From its beginning in 1891, Auburn University's football program has been one of the South's most successful, throughout its membership in the original Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the Southern Conference, and currently with the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The history of Auburn football is one of resilience and persistence through the best and worst of times. From its inception, the program has found a way to overcome adversity and maintain its winning tradition.
Auburn's first football team was organized in 1891 by Dr. George Petrie, a history and Latin professor who played football himself at Johns Hopkins University. The Tigers played their first game against the University of Georgia at Piedmont Park in Atlanta on February 20, 1892, and recorded their first victory by beating the Bulldogs, 10-0. In an era when coaching was a part-time job, Auburn had five different coaches in its first eight seasons. The first full-time coach was John Heisman, who went 12-4-2 from 1895-99 before achieving national success at Georgia Tech; the Heisman Trophy is named for him. Auburn's most successful coach in the early years was Mike Donahue, whose teams won 99 games and finished undefeated three times in two stints from 1904-06 and 1908-22.
Auburn experienced only moderate success under its next three coaches, until Chet Wynne's 1932 team finished 9-0-1 and won the Southern Conference. Two years later, he was replaced by Jack Meagher, whose teams compiled a 48-37-10 record from 1934 until 1942. However, Meagher's main contribution was in directing the construction of what is now Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1939; he also coached stars such as Jimmy and Billy Hitchcock and Walter Gilbert and led Auburn to its first two bowls. One of those games was the 1937 Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba, the last time two American teams would play on foreign soil for the rest of the century. The next two coaches, Carl Voyles (1944-47) and Earl Brown (1948-50), allowed the program to fall into disarray, and the university turned to one of its own for help. Ralph "Shug" Jordan was a native of Selma, a three-sport letterman at Auburn, and a decorated hero in World War II who coached under Wynne but had been passed over earlier for the head coaching job for Brown. Jordan was initially wary of expressing his interest in the job after the 1950 season. Fortunately for Auburn and Jordan, the university had just hired an Auburn graduate, Jeff Beard, to run the athletic department. Beard, who had been a friend of Jordan's in college, was able to convince him to come back to his alma mater.
From 1951 until 1975, Jordan earned a reputation as a forthright and honorable person and a successful coach; he finished his career with a record of 176-83-6. He coached all-time Auburn greats such as lineman Zeke Smith and versatile running back Tucker Frederickson, as well as Auburn's first Heisman Trophy winner, Pat Sullivan. He remains Auburn's all-time winningest coach. Jordan's best season came in 1957, when the Tigers allowed only 28 points for the entire season and earned a 10-0 record and the Associated Press national championship. Because of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) probation resulting from rules violations, the Tigers were unable to play in a bowl in 1957. Despite probation, Auburn went 24 games without a loss between November 10, 1956, and the 1959 season opener. Zeke Smith, Auburn's most outstanding player during this period, won the Outland Trophy in 1958.
Between 1969 and 1971, Jordan's teams won 26 games. The combination of quarterback Pat Sullivan and wide receiver Terry Beasley would rewrite the Tigers' record books on their way to the College Football Hall of Fame. Sullivan would become Auburn's first Heisman Trophy winner in 1971. Jordan's best coaching job may have come in 1972, when the Tigers, in a rebuilding year, achieved a 10-1 record and a fifth-place finish in the national polls. Along the way, the team became known as "The Amazins'" and pulled off one of the most miraculous victories in Auburn history when the team blocked and returned two punts for touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 17-16 victory over the University of Alabama. During the same period, halfback James Owens became Auburn's first African-American scholarship football player. He played for the Tigers' varsity from 1970-72.
When Jordan retired in 1975, Auburn turned to longtime assistant coach Doug Barfield to take the helm. Barfield failed to duplicate Jordan's successes, however, posting a 29-25-1 record from 1976-80. More significantly for Auburn fans, he was unable to beat cross-state rival Alabama in five tries. Facing a critical juncture in January 1981, Auburn hired Pat Dye, a former Georgia player and University of Alabama football assistant coach under Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. Asked by a member of the search committee how long it would take to beat Alabama, Dye answered "60 minutes." In 1982, Auburn beat Alabama for the first time since 1972, and Dye went on to transform the program into one of the SEC's best by winning 99 games and four SEC championships from 1981-1992. Under Dye, running back Vincent "Bo" Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, and defensive tackle Tracy Rocker won the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy in 1988.
Dye also served as athletic director and oversaw the expansion of Jordan-Hare Stadium to a seating capacity of 85,214, adding 71 luxury boxes and making other important facility improvements. Those improvements led to one of the most important events in the history of Auburn football, when Auburn and Alabama played at Jordan-Hare for the first time on Dec. 2, 1989, and beat the Crimson Tide 30-20 in a game that Dye called "the last brick in our house." The annual matchup, dubbed the Iron Bowl, previously always had been played in Birmingham's Legion Field, a site not considered neutral by Auburn officials and fans.
