As with the other 121 honorees on downtown Auburn’s Tiger Trail, it seems fitting that Ben Tamburello’s name is engraved in granite—a strong, steady stone.
His coach, Pat Dye, sums up Tamburello’s sparkling career succinctly: “If he ever took a wrong step or made a wrong move, I didn’t know it in the way he lived his personal life and the way he played the game.”
Tamburello, who lettered at Auburn from 1983-86, was the model of consistency. A four-year starter and two-time All-America selection at center, the Birmingham native was a finalist for both the Outland and Lombardi trophies and was an All-SEC selection both on the field and in the classroom.
Following college he played four seasons in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles. He shared the starting center role with Yann Cowart on the 1983 SEC championship team and became a full-time starter at center from 1984-86, paving the way for Heisman winner Bo Jackson, All-American Brent Fullwood, and future NFL standout Lionel “Little Train” James.
How good was the Auburn offensive line in those years? In 1985 the Tigers led the SEC in rushing with 312.5 yards per game, seventh in league history.
More than 30 years removed from his Auburn days, Tamburello is a successful real estate executive in Birmingham. He is also reticent when it comes to talking about himself. He prefers instead to talk about his teammates, his coaches, his family, and his unusual path to Auburn.
As a senior at Shades Valley High, Tamburello was a player major college programs did not want. At the urging of his coach, Robert Higginbotham, he enrolled at Tennessee Military Academy, a post-graduate prep school in Sweetwater, Tenn., where the young center could grow physically, mature and compete against junior varsity teams from the SEC prior to enrolling in college.
By the end of the 1982 TMI season, Tamburello was on the recruiting wish list of many programs, a lineup he narrowed to Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee and LSU.
A lifelong Alabama fan, his official campus visit to Auburn was unorthodox, not the usual game day visit. On his trip to Tuscaloosa, he had seen quarterback Reggie Collier and Southern Mississippi upset the Crimson Tide—at homecoming, no less. He would take visits to watch games in Knoxville and Baton Rouge as well.
At Auburn, Tamburello watched the Tigers practice in preparation for the Iron Bowl. Auburn had not beaten its archrival since 1972. There were no bands, no packed stadiums, no cheering here, just work, what the late Auburn assistant coach, Bud Casey, often called “blood on the saddle.”
When Tamburello showed up on the AU campus he saw a football team on a single, clear-eyed mission: Beat Alabama. “I stood beside Coach Dye the whole time during practice,” Tamburello says. “He pointed out Donnie Humphrey. He pointed out Doug Smith, He pointed out Ben Thomas. He pointed out Jeff Jackson, Gregg Carr, David King…just on and on and how special they were, guys you hadn’t heard of, but how special they were. He talked about Bo, who at that time wasn’t the Bo we know now, but a sophomore running back who had a great freshman year and showed a lot of potential. Coach Dye would tell me about these people and talk about the offensive line.
“I remember listening to the radio and pulling for Auburn to win after I had spent that kind of time with some of the guys down there and Coach Dye, even though I had originally decided to go to Alabama,” Tamburello recalls. “I had changed my mind. That visit did it because of being with those players you hadn’t heard of yet, but you soon would. That’s what changed my mind.”
One play solidified his change of heart—Bo Jackson diving into the end zone for game-winning touchdown to end the Tigers’ losing streak to the Tide.
“There were a lot of things that fell into place for me because Auburn is a spectacular place,” Tamburello says. “It’s beautiful. It’s got a great feel when you step on campus. Just all of that fell in place.
“When Bo went over the top that almost solidified my choice. I was down in Baton Rouge and when I heard Auburn had beaten Alabama, I really was excited about it. I felt like AU was a family. I felt like I knew Coach Dye and some of these guys he had told me about. Their success being the underdog, it really made me feel like, ‘Hey, this is where things are about to start to go.’”
