By Leah Rawls Atkins & Vince Dooley
In late summer 1950, the young men of the Alabama Polytechnic Institute’s football team arrived on campus for preseason practice. Enthusiasm filled the air. Although Coach Earl Brown, who had come to Auburn as head coach in 1948, had won only three games in those two years, the stunning December 1949, 14-13 Auburn victory over Alabama had lifted the spirits of the Tiger fans. Everyone expected 1950 to be a very good year. But Travis Tidwell, the senior quarterback who had directed that win, had graduated.
Coach Brown had signed a record number of scholarship players, including McGill High School quarterback Vince Dooley. Although Dooley had several scholarship offers and preferred basketball, he signed a football scholarship, recalling that he “was impressed and encouraged with the Auburn spirit, especially after personally watching the War Eagles in a major upset of Alabama.” Dooley also came to Auburn because he wanted to play with two Mobile friends, Bobby Duke and Ed Baker, who had both signed with API. Dooley remembered being impressed with Auburn’s head coach Earl Brown, “a smooth-talking, bow tie-wearing Notre Dame man whose popularity was momentarily riding high after the Auburn upset of Alabama.”
Brown had encouraged a large number of young men to walk on and try out for an Auburn scholarship. Whether they proved to be good players or not, their presence on the field would be fodder for the varsity. Those on scholarship moved into Graves Center, a WPA project of 30 duplex cottages clustered around Graves Amphitheater under huge longleaf pines. The student-athletes on scholarship ate in the nearby dining hall. Those young men who were trying out for a scholarship took rooms and meals at one of Auburn’s many boarding houses and paid their own expenses.
Walk-on players wore distinctive orange jerseys so the coaches could quickly identify them. Practices were hard, spirited and long. Players who were not in top physical condition suffered and sometimes lost their last meal in the bushes. Some quit before the next scrimmage. As the coaches challenged and drove the young men toward perfection on the Plains, the heat of summer still hung heavily. In those days, the varsity practiced on a field on the east side of the football stadium, behind a thick planting of shrubs and bushes where the student union is now located. Freshmen were not allowed to play in varsity games, and the freshman team practiced on Biggio Flats, where Beard-Eaves Coliseum was later constructed. The saying was that the freshmen “went up the hill” to scrimmage the varsity. And during the fall of 1950 in practice, the freshmen often defeated the varsity—if anyone was keeping score.
Freshman quarterback Vince Dooley recently recalled a meeting after Auburn lost to “an underdog Wofford team 19-14,” as a disappointing season began to unfold. Coach Brown tried to motivate the varsity by asking the freshmen “to physically assault the varsity in a scrimmage in the stadium.” The freshmen, who were “quickly losing respect for the varsity,” were excited. Dooley remembered “a tough physical scrimmage resulting in several fights but did little to wake up the varsity.”
The Auburn football season of 1950 was a disaster. As early as October 16, the Faculty Athletic Committee convened to apprise the situation and determine what could be done to support the team and coaches. Freshman quarterback Dooley remembered that Coach Brown called him into his office to discuss some “insignificant issue,” but when it was resolved Coach Brown “quickly shifted the conversation to bragging about all the telegrams of support he had received from the Auburn fans for almost upsetting a very average Georgia team by a 10-12 score.” Dooley thought, “We still lost!”
Nothing helped. Auburn was defeated in every game they played, a dismal 0-10 record that still stands as the worst season in Auburn football history. The grumbling of faithful followers began to increase. Perhaps the most disappointed and vocal fans were members of the largest Auburn alumni group, the Jefferson County Auburn Club. For some years, the club had honored seniors with Auburn watches at a dinner when football season was over. That December there were sad, shaking heads as well as loud complaints. Students went home for Christmas. And when classes began in January, the controversy escalated.
One event that changed the situation was the fall gubernatorial elections. Montgomery native and former Auburn student Gordon Persons became governor of Alabama and was inaugurated on Jan. 15, 1951. According to his biographer, Persons’ “first official act as governor was to call a meeting of the Auburn board of trustees for the purpose of firing that institution’s losing coach.”
