So there was little to be changed in the new location of the NCAA football championship, only the postmark. It never left the state of Alabama. From “Roll Tide” to “Roll Toomer’s.” From Tuscaloosa to Auburn. From the state university to what used to be known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute to Auburn University, a switch from an agricultural and mechanical institution by order of the legislature in 1960.
It has been quite a stretch between national championships at Auburn, and quite an evolution in stature. Before Auburn met and destroyed Alabama in 1957, “Shug” Jordan, the deified coach, addressed his squad before the game: “Guys, if y’all have a good game, you have a chance of being national champions.”
They did — by a score of 40-0 — and thus became national champions, though there was nothing official about it then, beyond the recognition that came from the Associated Press and its national poll. The trophy was delivered by the national sports editor of the AP, Ted Smits, and I delivered him on a drive through the countryside to Auburn, where he made the presentation in the local theater. Ted was a city fellow, and he had never seen such villages and towns as we passed through on the way, the trophy nestled at his side.
This was before talk radio, and television stations signed off at midnight with a patriotic rendition of the national anthem. The players, as one headline later identified them, “came from nowhere,” referring to the villages and towns of Alabama. Lloyd Nix, the quarterback, came from a town named Carbon Hill, and when asked lately about the national championship accredited to the team, it wasn’t too definite in his memory.
“I’m not even sure they rolled Toomer’s Corner,” he said, referring to what has become a downtown tradition after Auburn wins a significant game. Toomer’s is the town drug store, the target of a toilet tissue barrage after victory.
Tiger heroes of the day were Red Phillips, an All-American end, halfback Tommy Lorino. Jackie Burkett, the center, and the captain, fullback Billy Atkins. And it was Atkins, to whom Ted Smits presented the championship trophy on the stage of what I recall as the Tiger Theater — which may or may not have been the name.
I do know, that in there is a portrait in the athletics department of “Shug” Jordan, nestling up to the trophy, a broad smile on his face.
Well, that’s the way it was then, when times were more civil and the athletes were not necessarily on the rebound from campus to the professional leagues. (There were two then.) Three Tigers moved on upward, Phillips, Burkett and Atkins, and forged headline careers as professionals. So, it was a totally different world. The season ended around Thanksgiving. There were fewer bowl games, “actual” bowl games, and if there was a Cam Newton “case” hovering in the shadows, I was not aware of it. But, then, who cares now. It’s old, but the memory lies gently on the mind.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.