And go they did. That 1982 season—and the 23-22 win over Alabama—sparked what many, including Tamburello, consider the “golden era” of Auburn football. In a time when early enrollees were uncommon, Tamburello began his Auburn career on Jan. 5, 1983. He remembers having to “grow up fast,” an 18-year old moving into a Sewell Hall room on a suite filled with fourth- and fifth-year seniors David Jordan, Jay Jacobs, Randy Campbell, Bob Hix, Don Anderson and others.
There were strength coach Virgil Knight’s demanding winter workouts in the weight room. And on April 1, spring practice began. Tamburello had heard the stories of spring practices under Dye and his staff, the “blood on the saddle” days Casey talked about. As the only new freshman on the team that spring, Tamburello wanted to make an impression.
“It was high-intensity,” he recalls. “Just like a fire drill.”
His first test was one-on-one against the 6-6, 300-pound future pro defensive lineman Doug Smith.
“I can remember wanting to come off the ball good and just get some movement. I didn’t want to be pushed back. I came off as hard as I could, low like I was supposed to.
“No lie, I came off expecting to feel contact and I felt nothing. I take a couple of steps and I feel my facemask going into the ground, mud all over my face. Turn around and looked up and had gone right through his legs. I never touched him.”
Not an auspicious start for the freshman, but days like that would be rare in Tamburello’s time at Auburn, four years that would take him to the NFL and a spot in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
“He was a special kid,” Dye says. “He was just an exceptional individual, a perfect guy to play center—smart, physically tough. He was quiet, but he was a leader. You never had to worry about Ben Tamburello, whether it was off the field or in the game. He played the game the way it was supposed to be played.”
In his freshman season, Tamburello alternated series with Cowart at center. Whoever graded higher in the film room that week would start the following week, igniting healthy competition—and reliability. Auburn did not have a faulty center-quarterback exchange in 1983, even in a wishbone offense traditionally known for both high risk and high reward with the ball handling.
“I think we led the nation in fewest turnovers that year,” Dye says. “That’s where it all starts. He was just a natural. We really didn’t have to do much with Ben other than just give him an opportunity.”
However, as many associated with Tiger football in the Dye Era will say, the Auburn program was about more than good exchanges, solid defense and winning championships. It was about building young men of character, who would become good husbands, good fathers, good providers, and good citizens.
“Ben would have been the poster child in terms of doing things the way you wanted them done,” Dye says. “He was probably the top recruit in the state that Alabama and Auburn wanted. You didn’t know if he was going to come in and contribute as a freshman, but he’s one of those guys who couldn’t miss because of the character he had, the kind of work ethic he had and intangibles he brought to a game.
“When you are recruiting somebody, it’s not just about athletic ability,” the coach says. “His signing was another part in the growth and maturity of our football program, so was Brent Fullwood and Bo and Stacy Searels and so many outstanding young men we had come in.”
Former teammate Pat Arrington was one of those fifth-year seniors when Tamburello arrived at Auburn.
“Ben was one of those guys you just wanted to be a teammate with,” says Arrington, who is an Atlanta construction executive. “He was a phenomenal player—his energy, his willingness to learn. He had no ego whatsoever, very down-to-earth guy. He’s just that guy you want to be friends with. He’s the guy you want to be a teammate with. I mean, he’s the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry. He’s straight up.”
Another senior offensive lineman on that 1983 team, David Jordan, agrees. Jordan would go from Auburn to the NFL’s New York Giants and is now a successful businessman in Camden, Ala. “He gave maximum effort, all the time,” Jordan says. “In those days, that was the only way that you survived, with maximum effort…Once you go through winter workout and spring training, it’s an instant bond. Ben worked hard and was very smart and was a tremendous asset.”
Campbell, the starting quarterback on the 1983 team and a successful financial planner in Birmingham, says Tamburello, like fellow center Cowart, was part of a cadre of freshmen and sophomores—Jackson, Jeff Parks, Ron Middleton, Steve Wallace, Jeff Lott, Randy Stokes and others—who played major roles on the squad that many Auburn people of that time will go to their graves believing was the best team in America that season. That Tiger squad was undefeated in the SEC and beat other ranked opponents, including FSU, Maryland and Georgia Tech.
