Chapter 116

November 17, 1923    Auburn, The "Rubber" Match 

Back to Birmingham, where another sell-out was guaranteed

Centre was 5-1. Auburn was next, the third game in a series in Birmingham which had been fiercely contested in 1921 and 1922, with Centre winning the first game, 21-0, and the Auburn Tigers prevailing 6-0 the following year when a blocked punt determined the winner.

As Uncle Charlie had said in Memphis, Centre was playing to be crowned the "Southern Champions," even if it was only for bragging rights. The situation was complicated in the Southern Conference because there were so many scenarios, but if Centre beat Auburn, W&L and Georgia, writers and fans would anoint the Colonels as the best of all the teams in the South.

It was sort of dizzying to think through all of the games and scenarios.

Georgia Tech had tied Alabama and Florida.

Alabama had that tie with Georgia Tech.

Georgia hadn't lost in the South, but still had tough games with Vanderbilt and Alabama, plus the season ending game with Centre.

Vanderbilt and Mississippi State had tied.

Centre was looking good. The Colonels just needed to keep winning.

However, after their 1922 6-0 win over Centre, Auburn had other plans.

Even before the 1923 Centre-Auburn game, the civic leaders were already talking to Centre about returning again in 1924. Centre had developed quite a following in Birmingham, and the two previous games had them hanging from the rafters, total sellouts which had brought a lot of people and a lot of money into the businesses of the city.

During the week leading up to the Auburn game, Centre received an offer to come to Baltimore for a post-season game with the University of Maryland. Promoters had predicted a big payday as interest in the Terrapins' football team had soared after Maryland played powerful, undefeated Yale to a virtual standoff the week before in New Haven, losing 16-14.

Centre had to reluctantly decline, citing the restriction on games being played after the season by both its own S.I.A.A., and the Southern Conference as well.

( Yale didn't consider Maryland to be an intersectional game. The "Big 3" agreed that Maryland, the Virginia colleges and Georgia may have been below the Mason-Dixon Line, but they were "Eastern," and therefore scheduling them wasn't prohibited. )

Auburn had a new coach with the memorable name of Boozer Pitts. Pitts had taken over from Mike Donahue, who moved on to LSU after compiling a 95-35-5 record starting in 1904. ( Donahue missed the 1907 season.) Boozer hoped to make it 2 in a row for the Tigers after the the 6-0 win over Centre in 1922.

Going into the Centre game, the Tigers were 3-2-2, in what most considered a rebuilding year after going 8-2 in 1922. Two of the stars of 1922, John Shirey, who boomed out long punts during the 1922 game, and Ed Sherling, were gone.

Auburn  0                        Clemson  0
Auburn  20                     Birmingham Southern 0
Auburn  30                      Howard  0
Auburn  6                        Army  28
Auburn  34                      Fort Benning  0
Auburn  0                        Georgia  7
Auburn  6                        Tulane  6

The only common opponent was Clemson which Auburn tied and Centre beat handily, 28-7. Army beat the Alabamians convincingly at West Point, but it was recognized that this defeat didn't necessarily diminish Auburn as the Cadets had a great year. Army was 6-2-1 during the year, losing to Notre Dame ( 9-1 ), and Yale ( 8-0 ), and tying Navy in a year in which the Midshipmen went to the Rose Bowl and tied Washington.

Uncle Charlie pointed out that since he had been at Centre, his teams had never lost 2 straight years to an opponent. That was one motivating factor in beating Auburn, and the other was that Centre wanted to win by a greater margin than Georgia's 7-0 win over the Tigers.

Sports writers and fans had declared that Georgia had the best team in the South.

Centre wanted to make a statement about that.

On Wednesday before the game, Centre held a practice and ran plays with such precision that Uncle Charlie could say nothing except, "Well done," as his players huddled around him before heading to the showers.

Captain Kubale was quoted by Jop to have urged on his teammates by hollering out one of the better comments ever uttered by a player during a football practice.

"Come on lads, don't tarry now."

Jop said he didn't know if he was in Danville, Kentucky, or on the playing fields of Eton.

