March 18, 2013 - To count or not to count, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous claims, or to take note of the titles which might be valid, and by noting claim them? Apologies to Shakespeare.
Anyone versed in Auburn history knows that the Tigers officially recognize two national football championships. One came in 1957. The second in 2010. Then Auburn coach Gene Chizik reinforced that perception in his post game speech after the national championship game.
With confetti littering the field and the roar from Auburn fans shaking the rafters, Chizik pointed to the stands and crowed “Fifty-three years, baby! This is for you.”
Fifty three years. That’s a long time. But is that span between championships reality or a mirage?
Bear in mind that before the BCS era (and some would say beyond) the process for awarding a national champion was arbitrary. There were numerous poll-based championship selectors and some of those reached back into past seasons to make retroactive determinations. The argument has long been made that all national football championships are, in fact, mythical and open to interpretation.
Why then does Auburn steadfastly hold to the number two and embrace the 53-year gap?
Auburn graduate and former instructor Michael Skotnicki argues that the widely accepted and officially recognized 53-year drought does not exist. His contention is that the Tigers have a legitimate claim to and should officially recognize an additional seven crowns.
Skotnicki recently authored the book Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championships where he makes a case for the recognition of teams from 1910, 1913, 1914, 1958, 1983, 1993 and 2004 as national champions.
While Auburn administration has consistently refused to consider recognizing those seven teams as national champions either by raising banners in the stadium or noting those teams as champions in the media guide, there is widespread precedent for awarding retroactive championships.
It’s also a topic not without controversy. Even among the board of the Never to Yield Foundation there was dissent over whether this topic should even be broached. It is not our purpose to endorse either position, our objective is merely to give a fellow Auburn alumni the opportunity to present his argument and to give you, the reader, the freedom to make up your own minds.
Cross-state rival Alabama undoubtedly went the route of revising the past, boosting title claims in the 1980s when then sports information director Wayne Atcheson nearly doubled the number of Alabama championships by adding a slew of past crowns. The Tide went from seven to twelve with the stroke of Atcheson’s pen.
“I tried to make Alabama football look the best it could look and just make it as great as it could possibly be,” Atcheson said of his decision to add historic titles.
Ole Miss got into the business of rewriting history in the late 90s, churning up a trio of titles based on secondary awarding criteria. The Rebels added championship graphics to their travel rigs and raised banners in celebration. Texas A&M added retroactive titles last year. Minnesota has added to its championship lore by taking the 1904 national championship (its seventh claimed) last August. In a curious footnote, one of the titles retroactively claimed by Ole Miss was the 1960 championship which Minnesota also purports to own.
“Auburn just doesn’t do that” is the standard refrain from Auburn administrators and fans who’ve typically looked for years at these (perhaps exaggerated) claims with a mixture of amusement and disdain.
But when many programs, including your closest rivals, are reworking the past to create a historical tapestry that may or may not bear up to even cursory examination; and when those rivals repeat that revised history long and loud enough to establish it as truth (perception trumps reality) Skotnicki’s position is that perhaps Auburn should, to borrow from Atcheson’s rationale, “make it as great as it can possibly be.”
Whether you accept or reject Skotnicki’s premise regarding unclaimed titles, his book has merit if for nothing beyond the opportunity to get a sense of the history of past Auburn teams.
Donahue isn’t just the street on the Auburn campus where the Tiger Walk takes place, it’s also the name of one of the most successful coaches in Auburn history.
In 18 seasons at Auburn Mike Donahue won 106 games, second only to Shug Jordan. Nearly 100 years after he coached his last game at Auburn, Donahue’s .743 winning percentage is second highest in school history behind George Harvey (who only coached four games).
Donahue’s 1910 team shut out all but one opponent and gave up nine total points on the season. Donahue’s 1913 and 1914 teams went 16-0-1 and surrendered a two-year total of 13 points. The 1914 team was never scored on.
Whether you support or oppose recognizing retroactive titles for those seasons, the stories of those great teams are worth retelling. Skotnicki believes that those teams deserve to be recognized.
“I think it’s clearly in Auburn’s best interest to claim these additional national championships” Skotnicki said. “Many other universities have done similar things, and I think it’s time for Auburn to do what’s right, what’s best, and to stop being concerned about what others say or think,” Skotnicki said.
“Many Auburn fans have wondered how many national championships Auburn could claim if it used the same approach of other schools,” Skotnicki told the Never to Yield Foundation. “I was one of those people. Then this past summer (2012) I noticed that Texas A&M decided to claim two national championships based on retroactive selectors and that the University of Minnesota also claimed one. That made me look closer as to what Auburn could do if it wanted to and the book, Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championships, is the result of my research on this issue.”
