“I wish to make it clear that I like football tremendously,” Alexander Guerry, Sewanee’s vice chancellor-elect, told the students and faculty who packed All Saints’ Chapel on April 8, 1938, to hear his first public address. Guerry then explained that virtually everything about the way Sewanee played the sport of football was to change immediately. Sewanee – the storied football powerhouse in the South, the college whose teams once routinely beat the likes of Alabama and Tennessee, a charter member of the Southeastern Conference – was abandoning “Big Time” football with the southern giants. In the future, he said, Sewanee’s opponents “will be teams of approximately Sewanee’s size.”
Guerry’s football policy marked a major turning point in the University’s history and made headlines across the South. In 1933 Sewanee had joined with the region’s major universities to form the new conference and proceeded to lose thirty-seven league games in a row. To become more competitive, Sewanee began awarding football scholarships, which was the practice of other SEC schools but one a college with 200-plus students could scarcely afford. A Sewanee Man himself, Guerry explained that the University risked its financial security, its system of values, its very manhood in following the corrupting example of the major universities.
Guerry’s actions calmed what had been a twelve-year-long crisis nourished by Saturday blowouts, perennial losing seasons, and declining funds. During that time rancor spread among students, and alumni engaged in shady recruiting practices that sullied the University’s proud reputation for honor and “Simon Pure” amateurism. Forces off the Mountain, boiling with rage, proposed radical actions in violent terms: fire the coach, sack football’s governing organization (the Athletic Board of Control), and expel the vice chancellor, Benjamin Finney. What was worse, after 1930, revenues plummeted and outlays escalated, pushing the once mighty program into arrears that cost the University precious financial resources.
Throughout this time, alumni and students imagined the football crisis and its solution in terms of the manliness of the University and its students. Some described the gridiron humiliations as stinging blows to their masculine pride and confessed the team’s performances left them with a shame that only a muscled-up and winning football program could assuage. Others, including Guerry, likewise evaluated the crisis in gendered terms, but in their estimation the problem was not the losing records, the lopsided defeats, or the game of football itself. The shame was in the materialistic business of Big Time football, the pursuit of which had lowered the stature of Sewanee Men by enlisting them in an enterprise that had lost its moral bearings and elite values. True amateurism – playing sports solely for the love of playing – was not retreating from the field, but courageously restoring Sewanee Men to their heritage of truest manhood.
This section examines how the 1930s reformers of Sewanee football – those who sought to win on the terms of the major programs, and those who led the University away from Big Time athletics – advanced their positions and silenced their critics in terms of Sewanee manhood.
Sewanee had played on twenty-eight consecutive Thanksgivings – had scheduled Alabama for that day in 1931. Vanderbilt had not deigned to inform Sewanee’s Athletic Board of Control. Vanderbilt’s paper, The Hustler, reported that officials “regretted” the decision, but the game had lost its luster. Only about 7,000 of Dudley Field’s 20,000 seats were occupied when the Commodores throttled the Tigers 26-6 in the 1929 game. “Tradition,” the Hustler explained, “must give way to materialism.” The Commodores offered Sewanee a consolation spot earlier in the 1931 season, to which the ABC responded by canceling all its future games in Nashville.
The collapse of the rivalry confirmed the new era in Big Time southern football. From 1902 through the early 1920s, the annual Thanksgiving Day contest was the Southeast’s great rivalry and ritual. Although rarely victorious, Sewanee Men knew they alone played the South’s premier program on the acknowledged national day of football. It was the choicest opportunity to display the “Sewanee Spirit.” By this phrase they meant the never-surrender, fiercely martial courage and determination that, in their minds, were unique to the mountain’s men and inspired its heroes in battles against more talented and numerous foes from larger universities. “Sewanee may be beaten,” the Purple avowed after the loss in 1925, “but she is never licked.” That fact alone proved the “high calibre and fineness” of the Sewanee Man, who, regardless of the score, towered above the common herd of humanity as the South’s foremost “gentleman.”
Perhaps more important, the Thanksgiving contest also was by far Sewanee’s largest annual revenue source. The loss of that one game was a lethal hit to the Sewanee program.
The Vanderbilt action ignited a concerted alumni effort to fire the coach, Michael Bennett, and to dismiss Vice Chancellor Finney and the ABC head, the professor W. H. MacKellar. Finney had otherwise ably led the University through extraordinary prosperity in the 1920s and through the worst of the Depression. He, MacKellar, and Bennett were outspoken advocates of “Simon Pure” amateurism and fought hard against alumni patrons of the football program, who sought to stretch the rules to beef up Sewanee’s team.