Again, the Colonels had a chartered Pullman to take them down to Birmingham. The car was a 14 section sleeper which would hold 28 people, and the travel group included 23 players, Coaches Moran and Cregor, and 3 student managers/trainers.

Jop was going on the trip, and he and Pearl, Uncle Charlie's wife, booked a slot on another Pullman which was carrying local Centre supporters.

The Southern had brought the two Pullmans down from Lexington late Thursday afternoon and left them on a siding, staffed, and ready to go. The team practiced in the afternoon, had a big dinner, and went to the station at 9:00. Again, a large crowd consisting of the student body and townspeople were at the station for the send off.

An hour earlier, in Lexington, a similar connection had been made as the train now pulling the Colonels had picked up a Pullman filled with Kentucky Wildcats on their way to play Georgia Tech. The Danville and Lexington additions were the last cars on a long consist that rolled through Central Kentucky toward the state line of Tennessee.

Centre and Kentucky traveled south on the same train. The "Grid-Graft" was to be set up in the gymnasium "to get a play report...." 

By 10:00, everybody was asleep. The southbound Queen City-Crescent City from Cincinnati, via Lexington, came into Danville at 11:30 and the two awaiting Pullmans were very gently connected to the train for the journey. It was such a smooth coupling that the sleeping Colonels never knew they were moving until the engine picked up enough speed to effect the gentle swaying of the car, and the clickety-clack of wheels on track made sleeping in the moving bedroom pleasurable.

Centre's and Kentucky's players met in the dining car for breakfast as they approached Chattanooga. The rivalry and battle of two weeks earlier was long forgotten as the two teams wished each other well in their upcoming games. At the Southern terminal, the two teams got off and chatted with fans and then the Wildcats' cars were connected to a Southern, Atlanta bound train, while the Colonels' remained hooked onto the Queen City-Crescent City bound for Birmingham, which later terminated at New Orleans.

( Kentucky tied Georgia Tech, 3-3, lost to Tennessee 18-0 on Thanksgiving, November 29, and finished 4-3-2. )

Birmingham turned out big-time for Centre. At 10:00 A.M. Friday morning, the team stepped off the train at Terminal Station and was greeted by a huge crowd, numerous reporters and photographers, dignitaries, members of the Chamber of Commerce, officials from Auburn, and Centre alumni from the area.

The Tutwiler was one again the headquarters for Centre and its fans.

Centre's familiar Tutwiler Hotel

Members of the Birmingham Country Club, led by S. L. Yerkes, arranged for practices and meals to be at the facility. By the third visit to Birmingham, the drill had been perfected.

Joe Guyon was at the practice on Friday afternoon. Guyon had been a member of the famous Carlisle Indians football team and went to Georgia Tech where he played on Tech's undefeated 1917 team and was an All-American in 1918. He was presently playing on the Oorang Indians, a National Football League team from Larue, Ohio made up of all native Americans, led by the great Jim Thorp.

"I just had to see what everybody's been talking about, Charlie. All I hear is Centre, Centre, Centre."

Uncle Charlie invited the great Guyon to sit on the Centre bench for the next day's game.

Sylacauga was halfway between Auburn and Birmingham. Apparently some fans were stranded there.

The 1923 Centre-Auburn was another sellout with 20,000 tickets sold. It was a perfect afternoon for a football game on Saturday, and Centre matched the weather by playing a perfect football game.

The closest that Auburn got to Centre's goal was the 40 yard line. Centre's offense was described as being "like a finely tuned Stutz Bearcat," a sporting and fast roadster of the time. The boys from Danville "never missed a beat and were on key all afternoon. Auburn was helpless."

Centre ran 78 plays and gained 397 yards for an average of slightly over 5 yards every time a Colonel touched the ball. By contrast, the Auburn Tigers were able to get only 36 plays off all afternoon and gained but 96 yards totally, for an average pickup of slightly over 2 1/2 yards per play.

Herb Covington once again had an outstanding game. The little sparkplug gained 188 yards, nearly doubling Auburn's total offense. Auburn had bottled up Centre's ground game in 1922, and Boozer Pitts had geared his team to watch for passes and end sweeps in 1923, thinking the Colonels wouldn't challenge the Tigers' front wall again.

