World War II veteran Hal Herring, 89, a member of the Atlanta Falcons’ first coaching staff, a former NFL player, assistant coach at Auburn, local sports and academic figure, passed away on Feb. 9, according to Ingram Funeral Home Chapel in Cumming.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Ingram Funeral Home Chapel with Pastor Joe Gaines officiating.
Herring, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia after his playing days were over, was a member of the Cornerstone Christian Church in Dawsonville. He was preceded in death by his wife of 62 years, Virginia Herring, in 2005.
He was the Falcons’ defensive coordinator from 1966 to 1968. He was released when Norb Hecker was fired. He later coached for the San Diego Chargers from 1971-72.
“He recruited Tommy Nobis, who was the No. 1 draft choice out of Texas that year and Tommy won rookie of the year,” said Helen Copeland, Herring’s daughter of Cumming. “He was extremely proud of Tommy.
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“My dad was about character as a man and then the quality of a player. That meant more to him than any athletic ability that you might have. If you didn’t have a good character, he didn’t draft you. My dad was always about the content of your character before your athletic ability.
“My dad recruited Claude Humphrey, but he moved him from right to left defensive end and that year Claude Humphrey was rookie of the year. My dad was scholar. He was genius, but he only cared about your character.”
Nobis and former Falcons safety Ken Reaves’ remember Herring fondly.
“He was a disciplinarian type guy and he demanded that you paid attention and that you do things like you were told to do them,” Nobis said. “If you paid attention and worked hard, then you were going to be in good shape with that man.
“He certainly was a special man to me. We got along well. I understood him and he understood me. He taught me a lot.”
Reaves played for the Falcons from 1966-73.
“He was a stern man,” Reaves said. “He was a student of the game. He loved the game. He knew all the ins and outs of the game.
“Every defensive assignment or coverage that he had, facilitated every member of that team. In other words, it was a team effort. It the team shuts them down, it was a team stop. That’s what I learned from him more than anything else.”
Herring, a native of Lanett, Ala., went on to star at Auburn starting in 1942. He was all-SEC in 1942, but the entire Auburn freshmen team left school to serve in the U.S. Military during World War II. He was stationed in France and Germany.
“He was in the war from 1942 to 1946,” Copeland said. “He was awarded the Bronze Star. He was awarded the World War II victory medal. He was awarded the Good Conduct medal and he was awarded the Expert Rifle Medal. He was a Private First Class Infantry in the Army.”
After the War, he returned to Auburn and played center, quarterback, fullback and linebacker for them from 1946-48.
He went on to play professionally for the Buffalo Bills is the all All-American Football Conference in 1949 and the Cleveland Browns of the NFL from 1950-52. The Browns won the league Championship (pre-Super Bowl era) in 1950 and were runner-ups in 1951 and 1952.
“He was defensive captain, linebacker and sometimes center for the Cleveland Browns,” Copeland said. “The Cleveland Browns won the first Super Bowl, but back then they called it the World Championship and they were league champions in 1951 and 1952.”
After his playing days were over, he returned to Auburn to coach from 1953-65. He was on the staff along with Vince Dooley, who coached at Auburn from 1956-63.
Herring’s defense gave up the fewest points in modern history, 28, when Auburn won the National Championship in 1957.
There was a blemish on his record at Auburn after he was fined $2,000 by the SEC and the school was placed on three-year probation by the NCAA in 1956 after he gave $500 to two recruits, according the book Shug: The Life and Times of Auburn’s Ralph ‘Shug’ Jordan by Rich Donnell.
The Auburn fans suspected Alabama of turning them into the league office.
“He was a heckuva defensive coach,” Dooley said. “We were on the staff together at Auburn and kept in touch ever since. He had several children, some of whom have kept in touch with me. Great fella.
Dooley remembers Herring as an intense student of the game.
“He actually went back to school and got his doctorate,” Dooley said. “What he did, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on defenses catching up with offenses, as I remember. The theory is, which is true, football teams from time to time will come out with new offenses and it would take the country by the storm.
“And defenses, it would take the three, four, five, sometimes six years to catch up with it. And then when they finally did, they’d come out with another offense. So he traced a long history of that and wrote his doctoral dissertation on it. And that’s still going on. Now it’s that spread, hurry-up stuff, and it’s going to take the defenses a while to catch up with it, based on history.
“As a defensive coordinator, he was very interested in that. And he was one heck of a defensive coach.
“He lost his wife a few years ago and they were old friends. Barbara and I enjoyed his company.”
Herring later settled in metro Atlanta and was named the athletic director DeKalb Community College (now Georgia Perimeter College) where he worked from 1972 to 1995, coaching the tennis and golf teams.
“DeKalb Community College’s tennis team, coached by former Atlanta Falcons assistant coach Hal Herring, finished second in the state, qualifying for a berth in the national junior college tournament. DeKalb’s Aaron Barrick, of Charlotte, N.C., won the Region 17 singles title,” according to a May 14, 1985 article in The Atlanta Journal.
“He always taught his young men not to rely on football to get you through life,” Copeland said. “(He told them that their) studies came first. …My father was the first to graduate in his family from college.
“He made sure that every young man that he taught understood that their football and athleticism was only going to last for so long and they had to be educated. That’s all that he cared about. That’s why my dad went back and got his Ph.D at Georgia.”
Herring, who was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, also earned a lifetime achievement award for assistant coaches from the All-American Football Foundation.
Survivors include his children, Dr. Shannon T. and Cindy Herring of Birmingham; Tim and Patricia Herring of Palmetto; Hilda and Keith Harding of Oceanside, CA; Helen and Ellis Copeland of Cumming; Hala and Christopher Carlton of Denver, CO; grandchildren, Emily, Jennifer, Chase, Shane, Robert, Katie, Shawn, Kathryn, Hal, Savannah; great grandchildren, Thomas, Helena and Shea; numerous nieces, nephews and other relatives also survive.
The family will receive friends on Saturday from 12:00 noon until hour of the service. Inurnment will follow in Sawnee View Memorial Gardens.
The family request in lieu of flowers contributions be made to his church at 236 Etowah River Road, Dawsonville, GA 30534 Ingram Funeral Home & Crematory, Cumming, Georgia is in charge of arrangements. Condolences may be made at www.ingramfuneralhome.com.
Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this story.