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.

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30 Year Anniversary: The Top 10 Players on Auburn’s 1983 National Championship Team.

Like the 1913 (8-0) and 1993 (11-0) teams, Auburn’s 1983 team is recognized by the NCAA as a national champion. Auburn’s 1983 team went 11-1 (6-0 in SEC) against a schedule that Richard Billingsley (of BCS computer formula fame) has ranked the 5th most difficult schedule in the entire history of college football. This was a team full of great players, but the following is my list of the top 10.

1. Vincent “Bo” Jackson  There is no suspense or debate about this pick. Bo still holds most of the Auburn rushing records, was the Heisman Trophy winner in 1985, and ESPN readers recently voted him the Greatest Athlete of All Time over such luminaries as Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan. What more needs to be said – we all know how good Bo Jackson was in 1983.

English: Sports logo of Auburn University

English: Sports logo of Auburn University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. Donnie Humphrey   Coach Pat Dye‘s teams in the mid- to late-1980’s were strong and deep on the defensive line, but that depth hadn’t been fully developed by 1983 and Donnie Humphrey was a standout whose quality of play at defensive tackle ranks with notables such as Ken Rice and Tracy Rocker. Not only did he play strong against the run, he had the ability from his defensive tackle position to rush the passer and anchored the defensive line, as he did in a short NFL career.

3. Greg Carr Carr was a tough-as-nails leader for this defense. A sure, hard tackler, who led the team in that statistic, Carr was also adept at a linebacker’s role in pass defense. It would be hard to find a more complete college linebacker of that era and Carr was named an All-American in 1984. He would continue his career in the NFL.

4. Lionel James Although diminutive even by the standards of the time, James was a strong and physical blocker as well as exciting open field runner. He acted as quite a counterpunch to defenses focusing to stop Bo Jackson and was just about as liable to break a long touchdown run. He would go on to a record-setting NFL career.

5. Al Del Greco Some might say Del Greco, the team’s placekicker, is ranked too high at number five. However, Del Greco was practically a sure bet at kicks of almost any distance and his three clutch field goals in the Sugar Bowl against Michigan and it’s powerful run defense, were the difference in 9 – 7 win and clinched the National Championship for Auburn, as awarded by BCS-formula guru Richard Billingsley and other championship selectors recognized by the NCAA.  Del Greco went on to an NFL career that almost lasted two decades.

6. Doug Smith A big and powerful defensive lineman comparable to Donnie Humphrey, he was likely the strongest player on defense. Add in his great toughness and with that combination Smith would go on to All-American status in 1984 and have a long NFL career.

7. Randy Campbell  You can’t measure leadership by height and weight or with a stopwatch. Campbell was the leader this team needed, protected the ball in a triple option offense placing an emphasis on the quarterback being nimble in his fakes, smart in his reads and decision-making, and accurate in his pitches to Jackson or James and in the short passing game. With his adept play of the position, Auburn led the nation in fewest turnovers, a key statistic as Auburn faced one of the most difficult schedules in the entire history of college football.

8. Ed West  Athough he may be overlooked by some, West is deserving of this spot based on being a model tight end for Coach Dye’s brand of run-first offense. He was an overpowering blocker for the running game and practically an automatic first down on third down when the distance dictated an intermediate pass. He was a clutch performer who went on to a long NFL career.

9. David King He was the leader of the defensive secondary. Even though he was a bit under-sized, King was a three year starter at cornerback and demonstrated great athleticism. A sure and hard hitting tackler, after his first year as a starter opposing team’s recognized his ability and seldom attempted passes to the receivers he covered. If teams in this era had run more passing plays, King would have had the opportunity to move up this list. He would go on to a short NFL career.

10. Tommie Agee Just a freshman in 1983, Agee makes this list because of the big plays he made that year as a fullback in the triple option, where his running ability up the middle kept defenses from keying on the flanks where Jackson and James did their damage on option pitches from Campbell. In addition to great skill as a runner, Agee was a strong blocker and was also a threat in the passing game. Agee would go on to a lengthy NFL career.

If you want to suggest other players from the 1983 team as being missing from my list of Top 10 Players, leave a comment to let me know what you think. And if you want to relive some of the highlights of that 1983 season, a chapter of “Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championships” is devoted to that season.