The surprising ease with which the College All-Star football squad defeated the professional World Champion Detroit Lions in Chicago (page 29) and the sudden death in Los Angeles of UCLA's famed coach (page 26) were widely separated events last week which combined to inject football into the summer's news with unusual impact. One of the All-Star players was 22-year-old Jim Phillips of Auburn, a typical product of big-time football and big-time football coaching. In the account which follows, Phillips relates his own experiences with the college game and with some of the men who have helped make it a multimillion-dollar business. He attacks no one, draws few conclusions, and the sensational exposé is not in his intentions. But Phillips' simple story should provide educators, sociologists and the men who control fooball in this country with ample food for thought.
The last time Jimmy (Big Red) Phillips cried was a night in December almost five years ago, long before he was an All-America end and a top rookie draft choice for the Los Angeles Rams. It was the night the men from Auburn—the name by which Alabama Polytechnic Institute is generally known in athletic circles—came to his father's house in Alexander City, Ala. to sign him to a four-year football contract.
Jimmy was only 17 then and still had six months to go before graduating from Benjamin Russell High School. He had done extremely well in football that year—he was elected to the All-State team—and his worries about whether he would or would not be able to afford college were apparently over. For the previous four months the colleges had been bidding against each other in an effort to show Jimmy they could afford him. Some of the offers made his head swim, and he wondered if they were quite legitimate. He was an honest boy, and though he wanted desperately to play college football, he also wanted to do the right thing. The more he listened to sales talks from the recruiters—one of them even offered to move his parents to Texas and buy them a new house there—the more confused he became. Until then football had been a game to him. The big-business aspect of collegiate football was new and strange. It made him feel uncertain.
The night the men from Auburn came Jimmy had already made up his mind to accept a scholarship from them, partly because Auburn was closest to his home, partly because Auburn had been the most persistent.
August 24, 1958
When he signed the contract that night, the Auburn representatives smiled and clapped him on the back. They assured him he would not regret his decision. When they left, the big 6-foot-2, 210-pound redhead stumbled into his bedroom and closed the door, and in a short while there was a muffled sound of sobbing. His mother and father heard him from the living room, but they made no move to comfort him. "Leave him alone for a while, Mother," said Jimmy's father softly. "He needs to blow off a little steam."
The boy cried for a long while until, exhausted, he drifted into a deep sleep. He awoke untroubled on the following morning, ready to play football for Auburn for $79 a month plus free laundry service. Today Jimmy can't recall why he cried.
Since that December night in 1953 Jimmy Phillips has been comparatively untroubled, and fortune has smiled upon him, just as the recruiters from Auburn said it would. He became a star and co-captain of Auburn's 1957 national championship squad and was picked as the best right end in the land last season by 21 All-America selectors—more than had voted for any other player. The Los Angeles Rams thought so highly of him that they made Jimmy their No. 1 draft choice and gave him a bonus to boot. He played in three postseason games at the end of last season and was one of the attractions last week on the College All-Star squad that beat the World Champion Detroit Lions 35—19 at Chicago's Soldier Field. Jimmy is still the same shy, easygoing, moral young man who came out of Benjamin Russell High School four years ago. He has not allowed his collegiate laurels to affect him; he still wears the same size helmet he wore at Benjamin Russell. Yet, since the end of his college football career last fall, a significant and welcome change has come over Phillips: he no longer worries about how much money he is taking to play a game he enjoys, but rather how much he can legitimately earn at it.
A PROWLING HALFBACK
Jimmy Phillips knew football at Auburn was going to be a lot different from what it was at Benjamin Russell High almost before he reported for his first freshman practice session.
"They roomed me with Bobby Hoppe, our halfback," he recalls. "He was kind of unsociable at first, but we seemed to get along even though he had a chip on his shoulder. I remember I was studying in our room one night. Hoppe was out somewhere prowling around. He was like that. You never knew where he was. I was reading and everything was quiet when all of a sudden there's this big explosion and the light goes out and glass flies all over the room. It took me a few seconds to realize someone fired a shot through the window and hit the lamp. I don't mind telling you I was scared. Suddenly the door to the room flew open and someone flipped on the overhead light. It was Hoppe. He stood leaning against the door frame with a gun in his hand, sort of smiling. I knew right then that I never played with anybody like that in high school."
Hoppe made Phillips' freshman year an exciting one.
"You never knew what that guy was going to do next. He was always prowling around at night, coming in late. One night he walks in the room with a big picture of a Russian soldier he got out of LIFE magazine. He pinned it on the wall and said to me: 'That there's a Russian Communist soldier, Red. I hate the dirty bastards, Red. Know what I'm going to do, Red?' I told him I guessed I didn't know and waited to see what he was up to. He just walked over to his bunk and sat on it, staring at the picture on the wall. I kept watching him, trying to figure out what he was going to do. He must have stared at that picture 10 minutes. Just sitting there and staring. Then all of a sudden he pulls his gun out and empties it at the picture. Then he laughs for a long time. He used that Russian for target practice all year long. Made the room kind of drafty that winter."
