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Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the March 1996 issue of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine.
Auburn's new defensive coordinator, Bill Oliver, stunned many Crimson Tide faithful and shocked a few Auburn supporters when he departed Gene Stallings' staff and joined Terry Bowden's in January. But Oliver is no stranger to the loveliest village of the plains. Oliver served as secondary coach under Shug Jordan from 1966 to 1970 and Auburn's defensive backfield became one of the best in the nation under his guidance.
Oliver came to Auburn in early 1966 from Guntersville High, where he was head coach. He had impressed offensive backfield coach Buck Bradberry during his recruiting trips. Bradberry, who retired from coaching after the 1965 season, recommended the young coach to Jordan. Oliver had gone from Livingston High to play at Alabama, where he was a three-year letterman from 1959-61 as a defensive back and a two-year letterman in baseball. He had just started coaching in 1963 at R.L. Osborne High in Marietta, Ga., before moving to Guntersville where he was head coach for the 1964 and 1965 seasons. Auburn's 5-4-1 regular season record in 1965 was its worst since 1952 and Jordan brought in several new faces as assistants. Oliver reported early in 1966.
"Coach Jordan told me to observe the players in the off-season program, make no comments to anybody else and report back to him in a couple of weeks," Oliver recalls. He met with Jordan and presented a bleak appraisal. He told the head coach that the team was short on athletes and quickness. As a result, Jordan opened practice to walk-ons and several stepped up and Auburn began a tradition as a program where walk-ons could excel.
The Tigers struggled through the 1966 season with a 4-6 record, but began to improve when Jordan hired former Mississippi State head coach Paul Davis as defensive coordinator in the spring of 1967. Davis would focus on the linebackers while Oliver coached the secondary, Sam Mitchell the ends and Joe Connally the line. Davis also implemented a 4-4 and he and Oliver began tinkering with coverages besides the traditional three-man deep. Davis was impressed with Oliver from the outset. "He had a great knowledge of football and he was a real hard worker," Davis says. "He contributed a lot to the new defense we put in. When something wasn't sound, he'd speak up."
Davis liked Oliver's aggressive approach to pass coverage. "He challenged the offense to beat him. He wasn't going to give you the short passes all the time and let you beat him consistently down the field. He was going to come up there once in a while and gamble with you and say, 'all right, you beat me deep or I'm going to intercept the pass.'"
Interceptions became the speciality of Oliver's secondary, which was largely composed of unheralded players. In the spring of 1966, Auburn gave its next-to-last scholarship to Donnie Webb, who had played on Scottsboro High's 3A state championship team. Webb's talents had been noticed by Oliver when Scottsboro had played Guntersville. Several had already signed with Alabama. "I told Coach Jordan that the best player up there was really and truly Don Webb," Oliver recalls. Auburn gave its final scholarship to a 5-7, 150-pounder from Lee in Montgomery. Buddy McClinton was ready to walk on at Auburn when his former high school coach, Tom Jones, who had recently been hired as Auburn's freshman football coach, convinced Jordan that McClinton had what it took to play SEC football.
"After my freshman year, when I went up to the varsity that first spring (1967), I was so far down the depth chart I wasn't even showing," McClinton remembers. However, several players didn't perform and others were injured. "Coach Oliver stuck me in, gave me my chance and I never looked back," McClinton says.
Cornerback Webb and safety McClinton started all three of their varsity years, 1967-69. In 1967, Webb tied an Auburn record with six interceptions. In 1968, they were joined in the secondary by sophomore cornerback Larry Willingham. A 6-1, 175 defensive end and linebacker at Banks High in Birmingham, Willingham's only scholarship offer came from Auburn. A speedster in the 100, he had also played some running back and wingback. Auburn initially put him at receiver, but Davis and Oliver saw his potential as a defensive back, one of the few positions he had never played. Willingham, Webb and McClinton played together during the 1968 and 69 seasons. McClinton was All-SEC both seasons and All-America after his senior year. His 18 career interceptions is still the best in Auburn history, as is his single-season mark of nine in 1969. Willingham wasn't far behind with seven interceptions in 1969. The team intercepted an SEC record 34 passes that season.
McClinton's 18 interceptions and Webb's 13 ranked one-two in school history. Webb is now third, one behind Dave Beck's 14. Beck was the player who took over Webb's position in 1970. At only 5-7, 150 he played defensive back and quarterback at Lee of Huntsville, but no scholarships appeared and he had decided to walk-on at Alabama, where his parents had attended. Shortly after the high school all-star game in Tuscaloosa and only several weeks before the start of classes in 1969, Oliver signed him. "I may be digging ditches today if Bill hadn't decided to take a chance on me," Beck says.
As Beck replaced Webb, sophomore Johnny Simmons followed McClinton at safety in 1970. Willingham closed out his career with All-America honors and a total of 11 interceptions before playing for the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals. When Willingham departed, sophomore David Langner stepped in for the 1971 season alongside Beck and Simmons.
"The thing I remember about all those guys is how intelligent they were," Oliver says. "You told them something one time. They did a great job of listening. They took a lot of pride in taking it to the field on Saturday. Back then we had to rely a lot on their ability and look at the little things to help them have the winning edge. Had they played in the schemes that we use in this day and time, they would really have been a machine."