On Friday night, Jan. 19, Persons hosted a private meeting at the Governor’s Mansion to discuss Coach Brown. According to the Montgomery Advertiser, Persons’ nephew, API student Stanford Persons, served as doorkeeper and kept the press out. There was representation from the Auburn Alumni Association and various Auburn stakeholders. Allen Parks and Ed “Foots” Bauer, captains for the football team, represented the players, saying the team did not want their coach fired. George Atkins (in photo above), one of the successful walk-on players, had moved into Graves Center, was eating at the team’s training table, and his books and tuition were paid. He was not eager to change coaches, unsure of how a new coach might affect his scholarship. The Auburn Faculty Athletic Committee presented Auburn President Ralph B. Draughon with a recommendation to retain Coach Brown. Draughon approved. The president and executive committee of the Auburn Athletic Association and president of the Auburn Football Foundation also supported Coach Brown’s present contract being upheld.
Governor Gordon Persons did not get his way immediately, but he had not given up on ousting Brown. The Sunday Montgomery newspaper, in a follow-up to the Friday night meeting, quoted Coach Brown as appreciating the support and hoped that all Auburn men would “work together with us for a greater Auburn.” The anti-Brown students joked that the coach’s most outstanding victory was in defeating the governor of Alabama. On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the Montgomery Advertiser commented on its editorial page that “The Advertiser has nothing to add to its Sunday comment on Gov. Persons’ intervention in football affairs at Auburn. What we submit here is that of all the football coaches on the North American continent, the one most secure in his job and the least likely to be canned is now one Earl Brown at Auburn. The governor is the coach’s equivalent to a winning schedule.”
Vince Dooley remembers being at Toomer’s Corner with teammate Ed Baker. They were looking at the Montgomery Alabama Journal and “were shocked to see a picture of Baker in his football uniform kneeling and pointing with a caption that read, “Fire the Coach!” Baker did not want to be part of the public discussion, and they feared he was headed home to Mobile.
President Ralph Draughon, Caroline Draughon and
Gov. Big Jim Folsom welcome guests at the president’s home, 1950.
Meanwhile, Auburn president Ralph Draughon, upset because the governor stepped on his university prerogatives, was trying to hold things together without alienating the governor as well as trying to support his coach to avoid paying $10,000 to buy off the last year on Brown’s contract. But the controversy would not go away, and various Auburn factions continued to advocate for the dismissal of Coach Brown. A group of Birmingham alums, including George Mattison, Perry Pepper, Bo Russell, Ruel Russell and Jimmy Brown, were among those insisting that Brown must go. Students, faculty, townspeople, alumni, Extension Service—everyone had an opinion, and rumors were already flying about who would replace Brown even before he was fired. On Jan. 25, an exasperated Draughon was quoted in newspapers saying the situation at Auburn was “a hullabaloo!”
By Feb. 12, the mood had changed. The Faculty Athletic Committee voted to terminate Brown’s contract. President Draughon approved.
What happened? Did the story of three Birmingham alums visiting the governor to urge him to fire Coach Brown, and Governor Persons sending them on to Auburn to tell President Draughon “if he did not dismiss Brown, then he [the Governor] would have two jobs to fill at Auburn” have something to do with the change? Did Draughon worry about the approaching legislative session? Was the Auburn president concerned who the governor might appoint to the Auburn Board of Trustees? Did Draughon realize that this mild eruption had grown too large to handle and he couldn’t win? Did he finally question whether Coach Brown could ever win more than his three games in three years? Could Auburn people have come up with the $10,000 to pay off Coach Brown’s last year?
Legendary Auburn track coach Wilbur Hutsell, who was also serving as athletics director during these months, told Draughon he could not stand the fighting and controversy. He wanted out of the AD’s responsibilities. The Birmingham Post-Herald reported on Feb. 16 that Hutsell had resigned. Draughon appointed athletics business manager Jeff Beard as athletics director.
On Feb. 19, Draughon urged everyone “to settle down.” The newspapers wrote that Governor Persons’ “Huey Long-style burst [had] set off an explosion,” a reference to the flamboyant Populist governor who served Louisiana from 1928-1932. Governor Long was closely involved in LSU football and was often seen on the sideline and in the locker room. Around town, Beard was adamant he wanted Wally Butts’ line coach and the University of Georgia’s head basketball coach, former Auburn assistant coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan, for Auburn’s vacant head coaching position. For those who lived in the Loveliest Village and were careful observers of Auburn town and gown history and politics, Beard’s appointment signaled much. He was known as a strong leader with great integrity, and he had been adamant and vocal that he wanted Ralph Jordan as the Auburn head coach. Draughon knew Jordan, too. Ralph “Shug” Jordan was a player and assistant football coach when Draughon came to Auburn to teach in the history department in 1931. Jordan and Draughon’s wife, Caroline Marshall Draughon of Orrville, had known each other in high school in Selma.