Jimmy is reluctant to discuss the offers he received from other schools in the Southeastern Conference, but he made it plain during a recent afternoon of bass fishing at Martin's Lake, Ala. that several SEC schools do not hesitate to offer an athlete far more than conference rules permit.
"I came to Auburn on a regular grant-in-aid scholarship, and I honestly never received anything over that limit," he said. He paused to cast near an old stump sticking out of the water about 10 yards from shore. He did not try to throw the bass bug out with a football pass motion; the action was all in his wrist, a slight flick that sent the long split-bamboo rod into action and whipped the tapered line toward the stump. The bug plopped lightly in the water a few feet from the rotting log. He let the lure sit for several seconds, then made it jump realistically with a flick of the rod tip. He waited, then repeated the action.
"You'd think if there were any bass in this lake they'd be sitting under that stump there, wouldn't you. Guess they're just not biting now." Jimmy fished quietly for about 10 more minutes. It didn't seem as if he were thinking of anything but the fish he was trying to hook somewhere down beneath the murky surface. But when he spoke again, it was of football.
"One of the schools that leads the SEC nearly every year and never gets put on probation practically told me to write my own ticket when they were recruiting me.
"I remember this particular school had me come to visit their campus and see a football game one weekend in the fall of 1953," he continued. "I had already made up my mind I was going to Auburn, but I thought I'd make the trip anyhow to see the game. It was a good game, and afterward some alumni took me out to dinner. They were nice fellows, and they spent most of the dinner telling me about all the bowls I would get to play in if I signed on with them. They also mentioned the advantages of a technical education. After dinner I thanked them and told them I had already decided to go to Auburn. Then one of them asked me what I was getting to sign on with Auburn. I told him a regular scholarship. Then he said to me very frankly, 'If it's money you're worried about, I don't care what they're giving you over there. We'll pay you more.' That was the first big cash offer I got to play college football, and it made me feel guilty. But it prepared me for a conversation I had later with a man who was recruiting for Texas A&M."
By now it was evening. The sun had put a brilliant patina on Martin's Lake all day, but now it was setting behind a pine-covered hill on the western shore. The water was still, its surface broken occasionally by the splash of a hungry bass.
"It's nice to get out here away from football," said Jimmy. "I'd like to own a cabin up here some day. If I do all right with the Rams, maybe I'll buy one."
AN ALL-STAR OFFER
At 22, Jimmy Phillips is a mixture of man and boy that is becoming. Earlier that afternoon he had been as exhilarated as a 16-year-old when he tooled a high-powered Chris Craft speedboat, throttle open, through the countless coves and inlets dotting the Martin's Lake shoreline. He sat high atop the back rest of the driver's seat enjoying the rush of wind hitting his face, sometimes steering the craft with his feet, ignoring the danger of hitting a submerged log at 45 knots. This was the Jimmy Phillips that made impossible catches on the field, the All-America who was so often gone for a touchdown when he got his hands on the ball. The fisherman was the thoughtful, moral Jimmy Phillips who tried to fit accepted practices of big-time college football into his code and found he couldn't quite do it without feeling guilty.
"The time that fellow from Texas A&M talked to me I really got upset," he said quietly, his voice blending with the droning put-put of the outboard on the fishing boat.
"I was in Tuscaloosa for the Alabama North-South All-Star Game. It's a high school all-star game they have there every year. I was on the South team. I remember we had just finished practice one afternoon a few days before the game, and I was heading for the dressing room when this fellow from A&M asked me if I could talk to him for a few minutes. Scouts from different schools were all over the place, and it wasn't unusual for one of them to approach you.
"I told this fellow I had already made up my mind to go to Auburn. Paul Bryant, who was coaching at A&M then, had written me several letters trying to get me interested in A&M and had even invited me down there. But I never accepted. I had always wanted to play for one of the Southeastern Conference schools.
"Well, this fellow told me that maybe I'd be more interested in playing for A&M after I heard what he had to offer me. I told him to go ahead, I was listening. He said if I would sign with the Aggies, they'd pay me $150 a month while I was in school, guarantee me a $1,500 summer job all through school, move my parents from Alex City to a new house down in College Station and get both of them jobs down there.
"I didn't know exactly what to say to him, so I just thanked him and hurried off to get dressed. One of the Auburn assistant coaches was in the dressing room—there were college coaches all over the place—and I told him what the A&M recruiter had offered me. He got real mad and started cussin'. He said for me not to worry about it, that he'd take care of the fellow from A&M. I don't know what he did, but I never heard from A&M again."
Jimmy's experience with football recruiters has given him some strong ideas about how scholarships should be offered to promising athletes.
"All personal contact between a prospect and the school athletic officials should be discontinued," said Jimmy. "These off-the-cuff, behind-the-scenes offers put a tremendous amount of pressure on a fellow still in high school. You're just not equipped to cope with anything like that when you're 17 or 18. A simple letter would be enough. If a school can't make you its offer on paper, in black and white, then there's something wrong with the offer. A boy can decide pretty well where he wants to go to college, what kind of education he is after. High-pressure salesmen, I found from my own personal experience, only serve to confuse a youngster almost to the point where he loses sight of the basic reason he had for wanting to go to college—to get an education."
