March 21, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN -- From afar, Buddy McClinton didn't seem like a candidate to become one of the best defensive players in Auburn history. His big-time scholarship offers were limited. He stood 5-foot-7 when he signed out of high school.
He made it to Auburn only after his prep coach took over the Tigers' freshman team.
Didn't matter. Buddy McClinton grew into his role as one of the best safeties in Auburn history.
McClinton set the school's single-season record for interceptions with nine in 1969, and that's a record, quite amazingly, he still holds 43 seasons later. It sits nicely with the school record he set for career interceptions at 18. He still owns that record, too. All those interceptions are why McClinton's name appears on the latest College Football Hall of Fame ballot, which was announced March 5.
McClinton, who had an uncanny knack for the football, grew into an All-American after Auburn took a chance on the player many thought was too small.
"At the end, I was 5-10 and weighed 195 by my senior year at Auburn," McClinton said.
"Five-10? That must have been with some lifters in his shoes," joked former defensive back and teammate Don Webb.
Webb's good-natured jibe comes from the close fraternity of Auburn defenders of that era. Webb, Larry Willingham and Mike Kolen have joined others congratulating McClinton on making the Hall of Fame ballot.
"It's not something you really ever dream about when you're a younger player growing up," McClinton said. "You read about those all-star teams, but you never really think about being a nominee or being inducted in such a prestigious group. It's just a true honor to be nominated."
McClinton says some of his football memories are "in my scrapbook somewhere in the corner of the closet. I haven't looked at any of those things in quite some time."
McClinton was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. His nomination for the College Hall of Fame has stirred memories of Auburn fans again. He could join 12 former Auburn players or coaches in the College Hall of Fame, including teammates Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley.
"People have been saying, 'I didn't know he still held the interception record.' It's nice to be remembered," McClinton said.
McClinton is being modest. Not so his former teammates.
"I don't know if his records will ever be broken," said Willingham, who was an All-American, too.
Kolen, who became a dominating linebacker with the Miami Dolphins, says McClinton should be considered one of the elites. McClinton played like an All-American, which he was, and had the smarts to be an Academic All-American, which he was as well.
"It wasn't just his athletic ability but his intelligence. That was just as instrumental," Kolen said. "He studied the opponent's offense like nobody on our team did. He knew what to look for and put himself in the right position.
"Buddy was a focused individual and a very focused player. When he got on the field it was all business. That was a huge part of his success."
McClinton is a successful real estate developer in Montgomery, serving as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of McClinton and Company. His son, David, lettered at Auburn in the 1990s. Today, he's the president and chief operating officer at his father's company.
Buddy McClinton's message hasn't changed.
"Football is a team sport. It's not an individual sport. It's about the guy beside you, it's about the guy in front of you. If he does your job, it allows you to do your job.
"One of the great advantages I had was having Mike Kolen and David Campbell playing in front of me; and I had Don Webb and Larry Willingham playing beside me. You can't achieve any type of honor unless you were fortunate to play with some great players."
Auburn's defensive players of that era were ball hawks, thanks to a young secondary coach named Bill Oliver. McClinton finished his career with those 18 interceptions, but Webb was in the ballpark with 13 and Willingham with 11. McClinton had his nine interceptions in 1969. Willingham had seven the same year. The season before, Webb had six.
The 1968 team intercepted eight passes in a Sun Bowl win over Arizona. McClinton had three, including one for a touchdown, and was named the game's MVP. The 1969 team had nine interceptions against Florida's John Reaves. In one game.
McClinton says he found his way to Auburn because Tom Jones, his coach at Lee High School in Montgomery, was hired as the Tigers' freshman coach. Jones lobbied Shug Jordan.
"He strongly recommended me to Coach Jordan. You have to have an opportunity and somebody to believe in you, and in my case it was Tom Jones," McClinton said.
That interception record? Set in three years. Freshmen couldn't play back then. It was no sure thing the spring of his sophomore year, either.
"There were so many people who came out for football I think Buddy and I were something like sixth or seventh or 10th string," Webb said. "We had a very senior team on defense, too. But Buddy had caught Coach Oliver's attention pretty quick."
McClinton became a starter and started intercepting passes.
"We didn't have all these fancy four-deep or nickel-back secondaries," Willingham said. "Buddy was sitting right there in the middle and Don Webb was on the left corner and I was on the right corner, and we had some linebackers filling those gaps. We were taught when the ball left the quarterback's hand, it was as much ours as it was the offense's. We believed.
"There's no telling how many more interceptions Buddy would have had, or any of us, if we weren't fighting for it so much because we'd knock it out of each other's hands. Then Mike Kolen would come crashing into the pile and knock it away."
Webb said McClinton set the tone.
"We knew our back was covered with Buddy," he said. "He made our jobs as cornerbacks easy. He was that smart. He wasn't the fastest on the team, but he knew where he was supposed to be, and he made the interceptions. He was tough. He had to be."
Webb said McClinton started every game of his career. But near the end, in his senior year, he suffered an injury against Georgia and his availability for the Alabama game was in doubt.
"He didn't practice all week. He didn't warm up before the game because we didn't want the Alabama coaches to see what he could do as far as making cuts," Webb said. "He played the whole ballgame. He said, 'You think I'm going to miss this ballgame? My senior year against Alabama?'"
Buddy McClinton played. Auburn won the game.
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