Muscular and Moral: The Sewanee Man for the Twentieth Century, 1890-1920

Sewanee Athletics Window.png

The narrative series of stained glass windows in the entryway, or narthex, of All Saints’ Chapel memorialize definitive episodes in the University’s history, including the turn-of-the-century era of Sewanee athletics. Here Ormond Simkins, passes on the token of that season to the future football legend Henry D. Phillips. The narthex windows were completed in the early 1960s.

    The memorialization of Episcopal bishop and football All-American Henry D. Phillips in three places in All Saints’ Chapel – the narrative windows at the west entrance, the disciplinary window in the south aisle, and a nearby marble plaque – mark him as a figure of outsized importance in the University’s history. Rather than reflecting timeless values and priorities, his visibility signals important changes in attitude that took hold at Sewanee and other American colleges in the century after 1880. The antebellum mission of making Christian gentlemen held strong in post-Civil War Sewanee, but the emphasis on athletics was a post-bellum innovation. Competitive sports did not enter the minds of the founding patriarchs. For them, the preparation of a man’s character, conscience, and soul mattered more than training his body to win a sporting contest. Phillips the iconic Christian athlete and gentleman embodied the broader movement in twentieth-century American Protestantism to make churches more masculine and muscular. The epitaph on his memorial plaque – “He ministered to men with all his might” – carried that message. More generally, though, Phillips’s muscular presence in the chapel reflected the importance all post-Civil War male colleges placed on the cultivation of young men’s muscularity. This trend was most evident in the mania for intercollegiate sports – and for football above all others. Sewanee men had played organized sports since 1869 and mounted their first intercollegiate baseball squad in 1871, but from 1891 to 1941 no athletic, academic, social, or religious pursuit held their attention as intensely as football.

    Students, faculty, and administrators embraced the football mania that seized the campus in the 1890s – including its attendant concerns for racial vitality and Anglo-Saxon vigor. Football fanaticism joined Sewanee men to an elite national sporting culture led by universities in the East and Midwest. It also marked Sewanee as a modern and progressive institution. Scholars have noted that football’s rise served well an age of Social Darwinism, which viewed social conflict and hierarchy as natural and beneficial. At the same time, sons of Civil War veterans relished the sport’s approximation of combat, enabling them to experience the battlefield danger and glory their fathers had known. A college man’s highest calling was to prepare his body for gridiron combat and then sacrifice it to win glory for alma mater on the field of play.

    At Sewanee the game of football modernized the University’s inherited priorities – service to community and church, martial valor and self-sacrifice – by adjusting them to the newer expectations of physical strength and athletic prowess. No man today, a student newspaper commented in 1892, “feels his manhood unless he is physically, as well as morally and mentally strong.” And there was nothing like football, the Sewanee Purple asserted in 1899, to “bring out your Anglo-Saxon pluck and strength and power for stubborn endurance, the manly qualities of our race.”

    Football was an upper-class sport, played mostly by wealthy and middle-class males who could afford the luxury of college. Critics denounced the sport for its violence. However, influential proponents of the “strenuous life,” like Theodore Roosevelt, extolled its ability to cure the physical and mental flabbiness of America’s patrician class. Sewanee men also believed playing football furnished the nation with a vigorous, disciplined upper class of muscular Anglo-Saxon men. As important, a writer for the Purple observed in 1906, playing football engaged men in a selfless endeavor in which “they were working, not for themselves but for Sewanee.”

    This section examines the emergence of modern masculinity in three areas of Sewanee life that marked the period 1890 to 1920: the rise of football mania, the introduction of “physical culture,” and the scientific management of the Domain’s forests.


The “Special” edition of the Sewanee Purple published after the “Iron Men” clinched the southern championship.