A BACK-DOOR CONCEPT
"I don't say big-time football is bad in itself. In fact, if I had it to do all over again, without question I'd go to Auburn and retrace my steps. But the recruiting part of it has gotten out of hand. It should be limited and controlled more closely by the NCAA or some other national body. The way things are set up now, an athlete has hardly any chance to make All-America without first agreeing to some back-door deal. Somehow, this doesn't seem to me to fit in with the concept of All-America. I mean, an All-America football player originally was a national ideal, wasn't he? Subterfuge, somehow, doesn't fit in with that ideal, yet the big football colleges have made it part of the scheme of things."
When Jimmy married Mickey Kennedy, Auburn's head drum majorette, in his junior year, he moved out of his dormitory to a small four-room house situated between Auburn and Opelika, about five miles from the campus. Mickey gave up college and took a job at the university, and with her modest income and Jimmy's $79 a month (plus laundry money) the newlyweds lived comfortably, if not extravagantly.
"If you do as well in football as they think you will when they sign you," he explains, "you don't have much to worry about.
"I felt kind of sorry for a couple of guys I played with in high school who came up here on scholarships. They didn't turn out to be as good as the coaches expected, and they just sort of dropped out of school after a while. Not that their scholarships were taken away from them or anything like that. The coaches just rode them pretty hard. When a guy is doing the best he can and someone is telling him it isn't good enough, it gets to him after a while. I felt sorry for those guys. They were my friends in high school. But they weren't good enough for college. At least this college. They took the riding as long as they could, I guess, and then they just dropped out. Technically, a football scholarship should entitle you to four years of college whether you make the team or not. But like I said, there are ways to get a guy to quit.
"One of the big differences I noticed between high school and college was in the coaching. In high school I was pretty close to my coach, Hamp Lyons. He taught me a lot of football, and he was my friend off the field, too. When I was having all that trouble with the recruiters, I could go to him and ask his advice and know that it would be sound, honest and for my own good. He'll probably be a friend of mine all my life. At Auburn, I don't think I talked to Coach [Ralph] Jordan more than three times in the four years I was there. It was like he was the director of a big company and I was just one of the boys in the office. If I had a football problem, I talked to the end coach. If I had a problem that wasn't football, well, that was my problem. Football is such a big business in the SEC—and I'm sure it's the same in the Big Ten, the Southwest Conference and the old PCC—there just isn't time or room for Knute Rocknes any more. The coach is there to win ball games. You're there to help him keep his job."
SOME THINGS TO EXPECT
"You know, it's funny. I started playing football because it was a game I thought was fun. I still like to play it, but I think I look upon it more as a job now. When we were on probation last year and were ineligible for a bowl, I don't think one guy on the team was disappointed. A bowl would just have meant another month of hard work, and we were all pretty sick of football by then. You begin to wish it was all over when you hit the eighth game in a 10-game schedule. When it is over, you've had enough. A bowl is sort of like working for free."
Four years of football at Auburn have not changed Jimmy Phillips very much either in appearance or personality. He has a horizontal scar under his right eye, caused by an elbow in a game two years ago. He gave up four front teeth, and Auburn saw that he got four to replace them. He figures you have to expect these things if you play football.
"Auburn didn't change what I am," he said, "it helped prevent what I might have been. Without a scholarship I'd probably have gone to work in one of the mills in Alexander City, just like my dad. Not that that would have been bad. But now that I have the opportunity, I'd much rather play pro football. I'd be lying if I said I didn't like being in the limelight. I have six scrap-books full of newspaper clippings, and I get a kick out of reading them all. My home town dedicated a day for me last January—Jimmy Phillips Day. They gave me a new car and a bank account and paraded me through town. I enjoyed it, and I'll always count it among the biggest thrills of my life. They did that for me because I played football for Auburn. There wouldn't have been any Jimmy Phillips Day if I had been a good mill worker for four years. The first money I made as a pro I got from the Hula Bowl, and I felt good about it. I played against an all-star pro team in Honolulu—guys like Elroy Hirsch and Bob St. Clair—and when the game was over I felt like I earned the $500 they paid me. It was in cash, so maybe it wasn't legal. I never bothered to ask. I got $400 for playing in the Senior Bowl in Mobile a week later. We lost, and I never felt so bad about losing a ball game in my life. The winners got $500."
While playing for Auburn, Jimmy never received any payment in excess of the Southeastern Conference rules governing scholarships, but he was never fully able to shake the feeling that he was not quite as amateur as the rules intended.
"Every year, two or three 'students'—fellows without a football scholarship—would turn out for spring practice, but they didn't stand a chance. No one would ever tell them they couldn't turn out, but none of the coaches would ever even look at them. I have a feeling that if I had been paying my own way through Auburn, I wouldn't have stood a chance of making the team either. It made me feel kind of different, sort of like I was somebody's property.
"I felt good when I signed with the Rams. I signed to play football for money, and I didn't have to make any excuses to myself or anybody about it. I didn't have to worry about whether I was somebody's property because I was, and everybody knew it and accepted it. All I have to worry about now is being good enough at football to earn what the Rams pay me."