sophisticated. Everyone has a nice helmet and a nice jersey, and they run out there all fancy. The band is playing, and the cheerleaders are cheering. It's like a show, and the players are showboating. It's all heep and haw and hip and ho and all that crap.
"Back then, you kicked somebody's a-?- or you got kicked. It was for men only. You got there, you did what you were supposed to do, and if you got whacked in the head, well, you got whacked in the head. You were lucky to get out without your a-?- being busted."
Herring stops himself and apologizes for his language. Then, in one form or another, he repeats it several times. Clearly, kicking another man's posterior was a very large part of Herring's defensive game plan.
For instance, Herring hasn't watched enough of Oregon's offense to suggest how Auburn should go about trying to stop it. But he does have an idea how to stop most fast-paced offenses.
"You have to hurt somebody," he said. "I mean, when it comes down to it, you have to win any way you can. When I played, it was root hog or die poor. It was a fun game where you whipped somebody's a-?-."
The players wore leather helmets back then, and in Herring's words, a coach substituted "if someone got killed." He was joking. I think. Players went both ways, and teams didn't throw the ball as much. In those days, the SEC was all white.
Still, asked if that team could play in this time, Herring didn't hesitate. "Easily," he said.
But aren't players bigger now? "We had some big guys. We had guys who were 6-4 and 220, 225."
But now they're closer to 300, you say. "I'm not impressed."
He remembers his players as hard men, as tough men, as men who didn't dance in the end zone.
"If that had happened, there wouldn't be any more dancing," he said.
Not much football memorabilia is inside the Herring condo. His plaque commemorating his 2002 induction into the Alabama Hall of Fame is on one wall, and a large stuffed tiger is on the couch. Somewhere, and Herring says he isn't sure where, he still has his '57 championship ring.
In some ways, Herring is an ancestor of the great defensive coaches who have come after him Tom Landry, Bill Arnsparger, Erk Russell, Dick LeBeau, Monte Kiffin. He was forever tinkering with his team's alignment, which was ahead of its time. Former Tennessee coach Bowden Wyatt once said after playing Herring's defense: "All we could do was kick."
To Herring, that was the point. A coach kicked butt, and he did it "with either leg."
After all, that was the lesson Herring had learned in World War II, when he piloted gliders and served in the infantry. It was the lesson he learned when he played at Auburn and worked the night shift at the cotton mill before he went to school and on to practice. It was the lesson he learned when he played four years with the Cleveland Browns.
Oh, it wasn't all barbecue and iced tea. Just as Auburn has spent this season surrounded by controversy, that was true of the title team, too. Auburn was on probation that year because then-SEC commissioner Bernie Moore ruled that Herring had paid two recruits the Beaube twins $500 each.
Asked about the incident more than a half-century later, Herring doesn't admit paying anyone. After a pause, however, he said this:
"You just go with the flow, because you had to. Whatever you could use, you used it. I don't care what it was. If you cheated, lied, stomped or anything you do, the goal was winning. You did what you need to do."
He has seen some things, Herring. He coached against Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula. He played for Paul Brown and with Otto Graham. He was the Atlanta Falcons' first defensive coordinator. He wrote a book on defensive football. He worked as a sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He was married to his wife, Virginia, for 58 years, and they had five children; she died six years ago. He threw the discus so far, the Auburn campus newspaper once wrote in an April 1 parody that he had thrown one into the top floor of the women's dorm. He was inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame in 2002.
Most of all? He was a coach.
Come Monday night, his old team could use him.