The documents here –letters from angry alumni, a threatening telegram that a Memphis alumnus sent to Finney, and a newspaper ad that he placed in that city’s newspaper – show that alumni critics believed all Finney and his colleagues were insufficient as men and had constructed a football team in their weak image. By the spring of 1930, MacKellar had resigned, Bennett was gone, and Gordon Clark, one of the Memphians who had attacked Bennett and Finney, was hired as the new “graduate manager,” or athletic director.
… the present system has not produced a winning team, the present combination up there has sunk us to the lowest depths that football has ever fallen at Sewanee, has lost us the Vandy game of forty years standing and has made our teams an object of pity or contempt throughout the South. No change can be worse consequently….
W. Egleston, December 1929
Dear Mr. Finney,
I am indeed sorry Vandy has decided not to play Sewanee on Thanksgiving after 1930 and am very, very sorry indeed that you have decided to sever Athletic relations with our most ancient rival. A reasoning man cannot blame Vandy for her action in view of the waning interest in this oldest of southern football rivalries. People won’t patronize a weak team such as Sewanee has put on the field for the past several years.
I wish to endorse the resolutions [to revive the program]. We are a weak bunch if we admit that Sewanee cannot compete with the S.C. teams….
R. Lee Tolley, December 1929
In 1929 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published American College Athletics, a comprehensive survey of Big Time football that found some level of cheating at almost all of the 130 institutions it studied. The most pervasive form of cheating was “subsidization” This was the practice of well-healed alumni operating secret funds to lure talented players to their schools with under-the-table arrangements like no-work jobs and secretly financed scholarships. In response to the study, some leading educators contended the amateur ideal was a sham, that football was beyond reform and corrupting the academic mission of higher education. The only recourse was to abolish the sport.
Vice Chancellor Finney and the ABC’s MacKellar staunchly defended Sewanee’s amateur ideal, but both knew that Sewanee’s hands were not clean on the matter of subsidization. (Sewanee had declined to participate in the Carnegie study.) “I yield to no man, athlete or fan, in my love of the game as the greatest of all college sports,” Finney once told students. However, by the early 1930s he and MacKellar had concluded that intercollegiate football itself was the problem and that it was undermining Sewanee’s foundation.
This conclusion enraged many influential alumni, who were convinced the two men were at best impeding efforts to improve Tiger football, and at worst working secretly to end it altogether. Suggestions that Sewanee could no longer compete and should abolish its program – as other universities at the time were contemplating – made one former player shudder to “think of what people would say if Sewanee quit football.”
As lopsided defeats mounted over the first three SEC seasons, alumni and students rose up to defend football’s indispensability to the manly character of the University. Without football, they warned, a toxic effeminacy would ruin Sewanee.
In the examples below the football team of 1934 defends their bravery in a public statement after a disastrous second season in the SEC. An alumnus defends athletic students over non-athlete “tea-hounds” (sissies). The president of Southwestern at Memphis (today’s Rhodes College) describes the fear on his campus that ending football will lead to a “not normal” (meaning homosexual) student population. An ABC report at Sewanee manifests the same fear, apparently confirmed by a survey of Sewanee Men.
We, the undersigned, are moved to write this letter … because we feel that we are … the parties most interested in the matter with which it deals. That matter is an article by the author of your “Sport Shots” [in which] he suggests that Sewanee should leave the Southeastern Conference and join another which, by implication at least, is weaker … We fail to see that we could do our University any credit or increase our prestige in any way by seeking about for some little fellow that we think we can lick. Suppose we lick the little fellow – what have we gained? …
My dear Chancellor Finney:
… You and I have the same sort of educational ideals, and the same sort of antipathy to this devilish football racket … The members of our faculty are in sympathy with the high ideals which you and I hold, but they are rather fearful of the effect not only upon our Memphis constituency, but also upon the attendance of male students, if we abolish intercollegiate football. They feel that good young fellow, who themselves do not play football, would decline to come to an institution which did not engage in intercollegiate football. They fear that a certain virility would be lost from the campus, and that the student body would not be quite normal. There may be some ground for their attitude, but I still believe that it is right to do right, and that we are living in a moral universe. I do not believe that any shady business can be done in one department without affecting the spirit of the entire institution…
Charles Diehl, president, Southwestern at Memphis, April 1936
Letter to the editor:
I cast my vote for football scholarships. There will always be enough football players for all the colleges. Sewanee could take the left-over players after Alabama or Tulane picked their first squad of 33 men and with the “Sewanee Spirit” beat the hell out of Tulane, etc. I favor at least thirty football scholarships for Sewanee. I think an athlete with brains is more deserving than a tea-hound with brains.
Yours for a better and strong Sewanee united on all fronts.