“Offensively, we were a young team,” Campbell says. “We had a lot more seniors on the defensive side.”
A starting freshman was a new phenomenon in the SEC, Campbell says of Tamburello. “For Ben to start as a freshman in the SEC was pretty rare,” he says. “I mean, Vince Dooley didn’t even start Herschel (Walker) as a freshman.
“The thing about Ben and Yann both, we never lost a fumbled snap in 12 games in 1983. You’re changing those guys out every other series and we’re under the center every snap in the wishbone, a triple option offense. There’s a lot of opportunity to mess that up and they never did. They were just super reliable.”
Tamburello prefers to talk about his teammates—how Campbell symbolized an overachieving 1983 team, how opposing defenders’ eyes would grow big as Moon Pies when Bo Jackson entered the huddle, how the late Tiger All-America Donnie Humphrey and fellow Auburn defenders Smith, Ben Thomas, Dowe Aughtman, Quency Williams, Gregg Carr, Jeff Jackson and David King made him a better player. He remembers the work ethic of Ed West and Lionel James.
He remembers being a captain for the 1986 Iron Bowl, the game that featured Lawyer Tillman’s “Reverse to Victory” touchdown run, and the slow walk to midfield for the pre-game toss of the coin. Tamburello was named SEC Lineman of the Year that season.
“I remember that feeling I had and thinking about who I was representing—the guys behind me, the coaches and also Auburn fans and students all over the world. That was a spectacular day. I called heads and won, and we beat those guys. That is a great, great memory.”
He gets emotional when he remembers his teammates Kurt Crain, Greg Pratt and Jeff Lott, like Humphrey, gone too soon. And his voice swells with pride when he speaks of his family: his wife Katy, his son Ben, III, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a letterman on Midshipmen teams that beat Army four times. Ben is now a Marine Corps officer.
Tamburello’s daughter, Anna, is finishing her freshman year at Auburn on a music scholarship. She wants to beat her brother’s college GPA. Tamburello’s youngest, 11-year-old Julia, is a middle schooler who hopes to best her siblings on the SAT and ACT scores.
He imparts the same lessons to his children that he learned at Auburn: attention to detail, “on time” means 10 minutes early, pay attention to how you dress and perfect attendance.
And he talks about the humbling honor of a place among Auburn’s greats on the Tiger Trail. And he remembers Dye, the coach who along with many others such as Auburn assistant Neil Callaway and high school coach Robert Higginbotham, who helped him in life, steering him to TMI.
Dye contacted his former center shortly after learning of Tamburello’s Tiger Trail honor to offer congratulations. “He called me, and he told me, “More than anything, I’m proud of the Daddy and the husband that you are,” Tamburello says. “That’s very touching. It says that the whole time he had us when we were 18-22 years old, it was his job for us to win football games, but more than that, he was preparing us for life.”
While Tamburello, who is now 53 years old, is humbled and honored by being included on the Tiger Trail, he also takes immense pride in something as simple as a small gesture from his head coach. “You didn’t have to be afraid if he was leading you out there because he wasn’t (afraid),” Tamburello points out. “You had nothing to feel inferior about because he was your leader. He set the tone. He changed the mentality of football players who went to Auburn. It was a golden era. Wherever he went, he made you proud.
“I remember when we would be in the tunnel, ready to run out. He would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘C’mon, Ben.’ There’s no feeling like that.”
And of his Tiger Trail honor? “I am absolutely thrilled. This is one of the greatest honors I’ve received. It’s part of the fabric of Auburn.”
Campbell has a favorite story about Tamburello. In a cold pre-dawn after a Saturday night out, Campbell and some of his fellow upperclassmen rousted the newcomer from a sound sleep and made him execute 25 perfect center-quarterback exchanges. The drowsy Tamburello did just that. Twenty-five flawless snaps.
“He did it, and we let him go back to bed.”
That’s Tamburello. Reliable and ready to get the job done no matter the circumstances. H&A
Editor’s Note: This article originally was published in the May 2018 issue of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and is provided courtesy of that publication.
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