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"Fighting Whiskey and "Fighting Whiskey and Immorality" at Auburn
The Politics of Southern Football, 1919-1927
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early November 1927, President Spright Dowell of Alabama Polytechnic Institute, today's Auburn University, walked up the gleaming white marble steps of the Alabama state capitol on his way to a special meeting of his school's board of trustees. The single item on the agenda was a
motion to dismiss him from his job. During his seven-year tenure, Dowell had obtained accreditation, raised admission standards, and improved the professional qualifications of the faculty. He had created an administrative bureaucracy and introduced modern accounting, auditing, and purchasing procedures. Prior to his arrival, registration had been a two-week-long nightmare; now it was accomplished in two days. He energetically lobbied the notoriously parsimonious Alabama legislature for increased appropriations, and when sufficient funding was not forthcoming, he orchestrated a fundraising drive that collected over half a million dollars. These funds paid for the construction of nearly two dozen campus buildings and such vital infrastructural needs as a safe and reliable water supply. Yet this solid record was overshadowed by a raging public controversy sparked by the decline of the once-powerful Auburn football program. Dowell had deemphasized football from the beginning of his tenure, and the 1927 team was about to complete the first winless season in school history. Trustees and football boosters publicly criticized Dowell, and a delegation of students met with Governor Bibb Graves to report that the student body had voted overwhelmingly for his dismissal. The trustees responded by mounting a formal investigation, complete with public hearings. The flurry of charges and countercharges paralyzed the campus and dominated headlines for a month, and the trustees now held Dowell's fate in their hands.1
Although he likely knew that he had little chance to keep his job, Dowell remained publicly confident as he entered the showdown in Graves's office. In characteristically blunt fashion, he asserted that his achievements outweighed the puerile clamor of a football-crazed mob. He maintained a contemptuous, self-righteous attitude toward the students and alumni who sought his ouster. He regarded [End Page 6] as absurd the notion that a winning football program could be the sine qua non of his tenure in office. He should have known better. Like numerous university presidents before and since, Spright Dowell learned that the vicissitudes of football can make or break a collegiate administration. The trustees' meeting was brief and to the point: Dowell was out, effective at the end of the academic year. He had dismissed his critics as an "irresponsible mass" possessed of a "mob spirit," but in the end, the trustees had sided with the mob.2
The Dowell controversy is partially explained as an episode in the long-running struggle between athletics and academics in American higher education. Dowell was resolutely hostile to big-time intercollegiate football, and he was determined that the athletic tail not wag the academic dog at Auburn. He considered the football program "a continuous problem" that threatened to "sidetrack . . . the more serious work of the institution." He undertook a quixotic campaign to diminish "the unnatural and exaggerated position which [football] occupies in the eyes of the students and of the public." He suggested that intercollegiate sports were no more important than intramural athletic competition, intercollegiate debate teams, student orchestras, the dramatic club, glee club, or agricultural and engineering [End Page 7] societies. Dowell seemed to think that if he lectured the campus community and public zealously enough about the dangers of big-time football, he...