Campus Celebrities: 1899 Iron Men

In honor of the Homecoming game and Alumni Weekend, I decided to write an article about Sewanee’s most famous football team and I wanted to recognize the students who played for this team.

Most Sewanee students and alumni know the story of 1899 Football Team. Its importance is shown throughout campus with it represented in a stained glass window in All Saints’ Chapel, on the base of the flagpole at the football field, and in a poster hanging in the main entrance of Fowler Center.

The stained glass window depicts Ormond Simkins, fullback on the undefeated team, captain of the undefeated baseball team in the same year, and valedictorian of his class. He is symbolically handing the football to future bishop Henry Disbrow Phillips, fullback on the 1900 team. The two teams combined hold Sewanee’s longest winning streak of 20 games (no ties or losses).

So let’s take a look at the famous 1899 season:

  • October 21 at Atlanta: Sewanee 12 versus Georgia 0
  • October 23 at Atlanta: Sewanee 32 versus Georgia Tech 0
  • October 28 at Sewanee: Sewanee 46 versus Tennessee 0
  • November 3 at Sewanee: Sewanee 54 versus Southwestern (known now as Rhodes College) 0
  • November 9 at Austin: Sewanee 12 versus Texas 0
  • November 10 at Houston: Sewanee 10 versus Texas A&M 0
  • November 11 at New Orleans: Sewanee 23 versus Tulane 0
  • November 13 at Baton Rouge: Sewanee 34 versus LSU 0
  • November 14 at Memphis: Sewanee 12 versus Ole Miss 0
  • November 20 at Sewanee: Sewanee 71 versus Cumberland 0
  • November 30 at Montgomery: Sewanee 11 versus Auburn 10
  • December 2 at Atlanta: Sewanee 5 versus North Carolina 0

At first glance, this looks like it could be Alabama’s schedule a few years ago when they went on to win the national championship except even Alabama allowed a few more touchdowns than this Sewanee Team. Sewanee’s 1899  team only allowed one team to score against them all year; Auburn under the coaching of John Heisman held them to a close game. But on top of an undefeated season, they played five game in six days and won all of them holding the other teams scoreless! This is a feat that has still not been surpassed today. If you look closely at this five game stretch, the team played a game and then travelled overnight to the next game almost everyday of this journey.

So why make such a strenuous trip? Football, as a sport, did not have the financial backing it does today to afford to travel each week. The lack of funds also meant that only 21 players could make the trip. So how did they do it? Captain Diddy Seibels (pictured below) attributed their success “to one thing alone and it is the greatest thing any team can have: teamwork.”

But Sewanee was not a one hit wonder. Sewanee continued as a football powerhouse for more than a quarter century with four undefeated seasons, twelve one-loss seasons, and three players inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Sewanee was a charter member of the Southeastern Conference founded in 1933, but was outmanned by bigger schools with greater resources. In 1940, Sewanee withdrew from the SEC to play other nonscholarship teams. But imagine how different Sewanee would be today if we were still a member of the SEC.

But no one can forget the ‘99 Iron Men and their impressive feat. Since then, many sports columnists have written about the endurance of these men with articles published in Sports Illustrated and countless newspapers. To read more about the 1899 Football Team and its players, check out Wendell Givens’ detailed account in his book Ninety-Nine Iron.