On Friday the New York Times ran a story: “Long Before Alabama, The South Had Sewanee.” According to the article: “The Sewanee Tigers provided a blueprint for Southern college football domination.” They really did and as we get ready to watch Alabama and Clemson play for the national championship we might reflect on the greatest college team that ever was.
That honor has to belong to the 1899 University of the South team. The University of the South is affectionately known as Sewanee, after the Tennessee mountain-top town where it is located. It is a small Episcopal college about 50 miles from Chattanooga.
Now noted for its top-notch academic reputation, it was once a football powerhouse, with three former players in the College Football Hall of Fame and four Southern Conference (out of which the SEC evolved) championships. It was a charter member of the SEC in 1933.
They were called the “Iron Men” of Sewanee. Their 1899 football team left a legacy that will never be equaled. That year little Sewanee went 12-0, scored 322 points and only allowed 10 points. The late Joe Paterno once said that the Sewanee team’s accomplishment “has to be one of the most staggering achievements in the history of the sport.”
And what small schools did Sewanee beat? Only little schools like Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn and North Carolina.
It was not that string of victories, however, that resulted in the team being known as the legendary “Iron Men of Sewanee.” On November 20, 1899, the Birmingham Age-Herald reported:
“Sewanee’s victorious football team returned Wednesday from their Texas trip having traveled 2,258 miles and scored a total of 91 points to their opponents 0. The trip with its results is unequaled in the annals of American football (and still is)… Five games in six days and Sewanee’s 25-yard line only crossed once.”
The Iron Men were almost superhuman on that road trip in November of 1899. It was that trip that created the legend. The 21 Sewanee players, Coach Billy Suter, manager Luke Lea and trainer Cal Burrows traveled by rail in a chartered Pullman car on a long and unparalleled football adventure.
The team’s first destination was Austin, Texas where they arrived on the evening of Nov. 8. On Nov. 9, 2,000 people paid a dollar each to see Sewanee defeat Texas 12-0. The Texas press attributed the Texas loss to the fact that Sewanee’s players outweighed the Texas players by an average of four pounds.
The players again boarded the train and traveled to Houston where, the next day, they defeated Texas A&M, 10-0. It was reported that “attendance was very good, a number of ladies being out.” Some “experienced football men” in Houston said A& M compared favorably with Sewanee’s “eleven.”
Another train ride after that game carried them to New Orleans where, on Nov. 11, they defeated Tulane, 23-0. The following day was Sunday and so Sewanee, an Episcopal Church school, took the day off and rested. Monday, Nov. 13, saw the team in Baton Rouge where they defeated LSU, 34-0.
Then the next day in Memphis they played Ole Miss, “the long haired knights of the oval from Oxford.” Unlike Sewanee, whose players wore leather helmets, the Ole Miss players did not wear helmets but grew their hair long and bushy for protection, thus their nickname. Once again Sewanee won, defeating Ole Miss 12-0.
In six days, Sewanee had played and won five games, all on the road against the cream of Southern football. When they arrived back at home, the Sewanee team was treated with a grand celebration including “a monster parade and jollification.”
Bonfires lit the route of the parade and until late night the school’s cannon, which had been presented to Sewanee after its capture in the Philippines during the war with Spain, was repeatedly fired. Shortly after the team’s return, B. Lawton Wiggins, vice-chancellor of Sewanee, was offered the position of president of the University of Texas but declined the offer, preferring to stay at Sewanee.
After returning home, Sewanee rested for six days and then beat Cumberland 71-0. The following week was their only close game and the only points scored against them. They defeated an Auburn team coached by John Heisman (he has a trophy named after him), 11-10, in Montgomery. Heisman, in an angry letter published in Alabama newspapers, blamed the officials for Auburn’s loss.
The season ended with a 5-0 victory over North Carolina in what was called the Southern football championship.
It was a season like no other team would ever have. Sewanee went on to become a charter member of the SEC but the small strongly academic mountain-top school could no longer keep pace with the rising much larger football power houses and soon withdrew.
Who were these men of iron? They were five law students, four medical students, four theology students, and eight undergraduates. In 1931 former team captain Diddy Seibels was asked how they accomplished what they did. He replied, “To what was Sewanee’s brilliant success due? I attribute it to one thing alone and it is the greatest thing any team can have: Teamwork … There were no jealousies, only the indomitable will to win, that unconquerable never-say-die Sewanee spirit.”
Today Sewanee’s football cheer of long ago still sounds across the mountain top on game days: “Rip em up, tear em up, leave em in a lurch, down with the heathen, up with the church. Yea Sewanee’s Right!”
I first heard the story of the Iron Men from my brother who had a poster in his office that read: “In 6 days Sewanee beat Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss. On the 7th day they rested.” He along with a number of family and friends all found and showed me that Sewanee really is a special place.
For the full story of the legendary 1899 season I would suggest Wendall Givens’ book, “Ninety-Nine Iron.”
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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