Greatest college football team was not coached by Saban

Norman Jetmundsen wearing vintage football helmet
Norman Jetmundsen wearing vintage football helmet

Today’s guest columnist is Norman Jetmundsen.

In the country as a whole — and certainly in Alabama — college football is tantamount to a religion.

It’s what people read, write, watch, talk and argue about, not just during the season, but all year round.

It is natural, therefore, that much time and energy is spent in debating who were the greatest teams in the history of the game.

There are many teams and storied programs that can make a claim to this honor.  Each generation has its own unique challenges to play the game.  Yet, there is one team who had a season that will never be equaled, much less surpassed.  In fact, no one will ever even attempt to duplicate that one season – not even Nick Saban.

If you are guessing the usual suspects, such as Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC, Michigan, or Oklahoma, you’d be wrong.  So, who did have the most amazing season ever in college football?  To answer that question, we have to go back to the year 1899 and a small Episcopal school on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee – the University of the South, also known as Sewanee.

In 1899, football was still fairly new to the South.  It started in 1869 when Rutgers played Princeton, in an unruly contest that has been called a “brawl.”   Football caught on in the South by the 1890’s – only a few decades after the Civil War – because it gave young men a way to prove their manhood, not on the battlefield, but on the gridiron.

By 1899 there were rules that governed the game, but it was far different from today’s game.   Each team had 11 players who played both offense and defense, and remarkably, if you came out of the game, you couldn’t go back in.  So, players had to play when they were injured, and in fact, it was considered cowardly to come out of the game unless you got something broken.

There was no forward passing.  Quarterbacks had to hand off or lateral the ball, and they were not allowed to run with the ball.  There were no huddles, the game was very fast-paced, and teams had three downs to make five yards.  Teams often kicked on first or second down to try and pin their opponents deep in their own territory.  Touchdowns and field goals were both worth five points.

It was a brutal game with very little protective equipment.  Kicking, punching, and biting were commonplace.  Players could lead with their cleated feet.  Teams could even toss one of their teammates over the line of scrimmage for extra yards on offense or on defense to break up the flying wedge.

At the turn of the 19th Century, there were eighteen to twenty deaths a year, and the game was almost outlawed until President Teddy Roosevelt called a meeting at the White House in 1905, which led eventually to the legalization of the forward pass, more safety rules and equipment, and ultimately the formation of the NCAA.

Football was run by students at this time.  There were no athletic departments, and students handled the scheduling, finances, travel, and all other administrative duties, including hiring football coaches.  Schools didn’t contribute to the finances of their teams.

This Sewanee team had an extraordinary group of young men who played for the love of the game with no athletic scholarships.  The student manager, Luke Lea, was a visionary who later in life had many incredible exploits.  They had a new, young coach, Billy Suter, who molded the players into a team, led by the captain, a determined young man, named Henry G. “Ditty” Seibels.

What makes the Sewanee team of 1899 so special?  In 1899, Luke Lea crafted a schedule unheard of in the South.  Because so many schools were so far from each other, and travel was so expensive, most schools in the South only played 4 or 5 games a year.  (This was unlike the Northeast where schools were close together and could play a dozen or more games a year.)

Lea scheduled Sewanee to play a 12-game schedule in a 6-week time frame, and to travel all over the South.   Incredibly — and what sets Sewanee apart from any other college football team — is Lea scheduled Sewanee to travel 2,500 hundred miles by train and play 5 games in 6 days.

On this historic train trip, Sewanee traveled to Austin to play Texas on Thursday, November 9th.  On Friday November 10th, they played Texas A&M in Houston, and then they played Tulane in New Orleans on Saturday, November 11th.   They had Sunday off, and traveled to Baton Rouge to play LSU on Monday, November 13th.  The final game of the road trip was Tuesday, November 14th in Memphis, where they played Ole Miss.  On Wednesday, November 15th they returned to Sewanee to a wild celebration.

They were victorious in all 5 games, winning by a combined score of 91-0.  Yet, when they returned to Sewanee, they still had 3 games left, including the two toughest teams in the South, Auburn and North Carolina.

The Auburn game is noteworthy because it was played on Thanksgiving Day in Montgomery, and 4,000 people came.  Auburn was coached by John Heisman.  It was a rough crowd, with many fights, bets, and even guns pulled.   Auburn may have been the better team that day, and at halftime, the score was Sewanee 11 and Auburn 10.   Yet, due to the many fights and the unruly crowd, as well as Auburn having to cut off the handles they had sewn on their pants to give them an unfair advantage, the game was delayed often.  The result was that after 14 minutes in the second half, the referees called the game for darkness, and Sewanee was the victor. Heisman even wrote a letter to the Birmingham Age Herald claiming the refs cheated them out of a victory, and the referee responded with his own letter to the newspaper.

Sewanee’s final game against North Carolina was another close contest.  North Carolina had first down near the goal, and due to two Sewanee penalties, they had 5 attempts to score.  Sewanee held them in a momentous goal line stand.  There were 43 punts in the game, and Sewanee prevailed on a field goal, 5 – 0.  For the year, Sewanee had scored 322 points to their opponents’ 10.

There are many incredible stories and remarkable characters from this amazing season.  Just one story to pique your interest.   A lineman on the team was William “Wild Bill” Claiborne.  He had a bad eye that he covered with a patch when he played.  When he started a game, he’d line up across from his opponent, lift the patch, and say, “This happened in the last game – we’ll see what happens today.”  Then he’d put the patch back down and leave the other player to worry.

This amazing team, and the people who made it possible, make for an incredible story.  That is why my friend, David Crews, and I have embarked on a 5-year project to do a documentary film about this team and to preserve this mythic season for posterity.   We thought when we started that we’d find a lot of lore, but not a lot that was factual.  Instead, the truth is better than the lore and makes for a compelling and rich saga.

In addition to the research and rich history of the team, we have interviewed a number of descendants of the team, as well as famous football coaches, analysts, and historians to provide a comprehensive commentary on the team and its season.  We also have nationally-known musician, Bobby Horton, doing our music, and talented artist, Ernie Eldridge, who has done about a dozen original illustrations for our film.

You can read more about our film on our website:   www.sewanee1899.org   We hope the film will be available to the public in 2022.

Norman Jetmundsen is a graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South; University of Alabama Law School; Oxford University; and a retired lawyer. 

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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7 thoughts on “Greatest college football team was not coached by Saban”

  1. I have heard about this team from 1948 when I entered Sewanee and played for The TIGERS ,was captain in 1951.They have told me about the film bing made in Birmingham and I am very exited.

  2. Wonderful article!
    As a Sewanee alumna (76’) and an early supporter of the film, I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

  3. I am the granddaughter of « Jenks Gillem » (Sewanee Tigers team 1910,1911 and 1912, Sewanee coach, Howard coach) who , with my grandmother, was one of the early Mtn Brook folks. We lost my mother/his only child a year ago, but have inherited lots of memorabilia, especially about my grandfather’s football prowess. Evidently, he was an exceptional punter who saved many a game.

    I am not sure if information about him or information that we have will help you in your documentary endeavor, since he was a bit behind «  the team. » It is quite evident, nonetheless, that the Tigers continued to be a force with which to be reckoned well after 1899.

    Thank you for the wonderful project! Go, Tigers!

  4. My grandfather, « Jenks » Gillem, was a standout at Sewanee 1910,1911 & 1912, and later coached at Sewanee and Howard. Although he was a bit behind « The Team, » we have lots of memorabilia if it would help with the documentary. It is obvious that Sewanee continued for some time to be a force in southern football! Go, Tigers!

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