WAR EAGLE: THE HISTORY OF THE AUBURN TIGERS
By Simon Carroll
The first in a series of articles looking back at the creation, tradition, rivalries and success of some of the heavyweight programs in college football history. Here we focus on The University of Auburn.
Sweet Home Alabama
Forget Christianity, forget Jesus, forget church; in the south-east of America football is religion, and on Saturdays the only place you go to pray is the stadium of your team of choice. And nowhere does this hold true more than Alabama. A state with no professional football, your choice comes down to two SEC powerhouses – you don the crimson red of Alabama or the navy blue of Auburn, and you wear them until you leave this mortal coil.
Princes & Paupers
Considered the little brother of ‘Bama football, the Tigers have a significant inferiority complex when it comes to state relevance despite their program being just as old as Alabama’s is. The two teams have been battling each other since 1893 in the “Iron Bowl”. The game got it’s moniker because for a stretch of the rivalry things were so heated between the two teams that they had to play at a neutral site. They chose Birmingham, a city forged on steel – hence the name. The first ever Iron Bowl was actually won by Auburn 32-22. But Alabama hold the edge in the series 46-36-1 and for long stretches have been the dominant force in the state. They also have seventeen national titles compared to The Tiger’s five.
This disparity in success further divides the state between the haves and the have-nots, the big boys and the noisy neighbours, when in actual fact both schools have top football programs. Perception is reality though, and there are very few college rivalries that can compare to Alabama and Auburn.
A Collegiate Powerhouse
And herein lies the problem: Auburn is constantly in the shadow of Alabama. It struggles to be seen, despite having a history they can be proud of. They had their own version of Bear Bryant in Shug Jordan, who between 1954-58 went 42-8-2. During this stretch beat Alabama every season, winning the National Championship in 1957. They’ve competed in the SEC – the best conference in football – since it’s inauguration in 1933, winning eight times. And just ask any ‘Bama fan about the end of the 2013 Iron Bowl; The Tigers returned a game-winning field goal attempt 109 yards to steal the victory for themselves. Auburn are more than just a pest to Alabama. They’re bonafide competition for division supremacy.
They’ve had some amazing talent come through their program, with three Heisman Trophy winners too; Quarterback Pat Sullivan broke school and NCAA records in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Bo Jackson was the original dual-sport star, excelling on both the diamond and the gridirion. He’s regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time. And Cam Newton became the best player in college football during his one season at Jordan-Hare stadium. Speaking of which, the home of Tiger football holds over 87,000 fans. It is sold out every game and considered one of the best stadiums in all of college football.
Traditions are the name of the game in the SEC, and Auburn has it’s fair share. The ‘Tiger Walk’ has been a part of Auburn game day since the 60’s, where the coaches and players walk into the stadium along Donahue Drive. Thousands of fans line the streets to wish them well – one of the first of many teams to employ such a pre-game stroll.
They have been known as The Tigers since their inception, but they’re associated more with an eagle that circles the stadium before every game as fans shout “War Eagle!” Legend has it that this battle cry goes back all the way to a game against Georgia in 1892, where a war veteran was in the stands. He’d brought with him an eagle that he had found on a battlefield thirty years before and kept as a pet. The eagle broke free during the game and started flying above the field as the contest continued.
As the game neared it’s end and the eagle still soared, Auburn began to rally. With the fans chanting “War Eagle!” they won the game on the final drive in thrilling fashion. The story ends in rather sombre fashion with the eagle crashing into the turf and dying after the final whistle.
A Tradition Born
Since then there have been six more War Eagles. The first replacement was bought from a farmer who’s livestock had been attacked by it. This particular Eagle’s first game saw them beat South Carolina 25-7 in the programs first win in more than FOUR SEASONS. One good luck eagle might be coincidence, but two was fate, and the tradition was born. Auburn’s current eagle is called Nova. It’s seventeen years old and been circling Jordan-Hare Stadium since 2006. It is currently suspended from flying due to ill-health but they have a stand-in called Spirit to keep the tradition alive.
In 1955 a song called War Eagle was composed and became the official fight song of the Auburn Tigers. It is played immediately before and after each game, and after each touchdown:
War Eagle, fly down the field
Ever to conquer, never to yield.
War Eagle, fearless and true
Fight on, you orange and blue (Go! Go! Go!)
On to vic’try, strike up the band,
Give ’em hell, give ’em hell.
Stand up and yell (Hey!)
War Eagle, win for Auburn,
Power of Dixie Land!
Yeah, I never said it was a classic…
Never has a chemist been as famous as the one on the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue in Auburn, Alabama. Toomer’s drugstore is named after it’s first owner and former State Senator Sheldon Toomer. He also happened to play running back on Auburn’s first ever team. John Heisman, a former Tigers Head Coach, used to visit frequently for it’s famous iced lemonade, but the location of this pharmacy has become iconic in college football for a different reason…
After every home win the student section will descend onto Toomer’s Corner. Once there they drape the big trees that sit opposite the store and any other standing object in the vicinity in toilet paper. This is known colloquially as “rolling” – streams of white tissue hanging from branches, cars, lamp posts and parking meters. It originated when the staff of Toomer’s used to throw ticker tape on to power lines after Auburn wins. It has been a routine part of successful Autumn Saturday’s ever since.
Football is a funny old game, and rivalries can get out of hand. There have been many incidents of students sprinting to Toomer’s corner after an Auburn defeat to defend the trees from opposition fans trying to roll the corner themselves. In 2010 Harvey Updyke, a disgruntled Alabama fan who had just seen his beloved Crimson Tide defeated in the Iron Bowl the previous week, went and sprayed the trees with a herbicide and poisoned them under the cover of darkness. The trees and soil had to be removed and replaced. Updyke received jailtime and a fine after confessing to the vandalism on a radio show two months later. If you want to know the exact price for overexuberant loyalty read this article here. In 2016 the trees were set alight and once again had to be replaced following a victory against LSU.
Having won a national championship on the back of an electric Cam Newton-led 2010 season, Auburn have had mixed fortunes the last decade. Head Coach Gus Malzahn, architect of that championship win as Offensive Co-ordinator, has been Head Coach for six seasons. Already revered by Tigers fans, Malzahn has locked in his legacy by dramatically beating Alabama twice in Iron Bowls that gave them the Western Division at their bitter rival’s expense. The most epic came in 2013, where the Tigers went on to play Florida State in the national championship game. But a Jameis Winston inspired performance saw the Seminoles overturn an eleven point deficit at halftime to win 34-31.
In and around this Auburn have flattered to deceive. Their offense is one of the most unique in college-football; a hybrid of an up-tempo, no huddle offense and the triple-option where there are at least three different ways of running the ball on any given play. Being in the same division as Alabama during this era has undoubtedly contributed to their struggles in both performance and recuiting, and Malzahn will have a job on his hands keeping The Tigers competitive with a freshman Quarterback under center.
Having said that, they have the number one rated defensive line in the nation to lean on and bring plenty of veteran talent back on both sides of the ball this Autumn. They finished last year with an absolute shellacking of Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl which the fans will hope is a good omen. If they can piece it all together they might just give Big Brother a run for their money, and they’ll be stocking up on toilet roll in Auburn once more.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.