Dye resigned as coach in 1992 after two sub-par seasons and in the midst of an NCAA investigation into charges that a player accepted payments from boosters and coaches with Dye's knowledge. He had resigned as athletic director in 1991. The 1993 hiring of Samford coach Terry Bowden was a surprise choice, but Bowden's first team, bolstered by seniors toughened by the lack of success in the two previous seasons, finished 11-0. However, as in the 1957 season, the Tigers were unable to play for the SEC championship or in a bowl because of NCAA probation. Bowden became the first coach to start a Division I-A career with 20 consecutive wins, but he eventually fell out of favor with Auburn power brokers and resigned six games into the 1998 season with a 1-5 record. Assistant coach Bill Oliver, a former Alabama player under Bryant, served as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season, posting a 2-3 record.
Tommy Tuberville was named to replace Bowden in November 1998. Tuberville put the program back on the right path by winning nine games and at least a share of the SEC West Division title in two of his first four years on the job. Auburn opened the 2003 season expecting to contend for the national championship but lost its first two games and three of four games late in the season. The week before the Alabama game, Auburn officials met with then-Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino, a former Auburn offensive coordinator, to discuss his replacing Tuberville. When Auburn defeated Alabama 28-23 and the media uncovered the secret meeting, angry fans supported Tuberville, who was retained and solidified his position as head coach.
The Tigers opened the 2004 season ranked 17th and slowly climbed their way through the polls with each passing win. Led by quarterback Jason Campbell, running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, and cornerback Carlos Rogers, the Tigers won the SEC championship, defeated Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and finished 13-0. Unfortunately for Auburn, Southern California and Oklahoma also remained undefeated and played for the national championship, with USC winning and the Tigers finishing second in the final polls. Auburn set an SEC record when Campbell, Williams, Brown, and Rogers all were selected in the first round of subsequent the NFL draft. In 2004, Tuberville was named the national coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association and the Associated Press.
Entering the 2008 season, Tuberville's teams had won 82.4 percent of their games over the four previous seasons, fifth best in the nation, and won six consecutive games against Alabama. Additionally, he led Auburn to bowl games in eight consecutive seasons. In that span the Tigers have tied school records by earning at least nine victories and a top-15 final ranking in each of the past four seasons. Tuberville also owns the third-longest tenure and second-longest active streak among SEC coaches behind Phillip Fulmer of Tennessee and Steve Spurrier of South Carolina. But the team faltered during the season, going 5-7, dropping four in a row, and losing badly to Alabama, 36-0, ending the six-year winning streak. Tuberville resigned at the end of the season, although there was speculation that he was pushed out when it was reported that he had received a generous severance package from the university. Gene Chizik, a former defensive coordinator at the university, was hired as head coach after serving in the same position at Iowa State University.
In his second season at Auburn, Chizik led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a national title, with quarterback Cam Newton and running back Michael Dyer leading the offense and defensive lineman Nick Fairley and middle linebacker Josh Bynes leading the defense. On December 4, 2010, the Auburn Tigers won the SEC Championship, defeating the University of South Carolina Gamecocks 56-17 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. On January 10, 2011, Auburn defeated the University of Oregon to win its first national championship in 53 years. A matchup of two of college football's top offenses, the game played out as a defensive battle with the Tigers winning 22-19 on a last-second field goal by senior kicker Wes Byrum. After a disappointing 3-9 record and no SEC victories in 2012 Coach Chizik was fired, the first time an NCAA football coach has been fired two seasons after winning the national title.
Eleven players and coaches with Auburn ties belong to the College Football Hall Of Fame. John Heisman, Mike Donahue, and Shug Jordan were inducted as coaches, as was former Auburn quarterback and assistant coach Vince Dooley, the head football coach at Georgia from 1964-88. Jimmy Hitchcock, Walter Gilbert, Pat Sullivan, Tucker Frederickson, Vincent "Bo" Jackson, Terry Beasley, and Tracy Rocker were inducted as players. Since 1932, 60 Auburn players have earned All-American honors. Since 1936, 11 Tigers have earned SEC Most Valuable Player awards. Auburn also has earned a reputation for a long line of accomplished running backs, including Frederickson, Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel James, Jackson, Brent Fullwood, James Joseph, Stacy Danley, James Bostic, Stephen Davis, Rudi Johnson, Williams, Brown, and Kenny Irons.
Auburn fans have done their part along the way. Since 1987, Auburn has finished in the national top 10 in attendance 18 times,
including fifth nationally in 2007. Auburn has been known unofficially and inaccurately as the War Eagles and Plainsmen, but
its true mascot is the Tiger, which comes from a passage in a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem that reads, "where crouching tigers wait their hapless
prey." The poem also mentions that "Sweet Auburn" is the "loveliest village of the plain." The origin of Auburn's battle cry,
"War Eagle," is the subject of various legends; whatever its true origins, "War Eagle" embodies the spirit of Auburn football.
Hemphill, Paul. A Tiger Walk Through History: The Complete Story of Auburn Football from 1892 to the Tuberville Era. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.
Housel, David. Auburn University Football Vault: The Story of the Auburn Tigers, 1892-2007. Atlanta, Ga.: Whitman Publishing, 2007.
Maisel, Ivan, and Kelly Whiteside. A War in Dixie: Alabama v. Auburn. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.
Published February 13, 2009
Last updated December 12, 2012