Iron Mike

September 15, 2017

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Sept. 15, 2017

Each Friday during the 2017 football season, will feature a column from Auburn historian and Athletic Director Emeritus David Housel to commemorate the 125 year history of Auburn football. We hope you enjoy!

By David Housel

A convincing argument could be made that Mike Donahue was the best and greatest coach in the 125-year history of Auburn Football. A strong argument.

There is no doubt that he is the single most influential person in Auburn’s athletics history. No doubt at all about that. But first, the football.

Consider these words from Zipp Newman, longtime sports editor of The Birmingham News, and an even longer observer of southern football:

“Auburn had an enrollment of 200. Donahue didn’t have five high schools in Alabama to draw on for players. He had no coaching staff, recruiters, football game pictures–and there were rocks on the practice field.

“Mike Donahue had to take small boys, tall and gangling farm boys, and teach them to play a “strange” game–hiking, the tactic of carrying, hurtling, or pushing the ball carrier as far as possible.

“The outstanding characteristics of Mike Donahue’s teams were being ready, having courage, confidence, clean play, and fine sportsmanship. Donahue was a thorough fundamentalist. He believed defense won, and he believed in playing students and playing by the code of ethics.

“Donahue was first a father and then a coach to his boys. He took many poor boys from their farms and hamlets–not only making fine football players out of them–but guiding them into successful accomplishments in business. Donahue was the Auburn Spirit–he was the War Eagle!”

Donahue’s teams won 99 games from 1904-06 and 1908-1922. This was in a time when teams played only seven or eight games a year.

When he came to Auburn, people wondered if he could coach. He didn’t look like a coach. Born in Ireland, he stood 5-4, had red hair, blue eyes, and people could hardly understand a word he said. Yet, not long after his Auburn career began, he was known throughout the football world as “Iron Mike.”

He would have three undefeated seasons and seven of his 18 teams would lose one game or less.

The 11 years between 1908 and 1919 were, and may continue to be, the halcyon days of Auburn football. Donahue’s teams won three conference championships, a national championship (1913), had six seasons with one or no losses, and a defense that shut out 21 of 23 opponents in a 22-0-1 run. Not bad for a team that had rocks on it’s practice field.

The 1913-1914 teams may have been the best in Auburn history. They were certainly the most impressive, winning 16 of 17 games. The 1914 Tigers didn’t allow a point the entire season and beat the Carlisle Indians, a power at the time 7-0 in Atlanta.

Little wonder that Ed Danforth of the Atlanta Journal wrote, “You were nobody until you had beaten Auburn. That was the place card for the head table.”

Donahue’s greatest player, the Bo Jackson of his day, was a wee little quarterback named Kirk Newell, captain of the 1913 national championship team. To keep the team in shape, Donahue would give Newell, nicknamed “Rabbit,” a five-yard head start, and then tell the rest of the team to catch him as he ran across campus. They seldom, if ever, did.

There can be no doubt that Donahue contributed more to Auburn’s athletics program than any person who ever lived.

As Auburn’s first athletics director, he added basketball, for men and women, baseball and track to Auburn’s athletics program. And he coached all four teams in addition to his football responsibilities.

It is altogether fitting and proper that Donahue Drive which runs through the heart of Auburn’s athletic facilities be named in his memory.

A worthy tribute to a man who might be called the first “Mr. Auburn.”

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