Jim Pyburn didn’t have to think long and hard when, as a senior at Birmingham’s Ensley High School, he was offered a scholarship to play football for Auburn. His brother, Ralph, had been Auburn’s team captain in 1949. Besides, he didn’t have any other offers.
Jim Pyburn was indicted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2000
“When Ralph was playing, I went to probably two or three games each year,” Pyburn said years later. “I would go and stay with him. I was an Auburn fan. I think that’s the reason I got a chance to play at Auburn.”
Pyburn went on to become one of Auburn’s all-time greats and a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Saturday night in Jasper, he died after a long illness. He was 78.
The 1951 season, Shug Jordan’s first at Auburn, had just ended when Pyburn signed. Auburn had gone 5-5, heady stuff after an 0-10 record in 1950 under luckless head coach Earl Brown.
Jordan’s decision to take a chance on the end from Ensley that no one else wanted proved to be masterful. Pyburn was a remarkable athlete. He caught 25 passes for 379 yards and three touchdown in 1952 and 28 for 460 yards and two touchdowns in 1951, spectacular numbers for the day. He was an All-American as a junior in 1954. A baseball star in the spring, Pyburn left after his junior year when he signed with the Baltimore Orioles.
“I was just a gym rat from Central Park,” Pyburn said. “I played whatever sport was in season. We would meet at the park and play some kind of ball year-around. I just loved to play.”
Pyburn experienced the best and worst of times at Auburn. He was part of a disappointing season and part of the beginning of Jordan’s drive toward the 1957 national championship.
Expectations were high after Jordan’s first season, but his second team staggered to a 2-8 record. Even in those days, fands didn’t take that well. But Pyburn looked around him and saw talented athletes. He knew things were about to get better.
The 1953 Auburn team finished 7-3-1 and ranked No. 18 in the nation. It was a tie that convinced Pyburn and his teammates they could play with anyhone.
On Oct. 10, the Tigers went to Starkville to play 10th-ranked Mississippi State and star quarterback Jackie parker. Nobody gave them much of a chance. Nobody gave them any chance when Mississippi State led 21-0 at halftime.
“They had just gone up and down the field,” Pyburn said, “but we blocked a kick and got a touchdown and had another long kick return, I think. Near the end of the game, we ended up with the ball at our own 20-yard line.”
Quarterback Bobby Freeman led the Tigers on a desperation march. He looked for Pyburn on every crucial play.
“I probably caught four or five passes on that drive,” Pyburn said. “Bobby was great, one of the better athletes who ever played at Auburn. We scored on the last play of the game. They held me at the line of scrimmage and kept me from getting out. Bobby ran it into the end zone.”
It wasn’t over. There was no two-point conversion in those days, and because of substitution rules, kicker Joe Davis could not re-enter the game for thepotential game-tying extra point. Bill Burbank drop kicked the final extra point and Auburn had a 21-21 tie that felt like a win.
“We won that game,” Pyburn said. “I think that was probably the last drop kick at Auburn. We nearly had a fight when it was over. They rocked our bus and everything. It wasn’t a real good atmosphere.”
After the 1954 season, Pyburn signed with the Baltimore Orioles for $48,000, a king’s ransom at the time. He was a utility man, playing third base and outfield for three seasons. One of his prized possessons until he died was a picture of an outing to Coney Island with a rookie by the name of Brooks Robinson.
After playing his fourth season with Louisville of the Triple-A American Association, Pyburn decided it was time to move on. He became a high school coach. He was head coach and athletic director at Columbus (Ga.) High School when former Auburn teammate Vince Dooley was named head coach at Georgia.
Pyburn accepted Dooley’s offer to join him and spent the next 16 seasons as a Georgia assistant coach. He left after the 1979 season, just before the Bulldogs won the national championship. His oldest son, Jeff, was a Georgia quarterback who became a successful lawyer.
Deciding it was time to move on again, Pyburn went back to coaching in high school and later was defensive coordinator at Abilene Christian for two years. His younger son Matt would later play there before graduating from UAB and starting a successful business career.
In 1979, Pyburn and his wife, Ann, moved back to Alabama, living on Smith Lake near Jasper.
“I have no complaints,” Pyburn said. “I met a lot of great people and had a lot of great experiences. It was a great run.”
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