War Effort Eagle: The year Auburn cancelled football

Sunday, August 2, 2020

War Effort Eagle: The year Auburn cancelled football

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There were a couple of madmen trying to take over the world, so, obviously, the handwriting was on the wall. But no one wanted to read it. And they definitely didn’t want to believe it, not after a season like 1942. 

Sure, with a 6-4-1 record, there had been a few hiccups — all on the road, all in the rain, let it be known. But get’em on a dry field and, Lord, were the Auburn Tigers ever better than that final No. 16 ranking! Those final three games? The blowout vs. Clemson in the only game at home? The upset over LSU? But most especially, forever and always, that upset win over No. 1 Georgia? We’re not talking some last-second miracle. It wasn’t a Hail Mary. It wasn’t some fluke field goal. No, it was a beating — a beating you were going to tell your grandkids about, the biggest upset of a generation, a coach’s film no one would ever lose. 

Georgia pretty much had the Rose Bowl locked up, the conference championship locked up, the national championship locked up if they won out — and maybe even if they didn’t — and they owed it all to their soon-to-be Heisman-winning halfback, Frankie Sinkwich, the best football player in the world… 

… not named Monk Gafford. 

All hail Mighty Monk! Let the national press be late to the party! Let some poor fool in Philadelphia who’d never seen him put him as a second-teamer, let some poor fool in Los Angeles who’d never heard of him leave him off his list completely! The Fort Deposit Express didn’t care about kudos in the papers. He cared about “hallelujahs” in the stands. 

During his All-American senior season, you could see pure joy on the faces of all the peanut-poppin’ Auburn old-timers as he made another cut toward a thousand-yard season. George Petrie had been there that November day in Columbus, the golden anniversary game. He’d felt reborn watching that kid. Monk Gafford was Dutch Dorsey and Moon Ducote and Jimmy Hitchcock rolled into one — a god. 149 yards on 20 carries. 

Sinkwich? Six yards on 23 carries. 

Georgia coach Wally Butts had done the whole “Auburn had a better team today” routine. Screw that, said Jack Meagher — Auburn had the better team, period… the best team he’d ever coached with the best man he’d ever coached. Meagher hadn’t even voted in the SEC coach’s MVP poll that year, and Gafford still beat out Sinkwich by one vote. It was the same margin in the SEC referee poll. 

Translation: The men who saw both boys in action, who knew the game better than anyone, thought Monk Gafford was better than the guy who was supposed to be the best player in the country. So, with all due respect to Butts, and to the Ohio Buckeyes, who were also claiming the crown, soft-spoken Jack Meagher had no problem with shouting it from the rooftops: for the month of November, he’d been in charge of the best damn football squad in America. Gafford and the gang had embarrassed the No. 1 teams in the nation, 27-13, right at the end of the season, right before the Bulldogs blanked No. 2 Georgia Tech 34-0 and shut out No. 13 UCLA in the Rose Bowl. 

Georgia had a great team. Auburn blew them out of the water. 


The 200 reservations were snapped up faster than ever. And it wasn’t for the steak. It was to “War Eagle” till midnight in the ballroom of the Jefferson Davis Hotel with the men who had smacked Georgia all over the field and embarrassed the little Yankee Heisman Trophy winner with the damn gall to tell New York City reporters that, no, the Tigers that beat them by two touchdowns weren’t nearly as tough as the Crimson Tide team that the Bulldogs beat by 11. The Atlanta Alumni Club had already done it up big for the boys, and there had just been a big congratulatory banquet down in Auburn a week or so back. Now it was the Montgomery Alumni Club’s turn. Word was that Meagher was bringing the reels with him, same as he’d done at other dinners and meetings and banquets over the past month — that he was going to narrate the whole game! They’d be clinking glasses to every Gafford gallup, every sack of Sinkwich. 

Ol’ George Penton, the granddaddy of the old Montgomery Auburn men, one of Heisman’s boys, was going to surprise the Little General with an inscribed wristwatch…  “Jack Meagher, Our All-America Coach — Montgomery Auburn Alumni.” Everyone would cheer and then Genial Jack would hit the podium and hold up some “Gafford Sinks Sinkwich” headlines and introduce Monk, and then Monk would probably say something about how the Memorial Stadium goal post was still up at Toomer’s Corner. Then they would dim the lights and flip the switch and Whispering Jack would stand at the mic with his low tenor voice and relive it right there in front of them. 

