Jim “Red” Phillips, the Alexander City native who co-captained Auburn University’s 1957 national championship football team and earned All-Pro honors three times as a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, died Wednesday at Bethany House in Auburn. He was 79.
Phillips was a member of the first freshman class to attend Benjamin Russell High School, playing football, baseball, basketball and running track for the Wildcats. His football coach was the legendary BRHS coach Hamp Lyon.
“I don’t think I missed but two days during my four years playing sports at Benjamin Russell,” Phillips told Lake magazine in 2007. “I slipped off once to Newnan, Georgia, to serve as the batboy for Alexander City’s Class C baseball team, the Millers. Coach Lyon really got me. He made me run laps for two weeks.”
Phillips’ prowess on the gridiron earned him several college scholarship opportunities. He chose Auburn, where he felt the most comfortable.
“I would walk around in my t-shirt and jeans, which was what everyone else was wearing,” Phillips said in 2007. “I just felt more at home at Auburn.”
At Auburn, Phillips studied business administration and helped legendary Auburn University football head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan restore the Tigers’ program to national prominence. He earned first-team All-SEC (1955 and 1957) and unanimous All-American (1957) honors as a two-way end.
Phillips played his senior season in 1957 as a married man, having married Mickey Kennedy in March 1957.
The 1957 Auburn team finished a perfect 10-0, giving up only 28 points on the season – seven each to Chattanooga, Houston, Mississippi State and Florida State – and was declared national champion by Associated Press. UPI awarded its national title to Ohio State, which lost its opener to TCU before reeling off nine straight wins.
Vince Dooley, Hall-of-Fame former head coach of the University of Georgia, said he got to know Phillips after he came back to Auburn following his playing days.
“Jimmy was such a lovable person,” Dooley said. “I knew him from when he played at Auburn and over the years we ran into each other at sporting events. It was rare when you would ever see him without a big smile on his face.
“He was at Auburn when I came back from the Marine Corps. As a player, he may have been the first receiver that had that blinding kind of speed. He was a see-you-later-alligator guy if there ever was one. Before Jimmy, there weren’t many guys like that. I was saddened to hear of his passing. God bless him and his family.”
“Jimmy ‘Red’ Phillips was one of the all-time great football players at Auburn and instrumental in helping our program to a national championship in 1957,” said Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs. “He was not only a great football player, but a great man. We are saddened by Jimmy’s passing and will continue to keep him and his family in our thoughts and prayers.”
“Red was a first-class act, a dedicated athlete,” said Dadeville’s Lowell Ledbetter, a retired minister who served as an Auburn football manager while Phillips was on the team. “(Former Auburn assistant coach) Gene Lorendo said one time, ‘I’d play ‘Red’ Phillips anytime, anywhere. Whether it was the day after Christmas or the day before the Fourth of July, he’d be ready to go.’”
Upon graduation from Auburn, Phillips was selected fifth overall in the 1958 National Football League draft by the Los Angeles Rams. In his seven seasons in Los Angeles, the Rams won five or more games only twice. Still, Phillips was named to the Pro Bowl three times. In 1961, he caught 78 passes to lead the NFL and was named First-Team All Pro.
By the time he reached the Minnesota Vikings in 1965, his career had taken a downhill turn. He caught only 15 passes his first year as a Viking and only 68 in his three years in Minnesota. Again, the team wasn’t a very good one, winning only 14 games in Phillips’ three years there.
After the 1967 season, Phillips left the Vikings and accepted a coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons. He also coached with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and with Florida State before coming home to Alexander City.
Phillips was named Auburn’s SEC Football Legend for the SEC Championship Game in 2004.
Back at home, Phillips began a successful business as a State Farm insurance agent. After 13 years in business, he accepted a position with the Alabama Department of Insurance, a position he held for another 13 years before retiring to Willow Point.