Phillip Marshall: Remembering Coach Hal Herring

Feb. 10, 2014

You can make a case that Hal Herring was the most effective defensive coordinator ever to walk Auburn's sideline. In fact, you'd have a hard time making a case that he wasn't.

Coach Herring ran Auburn's defense for Shug Jordan from 1953 through 1965. His accomplishments were mind-boggling. His defenses led the nation in 1957, 1959, 1960 and 1964. In each of his 13 seasons, they were in the nation's top 10. The 1957 national champions gave up just 28 points, the fewest in modern history. Three touchdowns came against the second team. The other was an interception return.

Sunday night, in Cumming, Ga., Coach Herring died at the age of 89. But the impact he had on Auburn, his family, his friends and the players who came his way will long outlive him. None of those amazing numbers are what I remember about the man I knew from the time I was a little boy.

Coach Herring - I still can't call him anything else - and Virginia, his late wife of 58 years, were close friends of my parents. In a different time, the coach and the Birmingham sports writer had an uncommon bond. The Herrings had five children - Torey, Tim, Hilda, Helen and Hala. Half a century later, I still consider them all friends.

I remember a wise man who was a hero to his children, to his players and to me. I talked to him from time to time over the years, and always he treated me like family.

"I will just say he meant absolutely everything to me," Helen said Monday. "Dad was one of those very unique fathers who showed us what hard work could do for you. He believed in working hard, and God knows he did."

Bill Van Dyke was a two-way lineman on the 1963 Auburn team that won nine out of 10 games, beat Alabama for the first time in five years and played in the Orange Bowl. There was never any doubt, Van Dyke says, that Herring cared, but he believed the game was won by the toughest team. And he made sure his defenses were tough.

"I remember in one scrimmage Jimmy Jones and I got the crap blocked out of us," Van Dyke said. "Coach Herring grabbed Jones and slapped him upside the head. I was like an old mule trying to back up, and he never got to me. But we never made that mistake again."

Alabama, with quarterback Joe Namath, was favored by more than a touchdown in a showdown of once-beaten teams at Birmingham's Legion Field.

So effective was Herring's defense that Namath completed 4-of-17 passes for 43 yards and Auburn won 10-8.

"Namath was probably the best throwing quarterback I ever saw," Coach Herring said years later. "I used an old basketball defense. It was part man-to-man and part zone. They never did figure it out. You could tell a player then what he needed to do and he would do it. We didn't have computers to tell us what to do."

Before he was a coach, Herring was a ferocious football player in a career interrupted by distinguished service in World War II.  He was an All-SEC center and linebacker and was named Auburn's Most Valuable Player in 1948. He won a world championship with the Cleveland Browns in 1950.

Coach Herring left Auburn's staff after the 1965 season to coach for the Atlanta Falcons in their first season. He later coached for the San Diego Chargers. In 2001, he returned to Auburn as the winner of the Walter Gilbert Award, the highest honor Auburn bestows on student-athletes who have distinguished themselves as alumni. In 2002, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

Always, Coach Herring was more than a football coach, more than an athlete. He was a deep thinker and a scholar, a man who cared deeply about the world around him and the people in it.

After he left football's big stage, he was sports director at DeKalb Junior College and coached the tennis and golf teams. He cared about the students there like he cared about them at Auburn.

"Dad was a wonderful, wonderful man," Helen said. "He and I shared the joy of horseback riding, and I still have horses to this day. I could just write a book about all that. He was a good Christian man, a deacon in the church. Sports and all the accolades aside, Dad was the man he was through his faith."

Coach Herring will be laid to rest Saturday. The funeral service will be at 2 p.m. at Ingram's Funeral Home in Cumming at 2 p.m. The family will receive friends beginning at noon. Burial will be at Sawnee View Memorial Gardens in Cumming.

It will be sad to say goodbye to a good man who meant so much to so many. But his family and those fortunate enough to have known him will look back at a life well-lived, and we'll smile at the memories.

 
       

Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: