Tradition Like Auburn – Georgia is What Sets College Football Apart
The 1892 Auburn Football Team.
Families arrived by carriage while many others came on horseback as close to 3,000 people gathered on a chilly winter’s day in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park to witness a group of young men play a new game called football. It was February 20, 1892 and the young collegians came together on the field of competition to represent their two schools: Auburn University (then known as Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama) and the University of Georgia.
Both schools had a group of fans arrive by train cars which were decorated in school colors. The delegations held a combined pep rally with each side giving their own college cheers – afterwards parading together with the players to the park’s grand stand for the game.
The Deep South’s Oldest Football Rivalry had begun as the Tigers from Auburn took the field against the Billy Goats (later known as the Bulldogs) from Athens.
At the end of the first half, the score was tied 0-0. The second half saw a heavy rain, making it difficult for either team to score. Then late in the game, an Auburn legend was born. All Auburn people are familiar with the story but I tell it here for those who are not part of the family.
There was a Civil War vet in attendance. The old solider had brought his pet to the game; one he had found as a baby eaglet after the Battle of the Wilderness. He doctored the bird’s wounds and took it back home to Alabama where he later became an Auburn student and eventual instructor.
As the two teams were slugging it out on the gridiron, the eagle broke away from the old soldier’s arms and circled high above the field. While the eagle sailed over the field, Auburn took the lead, and the students began chanting “War Eagle!” Auburn won the game 10-0 and legend has it that at the end of the game, the eagle fell to the ground and died. In giving his life, he gave birth to the “War Eagle” tradition.
While no one knows the validity of the story, the legend of Auburn’s War Eagle is synonymous with the Tigers’ first ever football game. It’s just one of dozens of things that make this historic rivalry so unique and worthy of protection.
The game has always been a war. With a 118 years of history, usually a fourth of Auburn’s roster made up of players from Georgia, and championship implications often on the line for one or both teams; the game has more often than not been a high-stakes event.
Even so, the rivalry is more than a game. The two school’s athletic and academic past are so intertwined as to make the loss of the contest almost unthinkable. It is one of only 11 series in the nation to have reached the century mark in games played and the only one in the deep south to achieve that distinction. It’s rich tradition symbolizes what has made the college game so special.
Through the years only World Wars have interrupted the series. Yet, just this week, the SEC had been considering going to a nine game schedule, which would threatened the continuation of the longest continuous football rivalry in the South. Thankfully the league’s presidents voted to keep the 6-1-1 schedule which will protect the game for now.
I say “for now” because it’s not the first time the rivalry has been threatened in recent years. When the SEC expanded to 14 teams in 2011, there was discussion of doing away with the rivalry. Auburn even volunteered to move to the Eastern Division to preserve the game, a move that was quickly blocked by Alabama and Tennessee. But just like this week, the league voted to go to an eight game schedule which averted the crisis and allowed the two schools to continue meeting every year.
It’s troubling though, to see the issue resurface for another vote this spring.
With more conferences going to a nine game schedule and possible new pressures being brought to bear as a result of the new National Championship playoff system … the rivalry may eventually become extinct. And if that happens, it will be a sad day. And not only for Auburn and Georgia but for college football in general. Because Tradition is what sets college football apart.