Vince Dooley was a freshman quarterback who didn't play, but the team was so bad that he seriously considered going home to Mobile to play basketball at Spring Hill College.
Senior Editor Philip Marshall
That was Auburn football in 1950. The Tigers went 0-10. They lost to Wofford. They were bad, bad, bad.
"What I saw in my freshman year was probably the worst football team I’ve ever seen, and a poorly coached team, I might add," Dooley said, looking back. "I absolutely felt like my high school could have played them a heck of a game. Losing to Wofford was one thing, then we lost to Southeast Louisiana. I thought that was the worst game I’d ever seen and still feel that way. I was pretty discouraged, as you might imagine, with that."
Dooley didn't leave. He went on to become a standout Auburn quarterback and a Hall of Fame coach at Georgia. It was at the end of that season that year that the seeds were planted that would grow and prosper and eventually become the thriving enterprise that is Auburn football today.
Shug Jordan and Jeff Beard, the football coach and the businessman, showed the way for all who would come after them.
Their story is opening chapter of the story of modern Auburn football.
As the 1950 season ended, it was clear something had to be done. Three years under Earl Brown had produced records of 1-8-1, 2-4-3, and 0-10. His only significant victory had come in 1949, 14-13 over Alabama. And, as is the case today, if all wasn’t well with the football program, all wasn’t well with the athletic program as a whole.
Auburn president Ralph Draughon loved football. He went to Jeff Beard, who was the business manager for Auburn’s athletics program, to seek advice. Beard gave it to him straight. The coaching staff, he said, had to go. Draughon agreed and fired Brown and his staff. Wilbur Hutsell was the athletic director, but his love was track and he wanted to concentrate on coaching. Draughon asked Beard to replace Hutsell and to appoint a committee to find a new football coach.
Beard already knew who he wanted. He wanted Jordan, an assistant coach on Wally Butts’ Georgia staff, who had been a tough-as-nails Auburn center. The problem was that Jordan was still seething about being passed over for the position of Auburn’s head coach three years earlier when Brown had been hired.
“If they don’t think an Auburn man can do the job , they ought to close the joint down,” Jordan said disdainfully when he learned he had not been chosen.
Beard appointed his committee, filling it with former Auburn players who knew Jordan. He asked Jordan to apply, but Jordan resisted. He didn’t want to be embarrassed again. Finally, Jordan wrote a one-sentence letter: “I hereby apply for the coaching job at Auburn. Sincerely, Ralph Jordan.” It was enough. Jordan was chosen. His salary would be $12,000 a year.
Shortly after midnight on February 26, 1951, Beard and Jordan walked onto the front porch of the president’s mansion. Hundreds of students were in the yard. Beard told them Jordan would be Auburn’s next football coach. The students cheered, and Auburn would never be the same.
Jordan, the son of a railroad man, was born Sept. 25, 1910, in Selma. His childhood love for sugar cane earned him the nickname "Shug." He tastes his first athletic success at the Selma YMCA, where coach Paul Grist had a major impact in his life.
Jordan arrived in Auburn in 1928. He quickly established that he was an outstanding athlete, lettering in football as a center, in basketball as a guard, and in baseball as a pitcher. Shortly after he graduated, Jordan went to work for his old Auburn football coach, Chet Wynne, Jordan stayed on. In a day when assistant coaches often coached other sports, Jordan was Auburn’s head basketball coach before he was its head football coach.
Jordan’s career was interrupted when his country called him to duty. As a decorated army lieutenant, he was wounded in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. He also participated in major invasions in North Africa, Sicily, and Okinawa. Jordan came home in 1945 and coached on more at Auburn before leaving to join Meagher’s staff with the professional Miami Seahawks. With the Seahawks falling apart, Jordan went to work for Wally Butts in Georgia, setting in motion the events that led him back to the alma mater he loved.
Over the next 25 seasons, Jordan won 176 games, lost 83, and tied 6. He won the 1957 national championship. He made Auburn’s name great again in the world of college football. He was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. In 1973 Cliff Hare Stadium officially became Jordan-Hare Stadium. Today, Shug Jordan Parkway runs by the Auburn campus.
The Tigers shocked heavily favored Vanderbilt 24-12 in Jordan’s first game and finished 5-5 in 1951. After falling back to 2-8 in 1952, the Tigers began a surge that would culminate with 10-0 record and the 1957 national championship. Starting with a 27-20 win over Mississippi State in 1956, they went twenty-four games without a loss.
Along the way, Jordan became known as one of the true gentlemen of college football. The men who played for him still talk of the lessons he taught.
“He earned your respect because of the way he handled himself and conducted himself,” recalled Mike Kolen, an All-Southeastern Conference linebacker who went on to great days with the Miami Dolphins. “He was just a class guy. Being the kind of person he was, he earned the respect of his players. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to play for him.” Jordan, true to his Selma roots, was gracious in victory and defeat. He was humble and had no need for the spotlight. His telephone number was listed for all to see.