And, of course, after all that, Meagher would probably point out new captain elect Jimmy Pharr, who would probably stand up and say something great, and then Meagher would finally get around to talking about the upcoming season and about how, sure, it might get interesting because of the war, and that they might be down a few practice balls because of the leather rationing, but that plenty of the current boys probably wouldn’t be called up for a couple of semesters, and that even if they were, there’d probably be some decent new material coming in through the Army Specialized Training Program.

He’d already said as much to the Birmingham News a few days earlier when he was in the Magic City on some business. No, he’d said, despite all the Chicken Litttles, he just didn’t see the Army or the Navy saying no to the benefits of football. Want the men to have two hours of physical activity each day? Couldn’t find a better gymnasium than the gridiron. Again, it would be interesting, absolutely, but not to worry ol’ Jack would surely say — they would find a way to do America proud and still beat the hell out of Georgia again. That’s what was supposed to happen that Wednesday night. It was going to be great. 


Dr. Duncan stood up. He called for everyone’s attention. The room got quiet. Duncan wasn’t smiling. After a few seconds, neither was anyone else. Everyone loved Dr. Duncan and all, but they weren’t there for the college president. Was he supposed to introduce Coach Meagher or something? Wait, where was Coach Meagher? 

Coach Meagher, Duncan said, wasn’t there. He wouldn’t be coming. 

Lt. Commander Meagher, Duncan said, was on his way to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Right then. At that very moment. Uncle Sam had called that morning. Meagher had said yes. He was reporting for active duty. For the past 12 hours, Auburn hadn’t had a football coach.  


After a few seconds, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hartwell Davis, Class of ‘28, broke the silence. They were Auburn men, he reminded the room, they were Auburn women. He motioned that the club immediately wire Meagher a message: “Good luck in the big game.”  


For the past year or so, Meagher hadn’t exactly been shy about wanting to return to the service. He’d been telling people he’d wanted to come off the bench since Dec. 7, 1941. Great football coach, greater patriot. He’d withdrawn from Notre Dame to enlist in the Marines in 1917, finished the Great War as a captain, and still had connections with top Navy brass, including former Navy head coach Tom Hamilton, executive officer of the USS Enterprise.

Few knew, but as a favor to Hamilton, Meagher had actually taken charge of scheduling the 1942 season for Navy service elevens. Now Hamilton wanted him in charge of the Navy’s physical training division. Made sense. If you can whip boys into shape for football, you can get’em fit enough for a Flying Fortress. So, no, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but damn, it was still a shock. People looked at each other. This did not bode well. It wasn’t just a feeling. Duncan was saying as much. 

“I don’t know whether we will have intercollegiate football this fall or not.”

Everyone tried to go on and have a good time; the Montgomery chapter always had a good time. And Mighty Monk was still there and everything. And Pharr. And they still watched the game. But it was the strangest invite-the-coach-and-star-player banquet ever. Instead of hearing about the upcoming season, there’s the school’s president telling everyone that there might not even be one.  


Meagher’s departure — and Duncan’s quote — hit the papers hard and fast, regionally and nationally. Every major paper in the country was eager to tease the To Play or Not To Play narrative with whatever they could get their hands on. That the football fate of the team that had spoiled a perfect season for mighty Georgia might now be decided not just by possible lack of material, which everyone would be dealing with, but lack of a head coach? And not just any head coach, but one Esquire Magazine had two years back called one of the top 10 in the country? 

Love of Country Trumps School Spirit! It was too good to pass up. 

It was natural to think an assistant could just step up and handle things for as long as necessary. The only problem was that there weren’t any assistants. Most had already shipped off themselves. Porter Grant, Boots Chambless, Jimmy Hitchcock, some guy named Shug Jordan… 

Suddenly, minus Meagher, Auburn’s athletics department was down to just two coaches — Jeff Beard and Wilbur Hutsell, both track men. And now, suddenly, minus Meagher, they were also without an athletics director; Gentleman Jack had pulled double duty. 

