the Sewanee tigers : The greatest college football team

By George Somerville

Photo Credit: University Archives and Special Collections, The University of the South

The University of the South

In 2012 the College Football Hall of Fame voted the 1899 Iron Men of Sawanee as the greatest team of all time. However, many outside of the South or the deepest football circles will never have heard of the University of Sewanee, or the University of the South as it is called. And if they have heard of the school, I’m certain it won’t be associated with college football.

Currently the University of Sewanee, situated in the heart of Tennessee, south west of Nashville and north west of Birmingham, plays its football in division III as members of the Southern Athletic Association. But more of that later…

The Iron Men of Sewanee

First, let’s roll the clock back to 1891 when Sewanee had its first collegiate football season. By 1899 it had become the pre-eminent football team in the South. For it was in 1899 that the Tigers recorded what is considered the greatest ever season in the college game.

The Sewanee Tigers recorded a 12-0 season in that year, which in itself has been equalled in recent times. Incredibly however, eleven of those wins were complete shut-outs with the Tigers out scoring their opponents 322-10. If that wasn’t impressive enough, five of those games were played on the road, back to back on a 2,500 mile road trip over six days. Yes. Six days. The road games were designed to advertise the University across the South but also essential as their opponents did not want to play them in Sawanee with home field advantage. Their opponents in this historic series of road games? Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU and Ole Miss. The results of the road trip were as follows.

Nov. 9, 1899: Sewanee 12, Texas 0
Nov. 10, 1899: Sewanee 10, Texas A&M 0
Nov. 11, 1899: Sewanee 23, Tulane 0
Nov. 13, 1899: Sewanee 34, LSU 0
Nov. 14, 1899: Sewanee 12, Ole Miss 0

And those 10 points scored against them during the entire season? Scored by one team, the Auburn Tigers. The Tigers were coached by John Heisman. Yes that Heisman (although he never wanted to be named after the trophy, but that’s another story) who was in the process of turning Auburn into a dominant force also. That was also Auburn’s only loss that season, with the score ending Sewanee 11, Auburn 10. Heisman is said to have been fuming at the end of the season that such a small school had humiliated his Auburn Tigers. So it comes as no surprise that during this period the Sawanee Tigers were considered both a pioneer and a powerhouse of the college game in the South.

The 1899 Sewanee Tigers Football Team (Photo Credit: University Archives and Special Collections, The University of the South)

Captain America

The team was led by Captain and running back, Henry Seibels – also known as Diddy Seibels or believe it or not Puff Daddy to his friends. Seibels was the leader in every sense of the word. Injured in the first game of the 1899 season against Vanderbilt, Seibels had plaster applied to a gash on his forehead. For plaster, read actual stick to the wall plaster. The history books tell us that it was at least quick setting plaster. But It should be of no surprise that injuries weren’t uncommon back then with players playing through some horrific conditions.

Fullback Ormond Simkins wore heavy knee braces with his legs eventually amputated below the knee because of football injuries. Lineman “Wild Bill” Claiborne played with an eye patch, ostensibly to protect an injury. He would look across at his opponent, gesture to the patch, and declare: “This is what happened in the last game. Let’s see what happens today.”

 Diddy Seibels was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1973.

The Lost School of the SEC

The 1899 Sewanee Tigers Football Team (Photo Credit: University Archives and Special Collections, The University of the South)

In 1932, Sewanee was a founding or charter member of the SEC along with twelve other Universities. Of the original members, all remain in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision bar Sewanee. The other twelve remain in major conferences, ten of which are in the SEC. That’s right. Alabama, Auburn, Florida. Georgia, Kentucky. LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt in the SEC, with Tulane and Georgia Tech playing in the AAC and the ACC respectively.

So given the other 11 schools continue to play FBS football, why does Sewanee now play its football in Division III?

Sewanee’s joining the SEC came arguably too late for the Tigers. A small, private school – as it remains today – fell quickly behind the other, larger public schools who were by now investing significant sums into athletics, particularly football. Given its historical dominance in the Southern Conference, Sewanee grew under increasing pressure to follow suit. However, it was unable to keep up with its now larger and stronger neighbours. In its debut season in the SEC, the Sewanee Tigers were winless and in the preceding seasons (1933 to 1940), they were unable to win a single game. The school was quite simply unwilling and unable to invest large sums into athletics.

When Vice-Chancellor, Benjamin Finley (who had been instrumental in setting up the team) left the school his replacement, Alexander Guerry had one single condition for coming to Sewanee:

“I’ll only come, if we get rid of scholarship athletics.”

And so Sewanee moved away from scholarship athletics, a policy it continues with today.


The Exit from the SEC

In 1940 Sewanee exited the SEC to be followed by Georgia Tech (1964) and Tulane (1966). 

But the manner of the University’s departure in many ways continued it’s pioneering of the game as this move away from scholarship athletics was an early move towards the NCAA’s nonscholarship Division III.

Today, the Sewanee Tigers still play football on the same field as their fore-fathers, McGee Field. The field, which is the oldest field still in use in the South and the fourth oldest in the US, dates back to the first game in Sewanee’s history against Vanderbilt on November 7, 1891. The game was won by the Commodores 22-0.

Sewanee’s 2019 record? 0-10. Points per game 13.6/ Points allowed per game 39.6. 

The town of Sewanee remains small and to this day still only has one set of traffic lights. Yet there seems no sense of “what if” they had continued to play football in the SEC. In life, Sewanee is slow. But in footballing terms, life in Sewanee is in fact 120 years away from the Alabama’s and Auburns of this world. 

And they seem to like it just that way.

As they say in that part of the world “Yea, Sewanee’s right!”‘


Feature Image Credit: University Archives and Special  Collections, The University of the South

Sewanee Tigers Logo
Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer