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A Tiger Walk Through History

By: Paul Hemphill; Foreword by Vince Dooley
Reviewed by: Jim Buford
Pebble Hill Books/The University of Alabama Press, 2008
$39.95, Hardcover

Another book about Auburn football by an Auburn alumnus. This time it’s Paul Hemphill celebrating glorious victories, legendary coaches, and noteworthy performances of student athletes on the field of honor—especially the field known as the Iron Bowl. But what about objectivity? Hemphill admits up front that he can’t be objective. And what was First Draft thinking when it sent me the book to me to review? I’m an Auburn alumnus from the class of 1960, which means I was a student in 1957 when Auburn won its only national championship and Hemphill was sports editor of The Auburn Plainsman. All that aside, don’t we need to be encouraging people in our state to attend plays, read non-rhyming poetry, and become more involved in activities that increase their cultural awareness than in reinforcing their preoccupation with revenue producing sports? So do you really think I’m going to tell you that a coffee-table book about football advances the literary arts? Well, yes, actually.

For one thing, folks at Pebble Hill Books and The University of Alabama Press obviously think that is does, and I must defer to their judgment. But you also know (or should know) that Hemphill is one of the most important Southern writers of our time, a Pulitzer nominee whose body of work includes biography, fiction, and social history. Hemphill is at his best when he writes about those things that define a working-class culture in which family, religion, politics, race, music, women, and sports matter greatly. And the greatest of these is sports, arguably the football fortunes of Auburn and Alabama. This is true, of course, for those who attended these schools and became doctors and lawyers and teachers and such and a much greater number who work on the clock, drink beer from a can, drive a pick-up, and never set foot in a college classroom. Well, we all identify with a state that doesn’t rank very high on most measures of achievement, and it’s nice to compete for number one in something.

Hemphill’s walk begins in the late nineteenth century when the game of “foot ball” had become well established on the campuses in the East and Midwest and the game between Yale and Harvard attracted national media attention. But it was unknown in the lower South until 1892, when George Petrie, a history professor at Auburn (then called Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College) organized a squad in 1892 and bought uniforms from a sporting goods dealer in Boston. In its first game the Auburn Tigers beat the University of Georgia (whose mascot was a goat named “Sir William”) 10-0, beginning the oldest continuous rivalry in southern football.

Hemphill takes us through the next 116 years, recording the highs and lows along the way—the coaching eras of John Heisman and Mike Donahue during the early 1900s when Auburn emerged as a Southern power; Auburn’s first bowl appearance in 1936 under Jack Meagher; the national championship in 1957 during the reign of Ralph “Shug” Jordan; and the successes of Pat Dye during the 1980s when Auburn Football achieved its present status as an elite national program. But as Hemphill points out, several climbs to the top were accompanied by off-the-field problems, and three undefeated teams in the modern era were barred by the NCAA from appearing in bowl games. A program that has repeatedly overcome adversity has often not been able to tolerate prosperity. But maybe the cycle has been broken by Tommy Tuberville, whose 2004 team went 13-0 and beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. This book is a treasure trove of facts and stories, but it transcends coaches, players, and fight songs. It can be read with pleasure by those who follow the Tigers or Crimson Tide as well as those who just like to read Southern history. It deserves a place on your bookshelf or coffee table as the case may be. Nov 2008

Jim Buford is the author of three collections of essays and a social history. He is the former “Southern Literature” columnist for The Montgomery Advertiser, and he presently serves as president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum Board of Directors.

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