The first game at the school out East ended with a win, and a train wreck. The first game on the plains of Auburn, Alabama, was, for all intents and purposes, that game’s mirror image. The Yellow Jackets, in the second week of the season, headed west across state lines to face the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, coached by a face that would become all-too-familiar on the Flats less than a decade later.
I long for the days of playing Auburn. There, I said it. Might as well start with that. Sure, I’m too new of a Tech fan to remember any actual games against them, but might as well make my biases known right off the bat. Not that it really changes the narrative from 1896, of course. The Tigers are one of our oldest rivals, our second-most-played opponent historically, with nine more meetings than with that other Tiger team, Clemson, and seven more meetings than with Duke, of all schools. Allowing for digression, why don’t we really despise Duke? We’ve only played them, oh, every year since 1934. Seems like mild annoyance, mostly, at least from what I know. You’d think there’d be more there. But that’s a tangent for another time. But, anyways, the point still stands that the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Auburn Tigers have a historic tradition dating back to Tech’s very first season. In 91 all-time meetings, Auburn leads the series 47-41-4, with Tech winning the last two in 2003 and 2005. Sure, we lost to them in our ignominious three loss inaugural campaign of 1892, but the floundering Georgia School of Technology was able to bounce back the next year, holding the school that wouldn’t even be named Auburn University for 67 more years to a scoreless draw.
1893 Football Record
|11/4||@ u[sic]ga||W 28-6|
|11/11||vs. Mercer||W 10-6|
|11/30||vs. St. Albans||L 0-6|
|12/7||vs. Auburn||T 0-0|
The next few years, after losing captain and future American military hero Leonard Wood, the Tech football team was somewhat of a mess. They were swept in their three game 1894 season, falling to the ever-present Auburn team, as well as squads from Fort McPherson and the Savannah Athletic Association. It was a much different time in the world of Southern college football. The 1895 season, the preacher-physicist-president Isaac Hopkins’ last year as Institute president, did not even see a competitive team fielded. So, it was by some small miracle Georgia Tech even put a team together for 1896, a year in transition.
The Yellow Jackets played three games that year, facing Mercer twice and Auburn once. The season began on Halloween in Macon, with the Jackets garnering their first win since their 10-6 win over that same team three years earlier. And to think I was sad about a five win season. Poor guys. The Jackets now had win number three in their history, for a blistering all-time record of 3-7-1. Up next would be a much more frightening Auburn team, made doubly intimidating by the prospects of going on the road to face the Tigers.
Auburn had never hosted a football game before. In the years they had been competing, be it by convenience, monetary incentive, or ease of travel, they never played in front of a home crowd. The Yellow Jackets, visiting town on November 7th, 1896, would be the first to make the trek. There are no official sources on why the Yellow Jackets happened to be the first team to slog their way to Auburn, but it’s pretty easy to inference, when you realize just who was at the helm of the 1896 Auburn Tigers football team. That man, who is undoubtably familiar for gentle sayings like, “Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football,” was still in his “mercenary” stage, where he hopped between teams, not yet ready to settle down. No one really knows why. Heisman is famous for a lot of things, and towards the top of that list is when he led his Georiga Tech “Golden Tornado” of 1916 to a 222-0 unholy shellacking of a vastly out-matched Cumberland team. Though that day alone could supply a month of future columns, and probably will eventually, the uncompromising legend insisted the team still make the trip, or face his wrath. With the rag-tag Ramblin’ Wrecks from Georgia Tech being what amounted to the dregs of the sport, he surely found it high time a team come visit him. They were the perfect team to fit that bill.
On the morning of November 7th, Georgia Tech boarded a train in Atlanta. The journey was uneventful, until they were approaching Auburn station. Unbeknownst to the engineer at the helm of the locomotive, the night before, some dastardly Auburn boys has snuck out to the railroad tracks and coated them in a generous portion of pig grease, lard, and soap some 400 yards long. The train, unable to stop, skidded five miles clear of the station, and the Jackets were forced to haul their luggage five miles along the tracks back to town before the game. Once they got to the gridiron, they were pummeled, to the tune of a 45-0 shutout. Not that they were expected to do well, having only beaten Mercer the week before 6-4, while Auburn had smoked them, too, 46-0, but the demolition only added insult to injury, and the Jackets were, shall we say, less than pleased with the whole ordeal.
1896 Football Schedule
|10/31||@ Mercer||W 6-4|
|11/7||@ Auburn||L 45-0|
|11/21||vs. Mercer||T 12-12|
Tech refused to play Auburn the next year, but the series resumed with a pair of games, both Tech losses, in 1898 and 1899, after the administration insisted that such shenanigans would never happen again. The tradition lived on in the annual, but unfortunately no longer active tradition: the Wreck Techs Pajama Parade, a spirit rally commemorating the late night sabotage of the Atlanta-bound rail line. The Jackets, for their part, wouldn’t win another game until 1901, after tying Mercer to close out 1896. In that span, Tech lost twice to Auburn, twice to Clemson, and four times to the Athenians. They did, however, eventually become keen on demanding other schools come to Atlanta, though that wouldn’t help much until after 1903.
As for Heisman, Auburn legend has it that he was relaxing at brand-new Toomer’s Drugs, amused by the whole sight. But, his time in Auburn would be short-lived, as was his tenure in a lot of places those days. Ever the orator, as is clear from his above quote, that’s not to say Heisman didn’t care about Auburn, though he left there after just a few years. His remarks, upon leaving, are quite touching and speak to his interesting side hustle putting on plays in local theaters in the towns where he coached. Though he was often on the move as a young man, Heisman was always a writer, and left Auburn with a long letter in the Orange and Blue, dated January 17th, 1900. In it, he lamented leaving, saying:
At last we are to part. Is it not hard to believe? There are tears in my eyes, and tears in my voice; tears even in the trembling of my hand as I write you. Your Advisory Board will tell you about it - I cannot; but you will not feel hard toward me, you forgive me, you will not forget me? Let me ask to retain your friendship: Heaven knows I never felt more in need of than I do at this moment. Can a man be associated for five successive seasons with “Grand old Auburn,” toiling for her, befriended by her, striving with her, and yet not love her? No. Where on Earth’s surface have I found better friends, manlier sportsmen, truer gentlemen, than among the sons of the deservedly popular A.P.I.? The many fresh evidences I have lately received of your unwavering respect and esteem for me have touched me to my heart’s center. It is true that “prosperity brings friends, and adversity tries them.” Our friendship has more than once been thoroughly tried and yet never found wanting. You believe in me - you trust me? Let me ask for a continuance of that faith. It shall be my life’s endeavor to prove myself worthy of it. I hope this is not the end; I hope we shall meet again. In my mind’s eye and heart’s memory, at least, the recollection of these years of mutual endeavor, of mutual joy over all that was good for Auburn, over intermingled sorrow over all that was bad for Auburn, shall never fade. To you, to your faculty, to your friends, who have all been so kind, so just, so unfailingly true to me that I doubt I deserve it, I say “Farewell!” and yet I say also “Aufs Weiduschen!” May God bless you everyone!
Heisman, the truly fascinating renaissance-man-turned-football-coach left Auburn, never to be heard from again. Just kidding. He’ll be back. I think.
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Cracking the Solid South, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to delve into it when I am back in Atlanta, as my selection of resources here at Georgia Tech-Lorraine is a little bit thinner than what I have on my shelves in Atlanta. I am open to all ideas!