Monty Payne, ’27
So we take issue with the implication of “Sport Shots” … and we repudiate utterly the rather pusillanimous notion that we ought to beware of big brother and content ourselves with adversaries selected for supposed weakness … Of course we like to win, but if we are to be beaten, we like to feel that we have suffered defeat by those who might well be feared by better teams than ours.
Statement of the 1934 football team, Sewanee Purple, December 1934
[Abandoning intercollegiate athletics] would seriously affect the student body of the College of Arts and Sciences and would change in a great measure the type of student body that we have. A great many of the type of athletes that we now have would not come to Sewanee if we had no intercollegiate athletics. … This solution would seriously lower the prestige of the University in the eyes of a great many of our alumni, friends, and prospective students. Many of our alumni center their affection and interest for Sewanee around our athletics. It would seriously affect our enrollment for in addition to the athletes who would not come, many prospective students other than athletes would not consider Sewanee.
A.B.C. resolution, January 1936
Survey of Sewanee Students, 1936
Question 1: Would you have come to Sewanee if the University had had no intercollegiate athletics?
No: 101 (57%)
Yes: 74 (42%)
Question 2: If you were entering college next September as a freshman and the University had no intercollegiate athletics would you choose Sewanee as your college?
No: 109 (62%)
Yes: 65 (36%)
Sewanee’s departure from Big Time football did not cause the uproar or crisis that one might have expected after more than a decade of bitter conflict. The Purple editors, for instance, welcomed the new policy because it promised to share athletic resources more generally among the student population, instead of concentrating them in football. Beyond the plan’s necessity and practicality, though, Guerry won over students and alumni by making the new policy sound manly rather than defeatist.
Guerry was a magnetic speaker with a commanding ego who presented himself as a powerful and vigorous chief executive. Although president of the University of Chattanooga, he was no classroom academic, but a World War veteran and a graduate of the college (1910) who had scrubbed for the football team. He sounded strong and aggressive, not weak, in ending competition with the likes of Alabama and Tennessee.
Guerry spoke of reform in conservative terms of restoring Sewanee’s historic essence. Sewanee’s prestige in southern higher education, he explained, did not rest upon athletics. It was founded “upon the splendid academic and spiritual ideals … and upon the fact that her student-body now and over the years has been composed for the most part of exceptionally fine young men, gentlemen and the sons of gentlemen.” Sacrificing all to win football games with players who were paid for their athletic talent was base and unmanly. Guerry explained that the only way the Sewanee Man could remain a true Sewanee Man was by playing the sport as it was meant to be played – for its own sake by gentleman-amateurs.
The losses – financial and on the field – continued. In 1942 Guerry abolished intercollegiate football. Using the language of the Declaration of Independence, he characterized the decision as a noble act of revolution against a corrupt and tyrannical power: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a University to dissolve the bonds which have united it for fifty years to any particular activity, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires it should declare the causes which impel it to the separation. …What had been a competitive sport among college boys, carried on because of their interest in it has become a great industry which capitalizes the interest of the public by offering a spectacle which appeals to the innate ‘Joy of the conflict’ common to all of us.” (Sewanee restarted intercollegiate football after the war in 1946, playing against schools that enforced pure amateurism without subsidies.)
Alexander Guerry, “Sewanee’s Future Football Policy,” April 1938.
Sewanee’s prestige in Southern education and in the nation does not rest upon the football victories of the past, but upon the splendid academic and spiritual ideals which she has maintained and upon the fact that her student-body now and over the years has been composed for the most part of exceptionally fine young men, gentlemen and the sons of gentlemen.…
It has been suggested by some people that Sewanee abandon intercollegiate football altogether if she is to give up playing her traditional opponents. They believe that Sewanee will lose her standing in the educational world by her failure to play the best teams in Southern football. To say that Sewanee will lose in prestige or influence if she plays teams in her own class rather than the strongest teams in the South is to say that scholarship, spiritual ideals, good manners, the discipline of the mind, a sense of duty and social responsibility are not the objectives of a college or university, but football and football contests with the largest institutions in the South. Nothing could be more completely in error than such a position.…
The new football policy will not deprive Sewanee and Sewanee students of any real privilege or of any valuable tradition, but actually it will free Sewanee from a sort of bondage, the bondage of a hopeless situation, of the despair from striving for a goal beyond the reach… and of the fear that Sewanee is passing into obscurity.…
[There] will be happiness and satisfaction in the realization that Sewanee can and will establish her greatness upon the indestructible foundation of fine academic standards, high spiritual ideals, and a rich and varied college life, and not upon the shifting and uncertain foundation of ‘big time’ football … From this determination there will come a new hope, a new pride, and a new fortitude.…