Irish War Eagles

September 22, 2017

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Sept. 22, 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

In looking back over the 125-year history of football at Auburn, there have been good times, some not-so-good times, and some just plain interesting times. Today we will look at one of the interesting times: the age of the “Irish War Eagles.”

We are talking about the period from 1930 through 1950 when three of Auburn’s four head coaches came from Notre Dame. Knute Rockne and the Fighting Irish were the pinnacles of college football.

To know anything about football, and certainly to be a successful head coach, one had to have played for Rockne at Notre Dame. His former players covered the nation like the dew covered Dixie. They were everywhere and Auburn was no exception.

Auburn’s first two Notre Dame coaches did fairly well, the last an utter disaster.

Chet Wynne, 1930-33, was somewhat eccentric and an unusual choice to be Auburn’s head football coach. At the time of his hiring he was head coach at Creighton, a practicing attorney, and a member of the Nebraska legislature, obviously a multi-talented man.

Wynne did some good things at Auburn. His 1932 team won the Southern Conference championship, a league comprised of what is now the SEC and the ACC, with a 9-0-1 record, a 20-20 tie with South Carolina in the last game of the year marring an otherwise perfect season. It was still Auburn’s first undefeated season in 18 years.

Wynne coached Auburn’s first All-America in 1932, Jimmy Hitchcock, “the Phantom of Union Springs.” Hitchcock was an excellent runner, an excellent passer, and an excellent punter and place kicker. He could do it all as few before or after him have been able to do. He was special.

There is no doubt Wynne’s greatest contribution to Auburn. It was keeping his young center, Ralph Jordan, nicknamed “Shug,” at Auburn. Jordan, from Selma, played football, basketball and baseball at Auburn from 1928 through 1931. He was Auburn through and through, the ultimate Auburn Man.

When he graduated in 1932, he accepted an offer to coach at small high school in north Alabama, but when school officials learned that he was Catholic, they rescinded the offer.

Wynne heard about it, called his former player, and told him there would be a place for him at Auburn for as long as he wanted it. Jordan accepted Wynne’s graceful and much-need offer and worked as an assistant football coach and head basketball coach until World War II broke out in 1941.

One of Wynne’s assistants deserves special mention as one of the most unusual assistants in Auburn history. Roger Kiley, a teammate of Wynne’s at Notre Dame, was a practicing attorney in Chicago. He closed his law office every fall to come to Auburn and help Wynne coach the Tigers. He later became a federal judge.

Wynne compiled a record of 22-15-2 in his four years at Auburn. He left Auburn to go to Kentucky after the 1933 season because, he said, he wanted to be closer to his family. The fact that Lexington was in the heart of bourbon country may have been a factor, too. He is said to have loved both, according to Dan Hollis, author of Auburn Football The Complete History, 1892-1987.

Jack Meagher, hired in 1934, became Auburn’s most successful Notre Dame coach.

A former Marine, Meagher coached some of Auburn’s toughest, grittiest and “fightin’est” teams. His teams went to Auburn’s first two bowl games, the Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba in 1937 and the Orange Bowl in Miami in 1938.

The 6-0 victory over Michigan State in the Orange Bowl remains one of the best defensive performances in bowl history. Michigan State managed only two first downs and 57 yards offensively. Auburn was the first SEC team to win the Orange Bowl.

Meagher’s teams like other teams coached by Notre Dame men, traveled throughout the country to play their Notre Dame counterparts to see who had the better team and the better program. In Meagher’s time at Auburn, the Tigers played in Manhattan, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington D.C. Talk about a road schedule!

Apparently Meagher could not convince any of his Notre Dame Brethren to come to Auburn.

In 1936, Auburn players visited three foreign countries, Canada on a trip to play Detroit, Mexico on a trip to California to play Santa Clara, and Cuba for the Bacardi Bowl, also called the Cigar Bowl and Rhumba Bowl. That was also the year Meagher dressed the team in green jerseys to show, once and for all he said, that his Auburn teams had closer ties to Notre Dame than any team in the country.

Meagher’s greatest contribution to Auburn is readily evident to today. Under his leadership as athletics director, and with the help of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA Depression recovery program, Auburn’s first permanent stadium opened in November of 1939, with a capacity of 7,500. Consisting of what today is the lower half the lower west stands—the rows below the concourse–it was the first part of what is now Auburn’s 87,000-seat Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Meagher’s son, Pat Meagher, helped Auburn win the 1957 national championship in the stadium his father had begun 18 years earlier.

Meagher’s 1942 team had one of the greatest victories in Auburn history, a 27-13 win over undefeated and Rose Bowl-bound Georgia. It was the first time Auburn had beaten a team ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Meagher could have stayed at Auburn for the rest of his coaching career except for one thing: The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. With the world going to war, Auburn, as many other colleges, suspended football in 1943 and Meagher, Jordan and the other coaches joined the military in service to their country.

They were promised their jobs would be waiting for them when the war was over, but sadly that was not the case. It was not Auburn’s finest hour. Rather than waiting until the war ended as promised, football was started again in 1944. Carl Voyles, an Oklahoma State man, was hired as head coach. With a 9-9 record, Voyles lasted two years.

Then came the worst hire of all, maybe one of the worst hires in Auburn history.

Seeking to regain the Notre Dame magic, Auburn once again hired a Notre Dame man, Earl Brown, who was head coach at Canisius, in 1948. Brown was at Auburn three years, 1948-50 and his teams got progressively worse, the only bright spot, a 14-13 win over Alabama in 1949, a year after Auburn lost to Alabama 55-0. Upset wins no matter how great can carry a coach only so far.

Brown’s 1950 team scored 31 points, the lowest in Auburn history, and did not win a game, 0-10. It was time for a change. The Notre Dame era of Auburn Football was over.

Auburn’s athletics program was in shambles. There was not enough money to be certain that a team could be fielded in 1951. Auburn’s once proud athletics program was at an all-time low.

But that was about to change. The young man Chet Wynne kept at Auburn, the boy nicknamed “Shug,” was about to take Auburn to its greatest years.

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