But still, Lord… surely it was still premature to say something as drastic as no football. It wasn’t just Meagher’s reassurances… SEC bigwigs had been promising business as usual not two months earlier, promising that perpetual pigskin was totally aligned with the war effort in every possible way — good for morale, good for fitness. And Auburn had kept the gridiron going during the last conflict, even when some other schools hadn’t. Why not now? Did Duncan know something he wasn’t saying? 1943 might look a lot different than 1942, and maybe they’d have to bring some old men out of the woodwork to coach the boys… and who the hell knew what they’d do about spring practice…  but couldn’t it work out if there were still boys to coach, like the January 27th War Department directive made it sound like there might be?

Almost certainly not, said the February 12th War Department directive. 


Two days… after that Wednesday night news out of Montgomery, Auburn folks had been able to hold out hope for just two days. 

The news broke that morning. That evening, President Roosevelt took to the airwaves to promise an expedited annihilation of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. 

In the Loveliest Village, word spread fast. Forget the “in a couple of semesters” talk — it was time to kiss your sweethearts. And to probably try to get excited about another sport. 

Because for Auburn and the 270 other colleges under the authority of the Army Specialized Training Program, as opposed to the less strict V-12 Navy College Training Program, the issue wasn’t just the new timetable… it was the new rules.

Any soldiers-in-waiting on campus might be able to play baseball, maybe basketball, track, tennis, table tennis, stuff like that; the details hadn’t been entirely ironed out. But one thing was clear as crystal. Risking life and limb for the fate of a football game rather than the fate of the free world was out of the question.

The decision to officially cancel the game would still be up to individual schools. They could still throw shoulder pads on some civilians, schedule as many games as they could with whatever teams were left and call it a football season if they wanted. If they could get people to pay to watch 17-year-olds, or any 18-year-olds who hadn’t been processed, or any of the 4-F boys classified as physically, mentally or morally unfit to defend the God-blessed United States of America, more power to them. But any man good enough for a fall roster was Uncle Sam’s, and Uncle Sam was no longer screwing around. 

“Football,” read a common headline, “is Doomed.” 


Everyone in town was, of course, on board with smashing the Axis anyway they could, students especially. Bonds were bought. Stamps were bought. Pearl Harbor was remembered. Chests swelled. You weren’t just doing right by yourself by studying for that test. You were doing right by your country. The forces of freedom needed minds and hands that worked wisely and skillfully. Patriotism meant work — hard work.

But it was not a fun spring for football fans, in Auburn or anywhere. Rumors reigned. Uncertainty loomed. Monk shipped off to Fort Macpherson. So did 10 current players, including Pharr, the captain without a team. Macpherson’s officers praised the “outfit from Auburn” as “quite a relief from the regular run of draftees.”

Meagher came back in March to check on his family, and to get his watch. He’d dropped several pounds. He told reporters he was happy with his decision, that physical training was more crucial for pilots than he’d realized, that his duty to country superseded his duty to Auburn. But he promised that he planned to return to football after the war, if the job was still there. 

In the meantime, despite the growing chorus of death knells (including the one from the bell he’d rung himself) he was privately encouraging Duncan to keep the game going, seemingly under the impression that lack of a competent coach (rather than competent players) was still the biggest obstacle to whatever miracle Duncan might be able to work. And along those lines, he had a suggestion.

Early on, even before the Navy officially reached out, Meagher had talked up former Texas Tech head coach Pete Cawthon as a possible (temporary) replacement were he to resign. Meagher had known Cawthon for 20 years. They were about the same age. There were some connections there. Meagher’s former line coach Dell Morgan had replaced Cawthon in Lubbock when Pete left to assist Frank Thomas at Alabama. Might be a good fit. As spring progressed, some boosters bought in. Informal feelers were put out. 

Cawthon had only been in Tuscaloosa for a year. He’d planned to stay a while. But, obviously, things had changed. Other than still having a head coach, and despite Thomas’ annoyed early insistence to reporters that, nope, the Army Specialized Training Program hadn’t factored into his plans for fall at all, the Crimson Tide was pretty much in the same predicament as Auburn and most everyone else. Even so, Thomas said he would go ahead with spring practice with whatever men he had. Plenty of other coaches said the same. But even if the Tide managed to field a team, most of the Auburn alumni pulling for Pete told Duncan that Thomas surely wouldn’t stand in Cawthon’s way to become a head coach again, especially under the circumstances. 

