While randomly looking up sports articles, as I am wont to do from time to time, I came across the unbelievable story of a team with a chain of victories likely to be unequaled for all time. The Sewanee (now University of the South) Tigers in 1899 played five games in a six period while on a road trip that lasted 2,500 miles, where they won all of their games in shutouts. That record would be impressive in any context, but it is not as if the Tigers were playing the little sisters of the weak, their five wins in six days were against the following opponents: Texas (12-0), Texas A&M (10-0), Tulane (23-0), LSU (34-0), and Ole Miss (12-0) . These five wins were in the middle of one of the greatest seasons of college football ever, where Sewanee went undefeated at 12-0 and only gave up ten points the entire season, in an 11-10 win against Auburn in Montgomery. In stark contrast to college football today, the Tigers went undefeated while playing 9 of their 12 games away or in neutral stadiums, something no college power today would be subjected to. The resulting season won Sewanee an undisputed Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship, and likely a mythical national championship as well, since it is hard to imagine a team that claimed wins against that competition, future powers in the SEC, ACC, and Big 12, not claiming a mythical national championship.
The first question that follows upon hearing of this fantastic season is, why is this football season not better remembered? To be sure, the season is recognized by football cognoscenti, where Joe Paterno called it, without exaggeration, one of the most staggering achievements in the history of college football. The College Football Hall of Fame ran a 16-team playoff for fans to determine the best season in college football history, and this season won, likely on account of the feat of football excellence to win so many games against such great competition away from home. In later years the school’s focus on academics led to it de-emphasizing sports to the point that it now places in Division III, which forbids the awarding of any athletic scholarships, but the university’s season still remains astonishing within the annals of sports history. Even more mysterious is the fate of the SIAA itself, which is largely unknown unless one is a serious fan of football history. One would think that if a remotely modern Southeastern Conference Football team went undefeated that the feat would be remembered, even where, as was the case with Auburn about a decade and a half ago, the team was not judged good enough to play in the national championship game.
So, why is the SIAA not better remembered? Let us not forget the teams that were included as part of the conference during its heyday : Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Louisville, Memphis, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Southern Miss, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Virginia Tech, among many others. The conference as a whole attempted to uphold the sanctity of amateur athletics by setting rules for officiating, limiting players to five years of eligibility, banning professional athletes, requiring athletes to attend the school they represented, and banning instructors and professors from playing, but the conference did not sponsor many championship competitions for its member schools, and the conference was torn asunder by squabbling over the eligibility of freshman players, which divided the bigger schools from the smaller ones, and eventually led the larger schools to depart and form their own conference, leaving the league to survive for about two decades as a small college conference before they were done in by World War II.
Even so, despite the fact that the conference went defunct in 1942, the conference’s loss to history was more due to an accident of fate, where the league archives, kept in a building at Vanderbilt, the league’s founding school, went up in flames, destroying a great deal of information relating to the history of this most unusual conference. Given the contemporary proliferation of power conferences, and even the fact that smaller conferences have their own noble history that is worth recording , one wonders just what was lost in the fire, and what it would take to do justice to a conference that was founded to purify sports but failed to recognize the vast importance of sports, whether pure or not, to many of the institutions supported. A failure to channel a love for pure athletics into sufficient logistics and organization in order to ensure fair competition as well as awards and trophies and championships to recognize notable talent meant that the model the conference took was not copied, and after the conference’s demise, the universities in the conference had diverse fates, some of them winding up in power conferences, others in various smaller conferences in the Football Championship Series, Division II, or Division III, and some even ending up in the NAIAA or NJCAA, one of them ending up in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, of all things. Yet all are joined by a history in an obscure conference that many of their own fans likely have no knowledge of.
What lessons can we learn from this now? A century from now, what will sports historians think of conferences like the American Athletic Conference, formed of the public universities left behind when the private schools withdrew and kept the Big East moniker? What will people think about the treachery of schools to longtime associates for the lure of moving up to a more prestigious conference, or of the fact that conferences are formed with no historical ties, no geographical logic, simply the shared commitment to earning big money from television contracts and access to prestigious games for any team that can avoid a losing record? Will the conferences of today, whether mighty conferences like the Pac-12 or smaller ones like the ironically named Big South be nearly entirely forgotten like the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, its survival to history endangered by the instability in membership and the fact that historical records require preservation, a far from straightforward task? Perhaps we have been too quick to assume that today’s football powers and conferences will be vilified in the future, will be looked on as being greedy to the extreme. Perhaps we have been too generous to them to assume that they will be remembered at all; perhaps they will simply be forgotten, their championship records and labors consigned to the flames, their years and labors consigned to oblivion.
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