Heroes, Gods, and Lions: The Return of the Iron Men

    No other team in the country since the history of football was written ever played five games in six days and won them all, and always zeros at the right end, and no team was ever welcomed with a more wildly enthusiastic welcome than that which greeted our returning heroes last Wednesday afternoon and evening. Sewanee outdid herself, as the occasion demanded.
    To begin at the beginning: the limping, laurel-wreathed lions arrived on the one o’clock train – This doesn’t mean that the train came in at one p.m., not at all, that’s just a nickname employed for convenience’s sake; we don’t know its origin, probably sarcasm, though. But that is by-the-way. The Lions came, were fed, given a little exercise, and then caged and paraded down the street. And a circus it was. The procession formed in front of the Hoffman at seven. The scene looked like a fancy dress ball at a home for mental cripples. The Meds were there in all the eerie and ghoulish splendor of skulls, skeletons and sheets. St. Luke’s turned out to a man, was distinctly evangelical in dress and voice, but showed high-church tendencies when it came to the fireworks. The Law School was brilliant for once, with a transparency borne by President Scott, of the Law Club. The Academic Department, the backbone, and we might add, the lungs of the University, yelled, and then yelled, and finally yelled a little more.…
    You could have read a copy of The Sewanee Purple out on Morgan’s Steep by the light of the bonfires, Japanese lanterns and torches.
    During the afternoon great stacks of wood had been piled up in front of the Hoffman, Thompson Hall, and the Grammar School dormitory, and the poor old moon, although just as full as anybody in the crowd, was quite eclipsed.
    The twenty-two gods were placed in two triumphal cars, the various departments fell in line, and the procession started. Down the street to the Grammar School dormitory it wound, and the light and noise grew greater. Back to Forensic then, and here the whole Mountain was assembled. [Vice Chancellor] Wiggins presided.… Forensic echoed to Varsity yells the like of which had never been heard before even in Sewanee. Enthusiasm like that is infectious; everybody caught it; an insensate Hindoo idol would have broadened his smile and gone mad with college spirit. Oh! It was great. It lasted for an hour or more, and the mob, having gotten all the noise possible out of their voices, had recourse to gunpowder. They adjourned to the Hoffman campus, and sky-rockets sizzled, and Roman-candles spluttered, and cannon-crackers exploded, until a late hour.

“The Celebration. Most Enthusiastic Welcome Sewanee Ever Offered,”
Sewanee Purple, November 21, 1899


The legendary "Iron Men" of 1899


The 1909 Southern champions

The Men Who Are Men:
Sewanee Football in the Golden Era, 1898-1926

    During the golden age of football, the game became the measure of Sewanee manhood. From 1898 to the mid-1920s, Sewanee fielded two championship and several near-championship teams, attracted large crowds to the South’s expanding stadiums, took home substantial revenues from gate receipts, and sent three players to the College Football Hall of Fame. The most glorious years were 1899 through 1910, when the Tigers amassed an overall record of 81 wins against 15 losses and 7 ties. Alabama and Tennessee each fell to Sewanee four times. More important, the Tigers defeated Vanderbilt, the strongest program in the South and their greatest rival, in three contests. In 1909 Sewanee beat the Commodores 16 to 5 and brought home a southern championship trophy. “Hail to them all, the men of brain and brawn, of courage, devotion, and indomitable Will!” the Purple exclaimed, commanding its readers to “take off your hats to the men who are men and are loyal!”
    The seasons after 1910 trended differently as southern universities mounted more formidable opposition. After World War I the Tigers struggled to mount a winning team, and Sewanee Men – players, students, administrators, and, most loudly, alumni – suffered mightily after 1925.
    For all the program’s accomplishments during these twenty-five years, the 1899 team of “iron men” is the one remembered today. In addition to their legendary “road trip,” they outscored their opponents 322 to 10 over the course of twelve wins without a defeat and claimed that year’s southern championship. The campus reaction to that team, described in this account of the team’s return to the mountain, indicates the magnitude of football mania already at Sewanee by 1899 and the universal campus fixation on the team’s heroic demonstration of their manly vigor.


Sewanee football and baseball "make men of temperatelives the students' heroes; they help large numbers of men to pass safely through the critical years of young manhood; they develop self-restraint, self-discipline, courage, staying power, and many of the qualitiws that tell powerfully in the battle of life..."

