AUBURN FOOTBALL LORE IS THE loveliest in the Deep South, so it
seems a shame to start an anecdotal history by shattering the
school's favorite myth. Alas, it's best to get this over with at the
beginning: Auburn's first football war cry was not ''Waaar Eagle!''
It was ''Shoot the billy goat!''
But take heart, Auburn People. (Anyone who calls you ''Auburn
fans'' is ignorant, for Auburn is much more than a school and its
football legacy; Auburn is a way of living, a society that knows
itself as Auburn People.) Take heart, because there is deep and
abiding truth in much else in Auburn lore, foremost in the stories of
young John Heisman at the budding of his football ingenuity, when he
developed the notion of the forward pass and thus enriched the game
And there is no more profound reminder of the dawn of football in
the Deep South than the very word Auburn. In the 1890s a team in the
region would be referred to not as Tennessee but as Knoxville, not as
Alabama but as Tuscaloosa, not as Georgia but as Athens. Of all the
schools in what would one day be known as the Southeastern
Conference, only the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which was located
in Auburn, would keep faith with this tradition. In 1960 the school
would even change its name to Auburn University.
So common was it to call a school by the name of its town that in
1892 the Atlanta Journal, announcing the upcoming game between Athens
and Auburn in Atlanta's Piedmont Park, stumbled when it took a stab
at the visiting school's official name. The paper mistakenly
identified Auburn as ''Alabama Polyclinic.'' Such a gaffe might have
led Auburn People to disdain the annals in Atlanta. But the fact is,
after the Journal erred in nomenclature, it got serious and strung
telegraph wire from its downtown offices all the way out to the field
of battle at Piedmont Park to allow reporters to deliver a lightning
account of this, the first interstate football game ever played in
the Deep South.
As for the billy-goat business, it was Georgia's fault, of course.
Athens hadn't yet come up with its bulldog mascot, so a Georgia
student led a goat named Sir William to the sidelines. Thus did
''Shoot the billy goat!'' ring out from the Auburn side.
Nowhere in contemporary accounts of the game, won by Auburn 10-0,
is there any support for the beloved War Eagle legend, which
nonetheless sprang from that day in Piedmont Park. There is no
mention of any kind of eagle, let alone of an old ''war eagle''
breaking loose from its master, a Confederate veteran, and soaring
over the field on the occasion of Auburn's first touchdown. Nor is
there any reference to an impromptu cry of ''War Eagle!'' from the
Auburn side. It was all a flight of fancy.
What did soar -- over another Atlanta field three years later --
was a football. The most important eyewitness to that accidental
flight was Auburn's young coach at the time, John Heisman, who was a
spectator at a game between Georgia and North Carolina.
''What is this?'' Heisman had asked his players as he displayed a
football during the first practice he conducted at Auburn, earlier
that fall. ''A prolate spheroid -- that is, an elongated sphere -- in
which the outer leathern casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat
smaller rubber tubing.'' Heisman had paused, then added: ''Better to
have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.''
Turning a football loose remained anathema to Heisman until that
day in Atlanta when he saw one loosed as a desperate means to a
It happened this way:
North Carolina lined up to punt, but Georgia put on a big rush.
Surrounded and unable to kick the ball, the North Carolina punter
panicked and just threw it. The leathern eagle landed in the arms of
another Tar Heel, who, amid the confusion, proceeded 70 yards to
Georgia's end zone. The Georgia coach, young Glenn Warner (''Pop'' to
posterity), howled in protest of this deviation from the rule book.
But the officials, rattled and confused, let the touchdown count.
On the train back to Auburn, Heisman hatched the notion that would
not only revolutionize football but also ensure its survival. He
began lobbying the rules committee for legalization of the forward
pass. He would continue for 11 years: Not until 1906 -- when, in
response to an ultimatum from President Theodore Roosevelt, the
NCAA was formed to find ways to reduce football's often fatal
violence -- was the forward pass adopted. The NCAA accepted Heisman's
argument that passing would open up the game and spread out the
contact on the field, which in turn would cut down on the injuries
caused by primal smashmouth football.
How violent was the game before the forward pass? Football
fatalities of the 1890s had inspired a song in the South set to the
tune of the well-known ballad Just Before the Battle. One verse, as
published in the New Orleans Daily Picayune, went:
Farewell, mother; you may never
Press me to your heart again;
For I'm in the rush-line, mother,
And more than likely to be slain.