But, regardless of all things, the Auburn Athletics Department was absolutely broke. Beard once said he did not have enough money to buy a pair of cleats. Vince Dooley remembers a story that at one time before Beard became athletics director the athletics department operated out of a cigar box full of cash. Although there is no paper trail to determine where the money to pay off Coach Brown’s contract came from, the best guess is that Roy Sewell of Bremen, Ga., and Frank Samford of Birmingham were probably involved, along with others.
Ralph Jordan’s first day on the job as coach,
joined by athletic director Jeff Beard.
Jordan, however, was miffed. He had been turned down by Auburn earlier when there was a coaching change, and believed that Auburn did not want an Auburn man for a head coach. He did not apply for the current open position. Only after calls from Beard did Jordan send his famous one-line application: “I hereby apply for the head football coaching position at Auburn.” Jordan got the job, and this news caused a small Georgia newspaper to headline: “API hires Head Georgia Basketball Coach to Coach Football.”
As Ralph Jordan assembled his staff, he began organizing for recruiting and spring training. Some people in the state were still upset that Governor Persons had intruded in Auburn football. But Charles Thomason, an attorney in Anniston and a University of Alabama supporter, was not. On Oct. 14, 1951, after Alabama had lost to LSU, Vanderbilt and Villanova, Thomason wrote the governor noting that the state’s two “major industries” were “football and politics.” He was concerned about Alabama’s win record. Thomason thought it was time for the governor to take “a hand in the situation of Alabama’s football team or what is left of same. Otherwise, we will lose one-half of Alabama’s major industry.” Governor Persons responded that while he appreciated Thomason’s letter, he “got into the Auburn situation because I am an Auburn man and not because I happened to be Governor.”
By the middle of the 1951 season, Jordan’s Auburn team had won five games and lost one. State Sen. John L. Whatley of Opelika sent Governor Persons a copy of the editorial in the Opelika Daily News congratulating the governor on his actions in solving the Auburn football problems. The governor responded on Nov. 8, thanking Whatley, but explaining that:
“To me, the winning of football games by Auburn was not the paramount issue involved. It was the gradual deterioration of the traditional spirit which had me worried. For longer than any of us care to remember, the only thing that Auburn had, which apparently very few other colleges enjoyed, was spirit. Nineteen thirty-two was the last championship team. Jack Meagher had some fine teams in the ’40s, but when he left, everything seemed to slide, slide and slide.
I have always had a lot of Auburn boys at my house, both young and old. Last year, it became clear to me that once proud Auburn was rapidly going down and that something had to be done.
So I began to push for a new coach. . . .let me say again that whatever small part I had in helping change the situation was not for the purpose of just winning football games. It is the rebirth of the old Auburn spirit of which I am most proud. You have only to walk around the campus to prove it to yourself.
It is always a pleasure to hear from you.
After a 5-5 season in 1951 and a 2-8 season in 1952, the real turning point was 1953. The record 7-3-1 was the best record at Auburn in 17 years. Jordan went on to coach Auburn players for 25 years, taking the team to 12 bowl games, winning a national championship in 1957, coaching 67 players who earned All-SEC honors and 21 All-Americans, with one player becoming a Heisman Trophy winner. Coach Jordan retired at the end of the 1975 season.
And the Auburn Spirit remains a vital part of Auburn football.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the fall of 1950, Mobile native Vince Dooley was a freshman quarterback on a football scholarship at Auburn University (then API). Leah Marie Rawls was a high school sophomore in Birmingham; her future husband, George Atkins, was a walk-on freshman football player at Auburn trying to earn a scholarship, which he did. In fall 1956, Dooley returned from two years in the military, and Atkins from a year in the NFL to join Coach Ralph Jordan’s football staff at Auburn. As a part-time student, Dooley began taking graduate courses in history, and two years later, Leah Rawls entered the history graduate program. They often studied together and both earned master’s degrees. Rawls later earned the first Auburn doctoral degree in history. She is now retired from Auburn University, and Dooley retired after a long and successful career as the head football coach and athletics director at the University of Georgia. They each have numerous publications, but this is their first collaboration.