Long ago in the times before AP polls, power conferences, and Arizona statehood there existed an primordial era of college football. This was an era dominated by Ivy League schools, multi-sport lettermen in sweaters and leather helmets, and “conferences” with 18+ teams and rules written on the backs of bar napkins. Few remember but when the SEC was formed in 1932 one of their charter members was Sewanee: The University of the South. Sewanee currently plays at the D-III level as a member of the South Athletic Association and even from the get go they struggled as an SEC member, failing to win a single conference game during their SEC tenure until departing in 1941 after deciding to de-emphasize athletics in favor of academia.
However there once was a time when Sewanee was a powerhouse. From 1898 to 1910 the Tigers were 85-15-7. They boasted back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1898 and 1899, one loss seasons in 1900, 1903, 1904, and from 1906 to 1909, and conference championships in 1898, 1899, 1903, and 1909. The 1899 team went 12–0, outscoring opponents 322 to 10, and won the SIAA (essentially the precursor the SEC) title.
The 1899 Sewanee Tigers football team led by head coach Billy Suter and team captain Henry Seibels.
That team consisted of 22 players, most of whom played on both sides of the ball. This tiny school defeated future powerhouses Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Auburn. However their most notable achievement came in November. The team manager, after a disagreement with Vanderbilt over ticket sales, resulting in the cancellation of that game, sought a way to make up for the lost revenue. He put together a daunting schedule of five marquee opponents in six days. Of the 22 players on the team, 13 made the incredible trip. On November 9th the Tigers took on Texas in Austin, traveled to Houston to play Texas A&M on the 10th, traveled overnight across Louisiana to play Tulane in New Orleans on the 11th, took on LSU in Baton Rouge on the 13th after a days rest, and finished on the 14th after crossing Mississippi to play Ole Miss in Oxford. The team traveled the 2,500 miles trip by train and even left their shoes on a platform in Memphis, requiring an emergency shipment to be made in order for the team to have shoes for the game in Austin. The day after playing the Longhorns “Wild Bill” Claiborne boasted to the Aggies in Houston about a blackeye he received the day before in Austin and how he looked forward to getting another one that day against them.
Program from Sewanee’s November 9th game against Texas in Austin.
A famous quote states “and on the seventh day they rested.” Joe Paterno called the road trip “the most staggering achievement in the history of the sport.” Famed sports writer Grantland Rice recalled them as “the most durable football team I ever saw” in 1941.
The Tigers, by this point nicknamed “The Iron Men”, were not done. They took down Cumberland, Auburn, and North Carolina to end the season undefeated. The only team to score on them was Auburn when the two teams clashed in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the last game coached by legendary Auburn head coach John Heisman while at Auburn and the Tigers from Sewanee defeated the Tigers from Auburn 11-10. Their 11 conference wins in the SIAA remain to this day to most single season conference wins by any team.
Despite these accolades, Sewanee does not claim a national championship for 1899. This is partly because “national championships” were a completely subjective award based on various polls and metrics, especially in the era before World War I. Various mathematical polls and subjective selectors have retroactively awarded the 1899 national championship to Harvard’s 10-0-1 squad or Princeton’s 12-1 team. It should be noted that outside of Rutgers in 1869 and Lafayette in 1896 the Ivies dominate retroactive polls until pollsters awarded Michigan claimed titles in 1901. The Ivies continued to be powers for years with the last claimed national championship for the Ivy League being Princeton’s claim to the 1950 national championship after a 9-0 season and a #6 finish in the AP Poll. Regardless at the turn of the century the powers of college football began shifting to large Midwestern state schools. The first southern school to claim a national championship would be Georgia Tech in 1917 when, led by none other than John Heisman, they went 9-0 and are recognized as consensus national champions (LSU was awarded the 1908 national title by a recognized poll but the school does not recognize it). While the history and politics of retroactive national championships is for another column, no one can argue with Sewanee’s record or their accomplishments in 1899. In fact, in 2012 the College Football Hall of Fame held a vote of the greatest historic teams of all time, where the 1899 Iron Men beat the 1961 Alabama Crimson Tide and took home the title of greatest team.
In 2014 the Tigers went 2-8 at the D-III level. They defeated Washington and Lee University and Berry College in close games and were thrashed by eventual Southern Athletic Association champion Centre College 31-3. D-III does not award scholarships and Sewanee is more known for its academics and beautiful Tennessee campus than its on the field success. Don’t let the sleepy campus fool you though, a century ago it was home to the juggernaut of Southern, and for a time American, football.