Heisman changed all that. But by the time the pass was legalized,
he had left Auburn for Clemson, from which he was later wooed away by
Georgia Tech. (The city slickers in Atlanta came up with the shameful
ploy of giving a football coach a decent salary!)
The fact that the Engineers ended up with Heisman was not the main
reason that Auburn's earliest despised rival was Georgia Tech, not
Alabama. The rift with Tech actually began at that first
Auburn-Georgia game in 1892, when Tech students had turned up as
spectators and cheered for Georgia. When Tech and Auburn first played
each other later that same year, Auburn students detonated the
rivalry. Four years later they would grease it.
Second only to ''Waaar Eagle!'' in Auburn lore -- and more likely
to be based on fact -- is the Wreck Tech Pajama Parade. Legend has it
that in 1896, on the night before Tech's train was to arrive in
Auburn for a game, some Auburn students got out of bed and, in their
pajamas, sneaked down to the railroad station. They applied
wagon-axle grease to the tracks so that when the big-city boys
arrived the next morning, their train skidded halfway to the next
town, Loachapoka, and the Tech players had to walk five miles back to
Auburn. For more than 90 years, until the Georgia Tech-Auburn series
ended after the 1987 game, the annual Wreck Tech Pajama Parade was
the Auburn campus's most notorious male fashion show.
With Heisman gone, Auburn did what Auburn would always do so well:
It rose from adversity. In 1904, four years after Heisman's
departure, the school hired a man whose dialect Auburn People could
hardly decipher. Mike Donahue, born in Ireland and delivered to
Auburn from Yankeeland -- more specifically, Yale -- still spoke in
both accents of his past. He would remain at Auburn through the 1922
season, putting together a 99-35-5 record and establishing Auburn as,
in the words of a later fight song, ''owner of Dixie Land.''
It was during Donahue's tenure that the mutual hatred between
Auburn and Alabama bloomed. Officials of the two schools bickered
over numerous issues, including how many players each team could have
and which side of the Mason- Dixon line the referees should come
from, but historic rumor also has it that at the Auburn-Alabama game
in 1907, fans began to fight on the sidelines. The supposed
altercation has been described as everything from a brawl to a riot,
complete with flying chairs. Regardless, the two schools would not
play each other again for 40 years, and when the series resumed in
1948, it became arguably the bitterest rivalry in college football.
Money may not have been the reason Auburn lost Heisman, but it did
cause the departure of the school's second outstanding coach. In 1923
Donahue agreed to coach LSU for $10,000 a year, nearly double the
$5,200 salary he was making at Auburn.
For the next three decades Tiger football would be erratic at
best. A book on Auburn football history called this period the Dry
Years. Then came a man from Selma who spoke softly and carried
several big sticks -- of sugarcane. Chewing cane is a heavenly
endeavor peculiar to tropical islanders and Deep Southerners, and no
lover of sugarcane juice was ever more famous for it than James Ralph
Jordan, known to all as Shug, as in sugar.
He had first come to Auburn as a student, in the fall of 1929.
That was a full year after he graduated from high school, for he had
had to work to earn tuition money. (''I never had a scholarship at
Auburn,'' he later recalled, ''although I played three sports'' --
football, baseball and basketball.) Following his graduation from
Auburn, he was turned down for a high school teaching job in north
Alabama because he was Catholic. So he turned to coaching: baseball,
basketball, football, whatever work he could find.
Jordan, in fact, was the basketball coach at Georgia from 1947 to
1950. The following year, while he was working as a Georgia football
assistant, he was urged by Auburn athletic director Jeff Beard to
apply for the football job at his alma mater. A quarter century
later, at a roast before Jordan's retirement, Beard would quip: ''I
want to put to rest a story going around for 25 years that I
brought Shug Jordan back to Auburn. If you think I would go to the
University of Georgia and hire a lefthanded basketball coach to come
coach football at Auburn, you're nuts.''