McClinton says, "I give all the credit for everything I did to Brother Oliver. He had a tremendous offensive mind, which was one reason our secondary was so good. He taught us to think like a quarterback and to anticipate. He is truly a defensive coach with an offensive mind." McClinton recalls that Oliver emphasized covering a lot of ground after the pass was thrown. "We began to realize we could cover 35 to 40 yards while the ball was in the air. We thought we could intercept every pass that was thrown. He taught us that if the ball was in the air, it was our football."
Beck recalls that Oliver wanted his backs to understand not only their duties, but also what the rest of the defense was doing. "You went into a meeting with Bill and he'd make you learn what the linebackers were doing. We had to understand the whole defensive scheme. I'm not sure many people coached that way back then. Coach Oliver was very high strung, very disciplined. You did it his way, the right way, or you sat on the bench."
Webb recalls that Oliver's ability to communicate was enhanced by his age. Oliver didn't turn 30 until 1969. "It was the relationship that he built with you," Webb says. "You were playing for Auburn, but you really wanted his approval. You wanted that pat on the back from him. He was young and he spent a lot of time with us. He worked us hard, but it was fun going to practice. He gave us so much confidence because he knew our abilities and knew how much to ask from us." Beck agrees, saying, "He was a player's coach. You could get close to him." Willingham remembers, "He could still physically do a lot of the things he was asking us to do. You might be sitting there doubting the heck out of it, but if the coach can show you, 'yes, it can be done,' it leaves a heck of an impression on you."
Oliver says, "I can assure you of one thing, I can't do today what I did then. And I can assure you of another thing. I'm not going to try. But I used to run routes against them and demonstrate. I had just got through playing."
One advantage Oliver's secondary had was practicing against a strong receiver corps. "Going against Terry Beasley, you were going against the best in the United States," Oliver says. "If he was playing right now, he'd be just as good as the best guys out there today. That's the kind of player he was back then."
Oliver's secondary ran unusual coverages for that era, with a two-man deep zone and a man-to-man or zone coverage underneath with the linebackers and the other cornerback. Florida could never figure out Auburn's zone underneath in 1969 and Reaves threw an SEC record nine interceptions as Auburn knocked off the highly ranked Gators, 38-12. McClinton and Willingham picked off two apiece and the linebackers snatched the other five.
"Today you see guys let the receiver catch the ball and then knock the fool out of him," Willingham says. "But that's not the name of the game. The name of the game is to prevent the catch from being made or to catch it yourself. That's what we did. We helped each other on the field. We played together. We took coaching to the field."
Thanks to an aggressive defense and a potent offense, Auburn rebounded and became a Top 10 team again in 1969 and 1970. Auburn had another banner year in 1971 with Sullivan winning the Heisman, but by that time Oliver was coaching Bear Bryant's secondary. Following the 1970 season, Bryant called Jordan and asked for permission to talk to Oliver. Jordan acquiesced, but asked Oliver not to accept an offer until he came back and talked with Jordan. Oliver went to Tuscaloosa and Bryant offered him the job. Oliver didn't commit and returned to Auburn where Jordan said he could match Alabama's offer. However, Oliver said it wasn't a matter of money or even of returning to his alma mater. "I felt at that stage of my career I wanted to learn some other things, and at a young age I needed to learn some other things. It wasn't necessarily a matter of going back to Alabama, it could have been somewhere else."
Oliver and his wife Sue had grown to love Auburn. They had two children while he coached on the plains. "It was hard for me to tell my wife we were leaving," he says. "The five years we had at Auburn were five of the most enjoyable years of my career." Oliver had grown close to Jordan and is still grateful that Jordan gave him a chance to coach at the college level. "I just always remember what a great, great person he was," Oliver says. "A lot of head coaches have so much going on and there's so much stress and strain and so many demands, but Coach Jordan never lost sight of being genuine to his people. My family would come over to the practice field and Coach Jordan would take the kids and ride them around in his golf cart before practice and play with them a little bit. It shows what a sincere person he was. He loved people."
Beck had just completed his sophomore season when Oliver jumped to the Tide. "It was sad," he says. "One reason was because he had signed me and he meant a lot to me. It hurt because we knew we had lost a good coach, and it really hurt because of who we lost him to."
Oliver coached the Tide secondary from 1971-79, then became head coach at Chattanooga from 1980-83. He was defensive coordinator in 1984-85 for the Memphis Showboats of the defunct USFL, then coached Clemson's secondary before returning to Alabama as secondary coach in 1990 before adding the title of defensive coordinator in 1993. Now, 30 years after coming to Auburn for the first time, he is back. What can fans expect out of the defense, and, the secondary in particular?
Beck refers back to the 1970 game, won by Auburn 33-28. In the final period, Tide receiver George Ranager beat Beck and scored on a 54-yard pass play to put Alabama ahead 28-27. "I was in perfect position, but Ranager is 6-4 and he went up and took the ball away from me," Beck says. "Our offense got the ball and scored to go ahead, then Alabama got it and threw and I intercepted the next one. Coach Oliver never said a word to me about Ranager's catch because I got beat physically. But you make a mental mistake, and you're on the bench."
McClinton predicts, "You'll see a dramatic difference in the defense. He will have those kids playing with spirit."
Willingham says, "They had some people last year that as soon as I saw them line up I would have pulled them out. They weren't lining up in the right position. They were putting themselves in a position to get beat. Coach Oliver won't put up with that. He'll pull them out of the game. That will be the way it is at Auburn this year. I don't know if the guys down there know that yet or not."
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