UNTIL THE BIGGER GAME IS WON
IT WILL SOUND FAMILIAR. Teams began cancelling their seasons over the summer. Sports sections read like obituaries for entire programs. Headlines heralded the end
of the game—you just couldn’t risk the health of the players. If you did, you risked the entire population of the country. Maybe even the world. The crisis was global. It
Still, people held out hope. Surely, come September—surely everything would be back to normal, or at least normal enough for touchdowns and field goals and
cheerleaders and hotdogs. The country needed it. People needed it.
But, unlike you and me, they didn’t get it. Not a single snap.
This is the story of the one year it actually happened — 1943, the year Auburn cancelled football.
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, man, oh, man, were the Auburn Tigers even 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.
Georgia had a great team led by Heisman Trophy winner Frankie Sinkwich and had gone on to win the national championship in 1942. And Auburn and mighty Monk Gafford, Auburn’s best back ever, had blown them out of the water.
Youtube Video – 1942 Auburn vs. Georgia
WORD WAS that Coach Meagher was bringing the video reels with him to the ballroom—that he was going to narrate the whole Georgia game after dinner! The 200 reservations were snapped up faster than ever.
Ol’ George Penton, the granddaddy of the old Montgomery Auburn men, 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 Meagher would hit the podium and hold up some “Gafford Sinks Sinkwich” headlines and introduce Monk, and then they would dim the lights and flip the switch and Genial Jack and his low tenor voice would relive it right in front of them.
Finally, Meagher would talk 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. No, despite all the Chicken Littles, he just didn’t see the Army or the Navy saying no to the benefits of football. What better way to train a future fighting man to fight than the gridiron? 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, Feb. 10, 1943, in Montgomery.
API President Luther Duncan stood up. The room got quiet. Dr. Duncan wasn’t smiling. After a few seconds, neither was anyone else.
Coach Meagher, Duncan said, wasn’t there. He wouldn’t be coming.
Lt. Commander Meagher, Duncan said, was on his way to 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.”
JACK MEAGHER HADN’T EXACTLY BEEN SHY about wanting to return to the service. He’d been itching to come off the bench since Dec. 7, 1941. 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 Navy brass who now 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 them fit enough for a Flying Fortress.
So, no, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but 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.”
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 wartime narrative with whatever they could get their hands on. 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 to some extent) but the lack of a head coach, one Esquire Magazine had two years earlier called one of the top 10 in the country was too good to pass up?
Love of Country Trumps School Spirit!
It was too good to pass up.
Of course, it was natural to think an assistant could just 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 and some guy named Shug Jordan were already gone.
And now, suddenly, minus Meagher, they were also without an athletics director. Gentleman Jack had been pulling double duty.
But surely it was too 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 football 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 — which coincided with the Spanish Flu, no less—even when some other schools hadn’t. Why not now? Everyone understood that 1943 might look a lot different than 1942, and that they’d maybe have to bring some men out of the woodwork to coach the boys, 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.
THE NEWS BROKE just two days after Meagher’s departure, and mere hours before 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 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, basketball, track, tennis, stuff like that. But risking life and limb for the fate of a football game rather than the fate of the free world was now out of the question.
The decision to officially cancel the game would still be up to individual schools. They could throw shoulder pads on civilians, schedule some games 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 or mentally unfit to defend the United States of America, more power to them. But any man fit enough for a fall roster was Uncle Sam’s, and Uncle Sam was no longer screwing around.
“Football,” read a common headline, “is Doomed.”
There were plenty of schools where that didn’t seem true. Auburn wasn’t one of them. Suddenly, the main issue wasn’t the lack of a competent coach. It was the lack of competent
What would happen if they sent out 11 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? 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 say the same for plenty of teams 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 Preflight Program team, a veritable all-star squad stocked with professional players from across the country. If Auburn lined up against its main rivals under current conditions, they’d be lucky to make a first down.
But, of course, the conditions seemed to change every day. These were crazy times. Plenty of folks across the conference thought the Army might ultimately reverse course. Duncan highly doubted it. 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, 1943. 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.
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.
It was the furthest thing from Duncan’s mind.
He just wanted to get the afternoon and the whole issue behind him. He didn’t know how long the meeting would take. But he was pretty sure what the recently formed faculty committee on athletics was going to say.
By the beginning of the month, five SEC teams had already thrown in the towel. And then, 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.”
STUDENTS WEREN’T HAPPY. The Plainsman wasn’t happy. They understood, they accepted it. But the paper still insisted that the student body would cheer on any 97-pound weakling willing to strap on a helmet for the glory of Auburn. If they had to find some 17-year-olds, they’d find them. Hell, if the team needed underwire, so be it. Robert Allen, dean of the school of science and literature, and chairman of the faculty athletic committee, got out his typewriter. The Plainsman ran his letter.
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 [sic] 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.
Everyone had been invited to the stadium for the All Out For Victory pep rally. Students, soldiers, sailors and naval air cadets all were there. Cheerleaders were out in full force. Even football players, or former ones, at least—Monk Gafford and plenty of others from the great ‘42 team, still with the Army Specialized Training Program, yet to ship overseas, attended. It was Thursday night, November 18. Instead of Coach Meagher talking about what should have been the upcoming game against Georgia, Col. John J. Waterman talked on “Football Players at War.” Instead of orange and blue—red, white and blue.
“This time we were not yelling for the Auburn football team because there is no Auburn football team this year,” the Plainsman wrote a week later. “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.”
At the end of the night, everyone moved to the stadium parking lot. They lit the bonfire. Instead of papier-mâché bulldogs, they burned effigies of Hitler and Hirohito.