B. Lawton Wiggins, 1902 report to the Board of Trustees

Scholar, Gentleman, Athlete: Enforcing Social Hierarchy With Football

    Benjamin Lawton Wiggins, who became vice chancellor in 1893, linked the University of the South and its curriculum to the strenuous life Roosevelt advocated. An aggressive leader, Wiggins aspired to nationalize the University’s recognition. He improved its academic and residential buildings, strengthened the college and professional schools, and gained a national reputation as a progressive educator. Believing in the higher purposes of intercollegiate sports, he reveled in Sewanee football’s rise in the South. Wiggins, who enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Roosevelt, shared his faith in a vigorously scientific approach to social questions. Both also were progressives on the “Negro question,” holding the superior white race responsible for protecting and uplifting the black race. For Wiggins, football was at the intersection of these concerns, a core element of the curricular whole that was designed to produce a vanguard class of muscular and moral southern white men to lead the region – including lesser men of all races – into the new century.
        At American colleges that, like Sewanee, emphasized social exclusivity and hierarchy, football used gender, race, and class to draw distinctions between the aristocratic men who should play the sport and the lower order of men who should not. Scheduling decisions, roster selections, violent hazing, unspoken rules — such methods filtered out the unfit and undesirable, a category including working-class and African American men. More formally, colleges entered into regional athletic confederations that enforced codes of amateurism, which aimed to insure that only “bona fide” students played the game and did so, not for personal gain, but for love of the sport. The University of the South belonged to the Southern Intercollege Athletic Association; Wiggins serve as its vice president. He boasted there was “no college in the country whose sport is cleaner than ours.” Playing against their social peers, he explained, Sewanee “men feel themselves stronger for any contest because they know that every man with whom they are associated is scholar and gentleman as well as athlete.” Young men whose economic circumstances forced them to market their athletic skills were unfit.


    No professional athlete shall take part in any contest as a member of any team in this Association. A professional athlete is a man who has at any time received, either directly or indirectly, money or any other consideration to play on a team or for his athletic services as coach, trainer, athletic or gymnasium instructor, or who has competed for a money prize or portion of gate money in any contest, or who has competed for any prize against a professional or for any portion of gate receipts, on any pretext or for any purpose whatsoever.”

Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association,
Constitution and By-Laws 1913


Scholar, Gentleman, Athlete
All Smiles and Bows: Race and Football

     At Sewanee whiteness as well as blackness were campus preoccupations. Vice-Chancellor Wiggins was an important leader in setting this tone within the University community. A paternalistic race moderate, he deplored white violence against African-Americans during the early evolution of the Jim Crow South and advocated the white race’s duty to aid “an inferior race in developing itself to the utmost capacity.”
    In their public expressions on the subject of race between 1890 and 1920, Sewanee Men followed the lead of men like Wiggins. They believed they were bound, as men of honor and members of the better class of the higher race, to treat their inferiors justly and humanely.
    Although racial segregation was the norm, African-Americans were essential members of the mountain labor force and performed important actual and symbolic services for the white community. An archival photograph of students playing poker in a dormitory focused on the actions of the white students, but the peripheral presence of a black servant spoke volumes about the privileges of the Sewanee Man’s whiteness.
    The football field was an important place at Sewanee for the display and ritualistic affirmation of the harmony that presumably flourished between the higher and lower races. Football games established the terms of the color line in three ways: by playing teams that abided by the “whites only” rule; by hiring African American men as “rubbers” (masseuses) or “trainers” for the athletic teams; and by including the black men who worked as custodians or waiters in the ranks of Tiger fans. The labor they performed in these contexts showed that what Sewanee students expected from their “servants,” as they commonly called African-Americans, was not absence or invisibility, but public display of deference, loyalty, and submission to the Sewanee Man.

