The year was 1899. The U.S. President was William McKinley. The Spanish-American War treaty was signed that year. Horses and buggies were more prevalent than the newfangled invention called an automobile. Communication was either by very slow mail service or telegraph. Electricity and lights were still a novelty. Distance travel on land was mainly by train.
The Gay Nineties were winding down, but not everything was rosy in the American South. The Civil War was a vivid and stinging memory, and the South, which had been devastated, was still recovering from the ravages of war.
In Tennessee, on the top of a mountain on the Cumberland Plateau, a small college was struggling to survive. The Founders of the University of the South in 1857, had a grand vision of a large Episcopal university with undergraduate liberal arts studies, as well as schools of medicine, law, engineering, nursing, pharmacy, agriculture, and theology. This vision for Sewanee, as it was called, was shattered by the Civil War, with several of the founders dying in the war, the original cornerstone destroyed by Union forces, and the college treasury depleted.
Yet, in 1866, the college was refounded, based on the original vision, but tempered by the realities of the post-war South. Despite the great intentions of the Founders, as the 19th Century was coming to a close, the University was struggling to establish itself and finances were always of grave concern. In 1899 there were approximately 326 students, consisting of undergraduates, medical school, law school, and seminary students.
By the early 1890’s there was yet another invasion from the North: a new college game called football, which was evolving and developing into an incredibly popular American sport. Sewanee fielded its first team in 1891.
In the midst of Sewanee’s struggles came a football team in 1899 with 21 players, a new, young coach, a student manager, and an African-American trainer. They accomplished what no team before or since has come close to matching. Tiny Sewanee battled Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Southwestern Presbyterian, Texas, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU, Tulane, Cumberland, Auburn, and North Carolina. The players were all scholar-athletes, who played for the love of the game and without any type of athletic scholarships.
In the span of just six weeks, Sewanee would play twelve opponents and go undefeated. Only one team would even score on them. That team was Auburn coached by the famous John Heisman. More astonishingly, they traveled 2,500 miles by steam locomotive playing five games in six days. This team was truly “Unrivaled” in the annals of college football history.
This astounding achievement invigorated this small university and helped ensure that Sewanee would survive and thrive as an institution of higher learning. It gave inspiration and hope to the Sewanee faithful. This team’s achievement stands as a towering monument in the history of college football. Truly, the Sewanee Team of 1899 was a “team for the ages.”
“Unrivaled” tells this remarkable story.