Jerry Summers: Sewanee Football - SEC To Division III

  • Sunday, July 26, 2020
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Much has been written about the 1899 undefeated Sewanee football team that scored 322 points versus their opponents' 10 points. 

Their remarkable feat of winning five games in six days away from home earned the squad the title as the “greatest football team of all-time” in 2012 by the College Football Hall of Fame with the moniker Iron Men of Sewanee.  The opponents that were demolished were Texas (12-0), Texas A&M (10-0), Tulane (23-0), LSU (34-0), and Ole Miss (12-0).  Seven other victories were claimed against other foes with all of them being shut out completely except Auburn (11-10) that scored the only 10 points for the entire year.

Sewanee had first fielded a football team in 1891 and dominated collegiate football until the larger schools began subsidizing athletes.  In 1924 Sewanee joined the Southern Conference, the SEC’s predecessor, and only had one season where the squad won more games than it lost.  In 1932 Sewanee was a founding or charter member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) along with 10 schools which included Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt with Tulane and Georgia Tech later playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

Sewanee, a small school with around 200 students, quickly fell behind the other schools who were beginning to spend large sums of money on athletes, particularly football. On September 30, 1933, the Purple Tigers visited the University of Kentucky for the first football game in the newly formed SEC.  The score was 7-0 in favor of the Wildcats.  Except for a 10-6 loss to Florida in 1938 things never got better.

From its entry into the SEC from 1933-1940 Sewanee lost all 37 of its games on a non-home field basis as road games were more financially lucrative compared to the little school on the mountain.  During its membership in the SEC the school's aggregate score was opponents 1,163 points, Sewanee 84 points.  Sewanee probably would have never joined the SEC except for the pressure put on the school by the widely respected Bishop Frank Juhan, a College Football Hall of Famer who was a graduate of Sewanee and loved both the school and the sport of football, and other avid alumni.

Sewanee’s historical tradition and influential alumni and financial supporters prevented the school from accepting reality that there was no benefit in being in the SEC and the prospect of competing with the larger universities would continue to be a disaster.  Finally, in 1938 with the vice-chancellor Benjamin Ficklin Finney on his way out of the university, it turned to former Baylor School president and president of the University of Chattanooga Alexander Guerry to address the issue of Sewanee’s continued membership in the SEC.  Guerry conditioned his coming to Sewanee on the school getting rid of scholarship athletes.

In 1940 Sewanee withdrew from the SEC and would eventually become a member of what is now the NCAA’s Division III.  Loud protects came from alumni, fans and former players.  Perhaps the biggest outcry came after the loss of the traditional Sewanee-Vanderbilt game on Thanksgiving Day in Nashville.  The rivalry began in 1902 and through the 1920’s was the Southeast’s great ritual.  For 28 consecutive Turkey Days the Commodores and Tigers had met.  The largest crowd was a near capacity one in 1922, but by 1929 the crowds had dwindled to 7,000 fans and Vanderbilt finally pulled the plug on the game in 1931.

This action created a severe financial loss on Sewanee as this was its main revenue game. Thus ended the historical contest between the two schools which with a few exceptions have achieved mediocracy for both Vanderbilt in the SEC Division and Sewanee in Division III.  However, both have retained their reputations of being excellent institutions of academics in America.

Though mostly played against schools with players only having non-athletic scholarship programs there have still been seasons of outstanding records for Sewanee.  Under Coach Shirley Majors, the Tigers in 1958 and 1963 were undefeated in the Collegiate Athletic Conference (CAC) and in 2000 won a share of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) for a total of 13 conference titles since the school left the SEC in various conferences.

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Jerry Summers

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