The once prevalent idea that it was impossible for athletic associations to flourish in Southern colleges and universities is rapidly being displaced.… Now that slavery has been eradicated, and its retarding and menacing effects dissipated, Southern education will assume a more vigorous and progressive form. A new life seems to be infused into Southern institutions, and ere long they will be able to successfully cope with the leading colleges of the North in every branch of education. Southern Colleges have always anticipated establishing a system of intercollegiate contests. This would have a wholesome effect on our American institutions, and would conduce wonderfully to advancing the cause of education. Nothing can be accomplished, however, in this direction until our Northern friends awake to the realization that negroes are not suited to fill important and representative positions. It is antagonistic to the very nature of Southern-born students to enter into competition with negroes.
- Sewanee Times, November 2, 1892

It was with much gratification that we saw the waiters and janitors of the different University dormitories at the depot last Thursday morning, all smiles and bows, ready to depart for Nashville. This sight alone, however, was not the cause of our gratification. We were pleased because we knew that this trip was made possible by the students of the University. This custom is quite an ancient one. Rarely, however, have so many of these employees been taken to the game. Practically every table at the several dormitories subscribed a neat little sum to pay its waiter’s expenses to the “big” game. And you may rest assured that the waiters were only too anxious to accept this chance. It is such thoughtfulness as this that characterizes the real man. Kindness to inferiors in office, age or experience has always been and must always be a cardinal virtue in the life of the true gentleman. Keep it up, fellows, and you will reap untold rewards. Not only will you be repaid by the appreciative spirit of the man aided, but also by a bigger and better understanding, a greater, broader and invaluable sympathy with your fellow-man.
- Sewanee Purple, December 4, 1917

Students will begin to leave Sewanee along about Monday before Thanksgiving, and from then on every pullman, day coach, coal car and break beam, bound in the general direction of Nashville, will bear a delegation of Sewanee supporters. Not long ago we asked a villager – one of the University workmen – if he thought he would be at the game on Thanksgiving. “If I don’t go,“ he said, “it’ll be the first time in eighteen years. When the time comes, if I haven’t got the money, I generally, most always, starts a day or two ahead of time.” A St. Luke’s waiter, when asked if he would be there, said, “Yas, suh; I’se talked to Ole Marster about dat football game, and I’se sho’ going to be on hand to see what comes of it.” When Thursday morning rolls around every man, woman and child that can beg, buy, borrow or steal a ticket will be present at the station.
- Sewanee Purple, November 17, 1921

Rice portrait.jpg

Gives His Life for Sewanee

    One of the most potent expressions of the significance of football to the ideal of Sewanee Manhood was the untimely death of George Porter Rice, the quarterback of the 1927 team. A native of Houston, Texas, Rice graduated from the Sewanee Military Academy and briefly attended college in the East before enrolling at Sewanee. On September 14, Rice suffered a catastrophic spinal injury during a practice exercise in the team’s “tackling pit.” He was transported by ambulance to Nashville and died two days later. His courage and good cheer during his hospitalization, when he knew his recovery was unlikely, left a deep impression on the campus. His last request was for the team’s captain to read to him the poetry of Robert Browning. Lines from “Prospice,” Browning’s poem about bravery in the face of death and faith in God, compose the epitaph on the plaque honoring Rice on the south aisle wall of All Saints’ Chapel. The testimonies and eulogies portrayed Rice as the epitome of the Sewanee gentleman whose tragic end on the football field was in service to Mother Sewanee and equivalent to death on the battlefield. Sewanee football represented the whole Sewanee Man, combining martial ideals, Christian faith, devotion to alma mater, and physical and spiritual courage.

George Porter Rice plaque.jpg

Sewanee was founded on an ideal, and since its beginning she has nurtured heroes like George Rice. Men of Sewanee have given their lives on the sea, on the battlefields, and in strange lands. And just so is one who lost his life on the gridiron to be numbered among her heroes. George had opportunities of attending the better-known schools of the country and had tried a few; but he returned to the Mountain where he spent his academy days because it was here that his faith was not shattered.

The Rev. Raimundo de Ovies, eulogy for George Porter Rice


Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat,
         The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
         I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
         The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
         Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
         And the barriers fall,
Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
         The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more,
         The best and the last!…

                                                   Robert Browning,
                                                “Prospice” (1864)



Muscular and Moral: The Sewanee Man for the Twentieth Century, 1890-1920