Auburn’s Best Defense Ever Led the 1914 Tigers to an Undefeated Season Now Recognized as a National Championship.

It’s the 100th Anniversary of Auburn’s 1914 football season, and that squad’s success on the gridiron should be celebrated. After all, with an 8-0-1 season that included a victory over the famous Carlisle Indians, Auburn’s has been retroactively named a national champion for 1914 by notable selector James Howell using his Power Ratings Formula. So, let’s take a look back at that great Tiger team.

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The 1913 national championship team, perhaps Auburn’s most dominant team ever, only allowed 13 points to opposing teams over a rugged 8-game S.I.A.A. schedule. However, the defense on the 1914 Tigers was even more dominant. Auburn was the only college football team that year to shut out EVERY opponent over a 9-game schedule. Having lost many of the stars of the 1913 squad, such as the speedy Kirk Newell, to graduation, Auburn’s power running offense had to be rebuilt. With inexperience on offense, head coach Mike Donahue relied on an impenetrable defense to lead the Tigers to victory time and again.

Mike Donahue

Donahue’s base defense was a 7-2-2 that featured larger interior linemen and then fast “smashing ends” whose assignment as to get into the backfield and disrupt the opposing offenses before the play could start. Donahue’s aggressive defense was a powerful response to the “open”offenses” favored in this era by coaches such as Glen “Pop” Warner, who Auburn would encounter late in the season.

To strengthen his defense, Donahue moved halfback Richard “Bull” Kearley from halfback to one of his “smashing” end positions to add speed to his defensive line. On offense, Donahue moved quarterback Ted Arnold to one of the halfback spots to replace the lost speed and started Legare “Lucy” Hairston at quarterback.

After Auburn had crushed opponents left and right in 1913, Coach Donahue had a bit of trouble completing a schedule for 1914 and had to start the season with “warm up” games against Marion Military Institute and Hamilton Agricultural School. After quickly dispatching those teams, Auburn moved on to traditional rivals. Auburn beat Florida 20-0 in Jacksonville, Fla., and then Clemson 28-0 and Mississippi State 19-0 in home victories.

Next up was old foe Georgia Tech, led by John Heisman, at Grant Field in Atlanta. Auburn would wear numbered jerseys for the first time in this game. Led by Bull Kearley’s three fumble recoveries, Auburn would cruise to a 14-0 victory over a strong Tech team. In fact, not counting the losses to Auburn, the final record of the Tiger’s last four opponents, all conference foes, was a cumulative 22-5-3.

Next up was a trip to Birmingham to play powerful Vanderbilt before 10,000 fans packed into Rickwood Field.  Auburn had beaten Vandy the year before by a score of 14-6 to seal an S.I.A.A. championship. On a rain-soaked, muddy field, “Iron Mike” Donahue’s defense held strong the entire game. Not once, not twice, but three times the defense rose to the occasion and stopped Vandy on fourth down in the fourth quarter and preserved a 6-0 victory that show that the prior year’s victory had been no fluke. Auburn had replaced Vanderbilt as the dominant Southern football power.

Auburn next traveled to Atlanta for its rivalry game against the Georgia Bulldogs. Though field conditions were no problem, both teams had trouble moving the ball against strong defenses. Georgia twice neared Auburn’s goal line, only to be turned away by jarring blows from Tiger defenders that caused fumbles Auburn recovered. Auburn’s chance for a victory ended when halfback Frank Hart was caught from behind near the Georgia goal line as time expired, leaving the game a scoreless tie.

Auburn’s final game of the 1914 season was a fan spectacular set up against the Carlisle Indians of Pennsylvania as Atlanta’s first intersectional college football game. It matched two of the premier teams of 1913, when Auburn had gone 8-0 and Carlisle 10-1 (even without Jim Thorpe, who had moved on to pro football).

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Carlisle was led in 1914 by its imposing All-American fullback Pete Calac, who had the size and speed of today’s running backs and would go on to play 10 years of professional football. A traveling team, Carlisle’s “B” team had dispatched the University of Alabama the weekend before in Birmingham by a 20-3 score and Calac, well-rested, declared that Carlisle would have no problems beating Auburn.

Pete Calac

Led by the great “Pop” Warner, who would later go on to coach at Georgia, Carlisle’s offense featured trickery – such as reverses and two or even three pitches of the ball – on almost every play. But he had not met a team with a defense powerful enough to stop Calac’s inside runs and the speed and aggressiveness to control sweeps to either side. The game remained a scoreless tie until late in the fourth quarter when Auburn quarterback Lucy Hairston completed a pass to bring Auburn near the Carlisle end zone, and then kept it himself to win the game with a 6-yard scoring run that showed the college football world that Auburn was truly a national powerhouse.

This 1914 Tiger team ranks with the best teams in Auburn history and it should receive all the respect and recognition from Auburn’s Athletic Department and its fans that it deserves by raising – on its 100th Anniversary – a national championship banner in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Read more about Auburn’s 1914 team in the Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championship book.

