Sewanee 1899 Football Team, find Tennessee culture, history, heritage and more at the Tennessee Historical Society.

College football season has begun! Let’s look at a bit of the history of the sport in the Volunteer State.

When Vanderbilt University organized a varsity football team in 1886, it was probably the first Tennessee college to do so. Maryville College began playing intramural games in 1889 under coach, captain, and quarterback Kin Takahashi. In 1890, Vanderbilt and the University of Nashville played the state’s first intercollegiate game. The University of the South (Sewanee) organized a team in 1890, and the University of Tennessee had one in 1891. That same year, Sewanee began its long series of games with Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Maryville College began intercollegiate play in 1892 and Fisk University in 1893. Former players in the Ivy League, especially from Princeton, shaped the new programs in Tennessee. Other schools fielding teams in the 1890s included Carson-Newman College, the University of Nashville, Roger Williams University, Cumberland University, and Southwestern College.

By 1894 the popularity of the sport led to the formation of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), with seven charter members, including Sewanee and Vanderbilt. Dr. William L. Dudley of Vanderbilt was the primary organizer, and he served as the president of the SIAA. (Dudley Field at Vandy is his namesake.) By 1895 the association claimed nineteen members. Tennessee joined in 1897, and thirty schools made up the league before the organization split in 1920.

Vanderbilt and Sewanee became the powerhouses of the SIAA, and the 1899 “Iron Men” of the Sewanee Tigers remain legends of the game. That year Sewanee burned up the southern playing fields with a 12-0-0 season under Coach Billy Suter, fresh out of Princeton, and manager Luke Lea. Their long-standing reputation rests on winning five games played during a six-day road trip that covered 2,500 miles. Not only did the “Iron Men” win, they shut out their opponents.

Traveling the rails in a chartered Pullman sleeper, the 21 players met their foes after long overnight rides. They departed Sewanee on November 7, 1899, to the cheers of the 326-member student body:

Rah, rah, ree, who are we?

S-E-W-A-N, double E!

Rough, rough, we are the stuff,

We play football, never get enough!

On this epic road trip, Sewanee beat Texas (12-0), Texas A&M (10-0), Tulane (23-0), LSU (34-0), and Ole Miss (12-0). A secret to their success? The Sewanee school year ran from March through November, not the customary September to May. The “Iron Men” had practiced all summer — weeks of calisthenics, wind sprints, blocking and tackling, and running plays that the other schools missed. The team also traveled with trainer Cal Burrows, the rub-down man, in an innovation long before team doctors came on the scene. Team captain and star halfback Henry G. Seibels received recognition for the road-trip feat with his 1973 induction into the National College Football Hall of Fame.

The Sewanee Tigers won four SIAA championships between 1900 and 1910, with Vanderbilt their main rival. In many years, the traditional Thanksgiving Day game between the two Tennessee powerhouses determined the championship. Another Sewanee Hall of Fame winner was Frank A. Juhan, a center from 1908 to 1910, who later became a bishop of the Episcopal Church. At the time of his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he revealed that if he could be granted one wish, he would want to “part [his] hair in the middle” (in the style of the day) and “play Vanderbilt on Thanksgiving Day.”

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By Ann Toplovich

Prepared August 22, 2017

Henry G. Seibels, 1899, & Sewanee-Texas Program