Skotnicki researched the championship histories of other programs and then developed and applied his own strict regimen to determining the potential validity of Auburn’s past national championship claims.
“I decided upon the standard of a team being undefeated, conference champion or both, in addition to being named national champion by at least one recognized selector, such as Richard Billingsley (one of the BCS computer system components) or others. Under this standard, a team with more than one loss or a third-place conference finish wouldn’t meet the standard for claiming a national championship, even if it had been named such by a selector. Oddly enough, Alabama’s 2011 team, that went 12-1, would not meet this standard because it was not undefeated nor was it conference champion. However, seven Auburn teams other than 1957 and 2010 do meet this strict standard.”
Using that standard, Auburn’s championship legacy swells from two recognized to nine total. It’s a historical change Skotnicki believes could make a difference today.
“I believe that championship banners flying in a stadium do influence how people, whether they be recruits, alumni, media members, or whoever, perceive the football program” Skotnicki said. “Thus, I believe that claiming national championships for seasons where a strict standard is met, such as the one used in my book, would be a benefit to Auburn. I hope our athletic administration will show some bold leadership and take action on this issue rather than simply be happy with the status quo of ignoring Auburn’s past. As Shakespeare wrote, “what’s past is prologue” That’s wisdom that should not be ignored.”
Skotnicki said Auburn administration has not officially responded to his book to date.
“There hasn’t been a response; at least not one to me, anyway. When the book was first available back in November of last year, I sent copies to both President Jay Gogue and Athletic Director Jay Jacobs along with a letter than included my contact information. I don’t imagine the issues raised by the book seemed very important when they had to make decisions that resulted in Coach Malzahn replacing Coach Chizik. But now that Auburn football almost ready to start spring practice and the book has been well received by Auburn people and is getting some publicity, I would hope they at least give due consideration to the points made in the book. I hope the book is not dismissed out of hand because the issue it raises is important to a lot of Auburn people.”
Skotnicki says he understands that some administrators and fans might be hesitant to embrace his concept due to an aversion to “copy” Auburn’s cross-state rival. But he believes the benefits outweigh the negative possibilities.
“I think Auburn people should concern themselves about what’s best for Auburn and not what other people say. No one in the media, either television or radio, is an advocate for Auburn and so Auburn needs to do a better job advocating for itself,” Skotnicki said.
“I don’t know why Auburn hasn’t been willing to claim national championships for the years I describe in my book. Certainly 1913 and 2004 shouldn’t be controversial. Auburn is recognized by the NCAA as a national champion for 1913. USC’s 2004 title is vacated because of NCAA penalties discovered after the season and Auburn’s the natural team to claim that title based on its undefeated season.
“I hope it’s not because the idea of claiming national championships for these seasons or others has already been considered and rejected. I believe such a decision would be wrong and very short-sighted, particularly if the reason for it is because it’s something the University of Alabama has done and they just don’t want Auburn to be like Alabama. That’s a mistake because it’s just not Alabama; it’s many other college football programs.
“There are very good reasons to claim the national championship seasons named in my book. First, the coaches and players, from Coach Donahue to Coach Tuberville, and from Kirk Newell to Carnell Williams, deserve such recognition. They earned it through the sweat and blood they spilled for Auburn in battle on the gridiron, where each of the seven teams was not simply good, but truly dominant.
The worst example of this is that the NCAA officially recognizes Coach Donahue’s undefeated 1913 team as a national champion, but Auburn doesn’t. That’s a real shame, and Auburn people should be upset about that.
Second, I don’t believe it is wise to neglect the past. The past does influence the future.”
Got 9? Got 2? Does it matter whether a team from a century ago is today re-purposed as a true national champion?
It’s all a matter of perception. There are those of us who will go to our grave with no doubt that Auburn was the best football team in the nation in 2004. Do we need a poll or a title nine-years removed to validate that or are our memories enough? Are surviving members of the 1910 team due rings, t-shirts and a parade?
To count or not to count.
It’s a question that has long perplexed Auburn historians and fans.
Regardless of whether Auburn administration reviews Skotnicki’s book and determines his argument worthy of reconsidering the titles officially recognized, the controversy will continue.
What is your number? Based on the precedent set by other programs it is whatever you want it to be.
The past will be written and rewritten again. Take from it what you will.
Skotnicki is graduate of Auburn University and Cumberland School of Law. He has practiced law for more than 15 years and served as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court as well as staff attorney to several state Supreme Court justices.
More information about the book is available at www.auburnsunclaimed.com. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Quoted material for this article was taken from correspondence with Michael Skotnicki and from quotes provided in other published interviews.