Duncan agreed, but pumped the brakes. He publicly praised Cawthon’s record. But that was it. He wasn’t going to be pressured. He didn’t care how many Auburn people knew the man, he wasn’t going to offer him a contract with the Army sending out new orders every few weeks. A team needed a coach — they could always get a coach — but a coach needed a team. That had become the primary problem. And so far, it didn’t have a solution, at least not one that any Auburn folks would want to get behind. 

Take the Tulane game. Auburn had just tied the series. But what would happen if Auburn sent out eleven men who hadn’t gone through spring training — men who might even still legally be children! — against the Green Wave on the first Saturday in October? Sure, Tulane wouldn’t have as many varsity men as they’d had in 1942, but the ones they did have could still play football — they’d be Navy trainees. You could actually say the same for plenty of team’s on Auburn’s tentative 1943 schedule. Georgia Tech had Navy men. LSU had Marines. Georgia thought they’d be allowed to tap into the university’s Naval Pre-Flight Program team, a veritable all-star squad stocked with professional players from across the country. The Skycrackers (thanks to Meagher’s scheduling services) had hung 41 on Auburn in ‘42 on the way to a 7-1-1 record. If Auburn lined up against its main rivals under current conditions, it wouldn’t matter how good of a pep talk Pete Cawthon could give. 

Patience, Duncan urged — patience. If things changed, Auburn would go after the best man for the job. There was even talk of possibly asking to borrow a helmsman from any SEC school that paused football for the duration, but still had a head coach who hadn’t gone into service. It sounded crazy. But these were crazy times. You never knew… 

And plenty of folks across the conference thought the Army might ultimately reverse course. Duncan doubted it. Highly. But September was still a little ways off. There was still a month or two to decide. Until there wasn’t.


It was Saturday, July 3. Duncan walked up the stairs to Samford Hall. He could hear the yellow J-3 Cubs off in the distance. Seemed like there were never fewer than five overhead at any given moment. The 100 cadet pilots who’d taken up residence for training at the airport — the Navy had taken over the tiny facility — averaged 100 hours in the air each day. No one minded. Maybe one of the boys would be in the Auburn plane by year’s end. The local Kiwanis had helped sell $175,000 in war bonds to bankroll a Billy Mitchell bomber, which bought them the right to paint “The Auburn Tiger” on the nose. They were already $25,000 toward naming another one “War Eagle.” It was exciting. 

The Loveliest Village hadn’t slowed down much for the summer. Plenty of men were already at Fort Macpherson, but plenty were still around, hoping to get in one last Saturday night street dance behind Samford Hall before reporting Monday for 12 weeks at Officer Candidate School. The party was set to start at 8:15 p.m. It was going to be a good one, doubling as a special Independence Day celebration. The khaki and white were joining forces for a big variety salute to the people of Auburn. Around the corner, boys from the Naval Radio Training School were rigging Ross Square to blast swing music, and a yankee private with a great set of pipes was going to be belting out “America the Beautiful.” 

If dancing wasn’t your thing, plenty of people were talking about catching the newest “March of Time” news film detailing the probable course of the Allied assault against the Nazis. It was debuting that night. The title had just gone up on the Tiger Theater marquee: “Invasion!” 

Duncan just wanted to be done with the afternoon. He wasn’t looking forward to the meeting. But it would be nice for the whole thing to finally be behind him. He didn’t know how long it would take. But he was pretty sure what the recently formed faculty committee on athletics was going to say.

At the beginning of the month, five SEC teams had already thrown in the towel. And then, just yesterday, Friday afternoon, the news from Knoxville hit the wire. That was six, half the conference.. 

They handed him the piece of paper. 

“It is recommended to the president that intercollegiate athletics at Alabama Polytechnic Institute be suspended for the present due to the insurmountable difficulties arising from the war.”


The Plainsman wasn’t happy. They understood, they accepted it. But still, Shirley Smith, the first woman to edit the paper, the Rosie the Riveter of the Ribbon, insisted that there would be students to cheer on any 97-lb weakling willing to strap on a helmet for the glory of ol’ Auburn. If they had to find some 17-year-olds, they’d find them. Hell, if the team needed underwire, so be it. 

But, no, she acknowledged — the kids didn’t have all the facts. So, for the July 9 issue, Robert Allen, dean of the school of science and literature, and chairman of the faculty athletic committee, sent them over. 