Ralph Jordan Jr. remembers a simple man in simpler and gentler times. He says his father would not have been comfortable under the searing spotlight that shines on today’s coaches in big-time college football, nor would he have been able to comprehend football coaches making $4 million a year.
"There’s been such thing as transition in coaching,” Ralph Jr. said. “He went to see his barber every week to get his hair cut. That was almost ritual. He didn’t have any problems with fans. He would stop and talk to people and people would talk to him. That’s the way he wanted it. Occasionally, we would have a fan call up in the middle of the night in unforgiving terms, but it was an unusual occurrence. Everybody knew the number. All you had to do was pick up the phone and tell the operator who you wanted. People were a lot more forgiving then. I think the fans have changed, and it’s not a good change.”
Jordan’s graciousness belied the competitive fires that burned hot in his gut. His voice could be like a warm embrace or icy with anger.
Steve Wilson, now a prominent Huntsville lawyer, was Jordan’s kind of player. He walked on, beat the odds, and became the undersized linebacker who earned the respect of his teammates and opponents. He remembers one day in 1970 when Jordon got his players’ attention. The Tigers had beaten Tennessee 36-23 in monumental showdown a week earlier. Expected to win easily at Kentucky they trailed 9-0 at halftime.
“There was nobody else in the room," Wilson said. "We knew the coaches were out there because we could hear them talking, but nobody came in to talk to us. All of a sudden, there is a loud bang. Coach Jordon literally kicks the door off the hinges. He takes three steps with his arms crossed, and the manager and coaches walk in behind him. He starts tugging on that ear, and you know all hell is about to break loose. He says ‘ You stink worse than stale s---.’ He didn’t say another word. He walked out of the locker room and everybody went with him. Wallace Clark ran the kickoff back for a touchdown and we won 33-15.”
There was no room for compromise in Jordan’s values, on the football field, in the community, in his home.
“If he ever told me a lie, I don’t remember it,” Ralph Jr. said. “There were times I didn’t want to listen and times I didn’t believe what he told me. I know today what he told me was true and I damned well should have listened to him. That, to me, is what coaching is all about. Anybody can get out there and threaten to take people’s scholarships away.”
Jordan never won another championship after 1957, but he must have set a record for near misses. The Tigers finished second in the Southeastern Conference in 1955, 1958, 1962, 1965, 1971, 1972, and 1974. I n three other seasons, they were a win away from finishing on top. The 1972 team didn’t win a championship only because Alabama played one more SEC game.
In spring 1975 Jordan shocked the state when he announced that season would be his last. The Tigers had gone 10-2 in 1974 and big things were expected in 1975. The Tigers staggered to a 3-6-2 record. Jordan. Hurting inside, handled it as he always handled adversity, with grace and dignity. On November 29, 1975, Jordan coached his last Auburn football game, a 28-0 loss to Alabama in Birmingham.
In 1976 Jordan was appointed to the Auburn Board of Trustees, an astonishing honor for a football coach. He served until he died on July 17, 1980. Stricken with leukemia, Jordan died as he lived - quietly, gracefully, and courageously.
“He died in his sleep, which was a blessing,” Ralph Jr. said. “It was a real dark time for us. He was the one you always turned to in a crisis. He’d always been there. It took us a while to get our feet under us. Just as we were settling into a relationship one man to another, he was gone."
No Auburn coach before or since has approached Jordon’s record of 176 wins, It isn’t likely anyone will. Jordan and his wife, Evelyn, never sought the perks and bright lights they could have had. They were content to raise their children, Ralph Jr., Susan, and Darby, and enjoy life in the college town they loved.
Garland Washington Beard, better known as Jeff, was a standout athlete in his own right. A native of Hardinsburg, Ky., he was an SEC discus champion as a member of Auburn's track team. He graduated in 1932 and left only briefly before returning as athletics business manager and assistant track coach.
From the time he became athletic director until he retired in 1972, Beard's mission was to make Auburn athletics strong. Had it not been for his commitment, things might be far different today.
During his tenure, Beard oversaw the addition of 40,000 seats to what was then Cliff Hare Stadium. Under his guidance, Auburn people came to expect excellence where they one had learned to leave with hopelessness.
When Beard was named athletic director in February 1951, the department he inherited was in dire straits. It was some $100,0000 in debt, an astronomical amount at the time. Under his leadership, the department was transformed from a financial drain into an enterprise that actually gave money back to the university.
In the early days, when tickets were a hard sell and Auburn people were divided about supporting football, Beard and Jordan would drive to alumni meetings. Jordan would speak, and Beard would sell tickets out of the trunk of his car.
How times have changed.