Auburn’s 1913 National Championship Team Won With the Old Adage: “Run the Ball, Stop the Run.”

There is an old adage about football in the Southeastern Conference: “to win games you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.” Another adage is that “defense wins championships.” Auburn people know these sayings are still true today even in the era of spread offenses and wide-open passing attacks.

The sayings also applied in an era of football even older than the birth of the SEC in 1933. In the early days of Southern football, the teams of more than a dozen universities played in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and football was a physical, hard-nosed sport played by young men in leather helmets and uniforms with little padding. Passing attempts were a fairly common occurrence, but games were won by running the ball and stopping the run.

Perhaps no team in the history of Auburn football embodied this rule more than the 1913 team, which was led by Hall of Fame coach Mike Donahue. A former quarterback at Yale, a powerhouse program of that day, Donahue brought a rugged Eastern-style football to Auburn when he arrived as the new head football coach in 1904.

Mike Donahue

His offense was built off the inside dive play ran by an alternating stable of powerful fullbacks that bludgeoned opposing defenses. That staple play was then countered by sweeps from speedy halfbacks and an occasional pass or run from the quarterback.

On defense, Donahue ran a 7-2-2 defense that featured larger linemen and “smashing ends” whose assignment as to get into the backfield quickly and disrupt the opposing offenses — who often ran reverses and plays with two or even three pitches of the ball – before the play could start. Donahue’s aggressive defense was a powerful response to the “open”offenses” favored in this era by coaches such as Glen “Pop” Warner.

By 1913, Donahue had his program well-established and had all the players needed to field a dominating football team, perhaps the most dominating in Auburn history. The team of a little over 20 players was led by star halfback and team captain Kirk Newell. Newell had blazing speed and, though small in stature, a powerful lower body. His speed and leg strength were developed by a hobby of chasing rabbits as a young boy.

Kirk Newell

Led by Newell, who gained more than 1700 yards in just 8 games, Auburn went undefeated against a very difficult schedule, outscored its opponents by the amazing margin of 223-13, while playing only two games in Auburn.

Auburn’s finest victory was in the season-ending game against the University of Georgia, played in Atlanta. At stake in the game for the winner was the SIAA championship. Georgia was led by halfback Bob McWhorter, who combined speed and power with the size of a present-day running back, and was a threat to score on every run. McWhorter, a four-time All-Southern selection, was the very first Southern player named to an All-American team as a senior in 1913. Yet after Georgia scored first on a long pass play, Auburn was able to control McWhorter’s running and cruised to a 21-7 victory. While McWhorter was held to just 50 yards rushing, Newell ran for over 100 yards and Auburn’s fullbacks accounted for its 3 scores. And with the game and championship won, the students rushed the field and carried the players off on their shoulders, singing “Glory, glory, dear old Auburn.”

While there were no national championship selectors in 1913, and certainly no newspaper editors in the North that would recognize Auburn as a national champion, the 1913 team took pride in its undefeated season, conference championship, and being named “Champions of the South” by regional newspapers.

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However, this Auburn team has subsequently been named a national champion for 1913 by six national championship selectors. Among these is Richard Billingsley, of the Billingsley Report, whose mathematical system for determining a college football champion was used in the BCS formula and who is an NCAA-recognized selector. With this award, Auburn’s 1913 team is the very first team in the South named a national champion by any NCAA-recognized selector. There is a book published in 1992 on the centennial of the Auburn football program by Wayne Hester titled, “Where Tradition Began.” From the first football game played in the Deep South to the first national championship by a Southern team, that title holds true. Auburn is where Southern football tradition began. And it should be celebrated.

In an interview given to The War Eagle Reader last year, Billingsley noted that “My national championship for Auburn in 1913 is a very valid national championship.” He noted that the Athletic Departments for Texas A&M University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Oklahoma have all claimed national championship seasons based on his rankings. Although both Harvard and the University of Chicago also claim national championships for the 1913 season, Billingsley told The War Eagle Reader that “In my mind, Auburn played a harder schedule and performed above expectations.”

Yet this great, dominant team, its players and Hall of Fame coach, are overlooked by most Auburn fans, as if the bruises, injuries, and blood spilt on the gridiron by these players for the glory of Auburn is not worthy of all the honor and respect it is due simply because it occurred just over a century ago. In my view, the opposite should be true. This great team, composed of rural farm boys, many of whom were greenhorns to the sport and who had never seen a football game before beginning practice, bested college teams composed of players hand-picked from local high schools that were already playing the game. This 1913 Tiger team ranks with the best teams in Auburn history and it should receive all the respect and recognition from Auburn’s Athletic Department and its fans that it deserves by raising a national championship banner in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and including it with all the other championships that Auburn chooses to “acknowledge” in signage on the stadium.

Read more about Auburn’s 1913 team in the Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championship book.