The recent decision to drop intercollegiate football at API for the duration was reluctantly made by Pres. Duncan upon the unanimous recommendation of the faculty athletic commission, the executive council, and prominent alumni, long been associated with Auburn Athletics, who urged similar action.

Some of the factors influencing the decision follow:

The entire football coaching staff is in the Army. Only one member of last year’s football squad is on hand. The Army shows no disposition to modify its decision that college trainees are not eligible for intercollegiate competition. Auburn’s 1943 squad would have to be composed of 17 to 18-year-old boys and those classified into 4F or 2A.

Without the advantage of spring or summer practice under the direction of an able coaching staff it would be impossible to build a team in the fall that could offer reasonable competition to those having the services of Navy trainees or those still retaining their coaching staffs. Unsuccessful efforts were made to borrow the services of head coaches from other Southeastern Conference colleges that have suspended athletics.

The majority of the SEC members have been faced with similar considerations and have elected to drop football. Those fortunate enough to have coaching facilities and eligible players are in the minority.

Under the circumstances, it did not seem possible to field a team that could acquit itself creditably. Every consideration dictated the wisdom of setting aside our intercollegiate sports until the bigger game is won.


It was Nov. 12, 1943, the Friday before what should have been the Auburn-LSU game in Birmingham. Physically, George Petrie, 77, was doing better than he had a year earlier when, for health reasons, he’d handed over the reins of Auburn’s history department after more than half a century. Emotionally, he may have been worse. 

His wife had passed a couple of months before he’d retired. A part of him had, too. His academic writing had almost completely dried up. These days, he barely had it in him to reply to letters. And now, thanks to Japan and Germany, he couldn’t even look forward to football.

Back in July, a week before Petrie mustered the strength to speak on Auburn tradition to a group of 400 soldiers enrolled in a crash course in engineering, his former student, Dr. Luther N. Duncan, believing it to be a practical world, announced that for the first time in more than half a century — and for who knew how long after that — the great game that Petrie had helped bring to Auburn would not be played on the Plains. 

And, yet, curiously, there on the front page of that day’s Plainsman, two words: “PEP RALLY!” 

“Next Thursday night the ‘Plains’ will once again echo with ‘War Eagles’ and the strains of ‘Tiger Rag’ as all the students, soldiers, sailors and naval air cadets are invited to take part in an ‘All Out For Victory’ Pep Rally.” 

Petrie kept reading.

It was supposed to be the Burn the Bulldogs rally, the biggest of the year. They couldn’t play Georgia. But there was no reason they couldn’t still burn things. 

They’d hold it at the stadium, then move to the parking lot for the bonfire. The cheerleaders would be out in full force. Even football players! Former ones, at least. The great Gafford boy would be there. So would plenty of the others from that great ‘42 team, back from Fort Macpherson, still with the Army Specialized Training Program, yet to ship overseas. Instead of Coach Meagher — instead of Lt. Commander Meagher — talking about the upcoming game, Col. John J. Waterman would talk on “Football Players at War.” Instead of orange and blue… red, white and blue. 

“No, there won’t be any football game anytime soon,” the Plainsman wrote. “We’re having the rally to show that Auburn Spirit is still very much alive.”


“On every fighting front in this war, you’ll find Auburn men in there with the best fighting for American democracy and the standards taught at API,” one soldier had written to the paper a few weeks earlier. “… even though we are some 4,000 miles from the Auburn campus, that ol’ Auburn Spirit is still strong in our hearts.” 

Strong on the way to class. Strong on the way to the dance. Strong on the way to the front. Strong when the team won. Strong when the team lost. Strong when there wasn’t even a damn team. 

Lord, Petrie loved his country. Lord, he loved his school. 

He got out a pencil and a blank piece of paper and began writing something he decided to call the Auburn Creed.  


People were still talking about the pep rally a week later. Ears were still ringing. Voices had gone hoarse. The Plainsman always called every pep rally the biggest and best ever, every bonfire one for the ages. This time they meant it. 

“This time we were not yelling for the Auburn football team because there is no Auburn football team this year. We were all down there yelling for a bigger and better team. The U. S. Army team! We were yelling for that team to march on to victory as our football team won victory over those Georgia Bulldogs last year.”

They’d saved the best part for last. 

Instead of papier-mâché bulldogs, they burned effigies of Hitler and Hirohito.

from The War Eagle Reader

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