But, it wasn't that simple. Jordan had been turned down for the
Auburn job in 1948. In 1951 the Tigers were coming off an 0-10 season
and the football program was $100,000 in debt -- a whopping sum in
those days. Many alumni opposed the hiring of Jordan because, oddly
enough, he was an alumnus. They felt only Notre Dame men made good
Jordan was hired, however, and he made his new position even more
precarious by losing to Alabama his first three years. From 1954
through '57, though, Jordan so bedeviled the Crimson Tide -- winning
8-0, 26-0, 34-7 and 40-0 -- that the leaders of the red-clad legions
felt compelled to do something. So they hired an alumnus of their own
away from Texas A&M: Bear Bryant.
That Jordan was a hell of a football coach and a gentleman who
labored in the shadow of the blustery, scowling Bryant is known by
most football-savvy Americans. That this was good for Auburn is a
paradox that can be understood only by Auburn People. For under
Jordan grew the Auburn Mind-set, the calm enjoyment of, well, you
could call it an underdog's role, but that's not accurate. Call it
being happy with what one has; call it dignified humility, an
appreciation of a success milder than the one they bellowed about in
Jordan spoke subtly of the differences between Auburn and Alabama.
''At least,'' he once said, ''I don't climb up on a four-story tower
and holler through a bullhorn like a plantation owner working
Jordan's career at Auburn never would be easy, though he made it
look that way. The '57 season, for example, was his best -- and, in a
way, his saddest. In 1955, Harry and Bobby Beaube, twin brothers who
had starred at Gadsen (Ala.) High, were given $500 apiece by Auburn
assistant coach Hal Herring to sign. The boys told their father, a
minister, and then gave the money back and reported the violation to
the SEC. Commissioner Bernie Moore placed Auburn on indefinite
probation. In 1956 the NCAA placed Auburn on three years' probation
-- the stiffest penalty the NCAA had ever issued.
In '57 the Tigers rose from all that to go undefeated and untied
and win Auburn's only national championship. The team, led by
quarterback Lloyd Nix, running backs Bobby Hoppe and Billy Atkins and
center Jackie Burkett, was % barred from bowl games, but it was
eligible for inclusion in the Associated Press poll, which in those
days issued its final rankings before the bowls. The poll ranked
Auburn No. 1.
After the '57 season Auburn People embraced the once-snubbed
Jordan with a lifetime contract. In '58 only a 7-7 tie with Georgia
Tech kept the Tigers from another perfect season. That year, in
which Auburn ended up No. 4 in the AP poll, Jordan beat Bryant in
Bryant's first season at Alabama, but he would lose to the Bear in
all of their following meetings except those of '63, '69, '70 and,
most gloriously, '72. (That game engendered bumper stickers that
read: 17-16 -- PUNT, BAMA, PUNT!, celebrating the two punts that
Auburn blocked and ran in for scores.)
In 1968 Jordan underwent cancer surgery -- which, though
successful, gave rival recruiters an opening to discourage high
school players from going to Auburn. Oh, well: One more cross for
Jordan, and Auburn, to bear, and they bore it nobly.
From 1969 through '71 at Auburn you couldn't tell that Sullivan to
Beasley were three words, not one. Pat Sullivan-to-Terry Beasley
became the most productive passing combination the Tigers had ever
known. During his college career Sullivan threw for 6,284 yards,
2,508 of them to Beasley. Of all of Jordan's stars -- Jimmy Sidle,
Tucker Frederickson, Larry Willingham, et al. -- Sullivan did the
coach proudest. When Sullivan won the Heisman Trophy in 1971, he, in
turn, presented it to the university, and to this day it is displayed
in the lobby of the athletic department.
In 1972 Jordan proved himself to be as flexible and adaptable a
coach as a school could hope for. With the departure of Beasley and
Sullivan after the '71 season, Jordan switched from an aerial show to
a ground attack. The result was The Amazin's. Auburn's young team,
supposedly in a rebuilding year, went 10-1 in 1972, and its wins
included the eternally sweet ''Punt, Bama, Punt!'' victory.
Jordan decided to make the 1975 season his last. It was a
difficult finale, 4-6-1, but it completed a distinguished 23-year
career in which he was 176-83-6 and took the Tigers to 13 bowl games.
Jordan's successor, Doug Barfield, had a rocky five years, going
29-25-1 before he left and the Pat Dye era (page 22) began.
Barfield, however, had gone in with his eyes open. He knew he
would bear the burden of replacing a legend -- and more: He was
supplanting Shug, the slow- talking sugarcane lover, the gentleman,
the most loyal alumnus that Auburn People have ever known.