Boozer made a bad call. Centre decided to ram it down Auburn's throat from the first play. Elmer "Roughy" Rabenstein took over a halfback position in the place of Hope Hudgins, still slowed from an injury against Sewanee.

It was Covey over left tackle. Rabenstein over the right side. Spurlock right up the middle behind Ed Kubale. Covey to the right, Spurlock to the left- play after play­ relentlessly, the Colonels picking up yardage on every play.

Despite several excellent drives, Centre wasn't able to get the ball into the end zone during the 1st quarter, but the tone had been set. Auburn would run 2 or 3 plays and have to punt. Centre would then gear up its ground game, overwhelming the Tigers once again.

Centre was threatening as the 1st quarter ended, and Covey got 6 points shortly after the 2nd period began. Lemon was good, and that was all of the scoring for the first half as it ended, Centre 7-0.

One unfortunate event occurred in the 1st half which no one, not even Uncle Charlie, had ever seen before. George Chinn, the big Harrodsburg, Kentucky native, was leading the interference downfield ahead of Covington. He took out an Auburn back and landed, face first, on a yard marker which had been generously laid out with lime.

Chinn scooped up a mouthful when he landed and swallowed as his stomach hit the ground. He quickly felt he was ablaze internally.

Time was called and Chinn gulped down water and actually nearly fainted but was revived with ammonia. Finally, Chinn was able to resume play, but after the game stated that, "One thing is certain. I've narrowed my possible jobs when I graduate. I'll never apply to be a fire eater in a side show."

George Chinn, the "lime man"

In the 3rd quarter, the Colonels got the ball on the Auburn 40 and Rabenstein took over and ran nearly every play in a drive which culminated with "Roughy" diving over  to score. For the afternoon, Rabenstein also out-rushed the entire Auburn team, picking up 106 yards in 25 carries. After the score, the Colonels lined up to kick and all 11 Tigers rushed. Covey calmly fielded the center and tossed a soft pass to Summers who had stepped into the end zone unmolested.

The 3rd quarter ended with Centre up, 14-0.

Lemon kicked a field goal in the last period to end the scoring. Centre won 17-0. Zip Newman covered the game for the Birmingham "News."

Even the Army's great set of bucking backs failed to dent the Auburn line as Covington, Rabenstein and Spurlock shot through it. Centre's offense moved on a perfect one-two beat, first over the right tackle, then the left, and occasionally slipping around end. Thomasson provided great interference out of the fullback position.

Centre presented a magnificently trained line. It charged as one man, inevitably getting the jump on the Tiger line. Kubale, Rubarth, Lynch, Chinn, Skidmore, Gordy and Lemon simply were superior to the Auburn front wall.

An interested observer at the game was none other than Ty Cobb, the "Georgia Peach," at the time the player/manager with the Detroit Tigers, and considered by many the greatest player ever to put on the spikes. Cobb was interviewed after the game and was very complimentary of the Colonels' play. But the reporter said he seemed even more impressed with Centre's ability to pack stadiums wherever the team played.

A Georgia Tech assistant coach, R.A. Clay, was in the press box scouting Auburn, Tech's next opponent. A reporter with the Atlanta "Georgian" asked him what he thought about the game.

Auburn has a good team. Coach Pitts has done a wonderful job. But Centre isn't just a good team. They are great team. Auburn will be a tough opponent for us, because they certainly had to learn a lot about the game of football in this battle today.

( Coach Clay was correct in his prediction. Tech and Auburn played to a 0-0 tie in their game played in Atlanta on Thanksgiving. )

Centre was 6-1 and was absolutely clicking. The capacity crowd left Rickwood Field knowing that they had seen a special team play as perfect a game as had ever taken place in Birmingham.

There was a festive reception and dance at the Birmingham Country Club the evening after the game. The team and Centre fans who had come down, plus all of the local alumni, partied far into the night. There was no pressure about getting in early as the returning train to Danville didn't pull until Sunday evening.

It was a great night, well deserved after the way the team had played against the Auburn Tigers.