Oxford is one of those interstate towns.
But before it turned into the bustling, sprawling city it is today, Robert Herring was one of those people that stopped through.
With the tradition and community support already established, the town longed for a state football championship to put it on the map. What Herring brought to the city was three blue maps.
“It was the perfect marriage,” said Dr. Jeff Goodwin, Superintendent of Oxford City Schools and an assistant coach for Herring in the late 80s and early 90s. “Coach Herring brought a lot to our city, but it was and is a city that supports our kids and gets behind our kids.
“ … it was mutually beneficial.”
Herring, who tallied just more than 300 wins, will be one of six inducted into the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday alongside John Adcock, David Luttrell, Jack Stewart, Vaughn Stewart and Ernest Washington. His complete body of work spans from Mississippi to Georgia, where he’s put down roots, now a few years into his retirement.
“But we always tell everybody we’re from Alabama,” Herring said.
Herring was a four-sport star in Louisville, Miss., and his exploits took him to Mississippi College where played three sports. While his time in sports shortly came to a close, things didn’t stay that way long. He graduated from Mississippi State and took his first head coaching job a few years later at Jones Valley in Jefferson County.
“I knew I wanted to be a coach as a young boy,” said Herring, who said the dream was born when he saw his first state championship near his hometown. “I saw what it did for the town, and how those boys were treated. I knew then.”
It wasn’t long before Herring returned to his hometown and made his name forever associated with championships.
After a short stop at the University of North Alabama as an assistant, in 1975 he earned the first of his titles with Winston Academy. He added another in 1983 before picking up again.
After a short stint at Oneonta where he went 9-2, the marriage between Herring and Oxford was consummated. In all of his 14 seasons, Herring’s Oxford teams made the playoffs and notched state titles in 1988, 1989 and 1993, all in the 5A classification. His first and last titles were undefeated 14-0 seasons.
His peers say Herring achieved through methodology and professionalism and with an impeccable attention to detail and an uncanny football mind.
“He could be on the other side of the ball and when the play was over he could tell you what the linebacker or whoever must have done,” said Goodwin. “And we’d go back and watch film, and sure enough, he’d be right.”
While he could be tough on his coaches and his players, longtime Oxford coach Larry Davidson called Herring, “a coach’s coach.”
“In meetings and stuff, he’d always ask for our input,” said Davidson, now the school’s athletic administrator. “We’d talk about it, and we might disagree, but when you left you did it Coach’s way.
“And that’s the way it should be.”
Herring eventually left Oxford. The 1998 season was his last as he headed farther east to become the head coach at Newnan (Ga.) High School. Herring never found the same caliber of championship success there but reached the AAAAA state semifinals twice. In the 2008 season, where his team allowed 4.4 points per game on average, he was named the state coach of the year for his classification.
That season was his last.
Herring’s career record stands at 301-118-3. He was elected into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2001. While Xs and Os certainly played a big part in his success, Goodwin says it was something that had nothing to do with football that made him the most successful. And its something Goodwin said he still employs in education today.
“You could be up 42 (points) and they’d complete a 5-yard pass, and you thought the world had come to an end,” he said. “He always said you have to work harder when you’re ahead and you’re on top, because that’s when you have a tendency to get complacent.
“I’ve found it’s that way in any successful endeavor, you always have to find a way to challenge yourself.”
Bran Strickland is the assistant managing editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3590 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.