Reviewing 'Auburn's Unclaimed National Championships'

A portion of the cover of Michael Skotnicki's "Auburn's Unclaimed National Championships." - Michael Skotnicki

Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Mike Skotnicki, author of the new book "Auburn's Unclaimed National Championships."

What if Auburn football could lay claim to nine national championships instead of two? Michael Skotnicki argues that it can in his recently released book, "Auburn's Unclaimed National Championships." Now before you starting thinking, "Retroactively claim national championships? That's something that only Bammers do," perhaps you should read Skotnicki's book. In it, he makes a compelling argument as to why Auburn University and fans should claim seven national championships for football in the years 1910, '13, '14, '58, '83, '93 and 2004, in addition to those already claimed in 1957 and 2010. Not only does he argue that these years should be celebrated as national championship seasons, but he goes in-depth into each season with detailed accounts of the hardships the teams faced in those those days, and recounts, by way of comparison to other dominant teams of the time, why Auburn should be recognized as national champions.

One of the things that I truly enjoyed was the historical account of the coaches of these teams -- especially those of "Iron" Mike Donahue and John Heisman. This book made me realize how much Auburn University does not adequately celebrate and promote it's rich history as a winning football program, especially those dominant teams that came before our beloved Shug Jordan. Skotnicki throughly explores these teams in his book. I would highly recommend that all Auburn fans read his book. It certainly opened my eyes to an era gone by that is none-too-often discussed.

So, who is the author? Michael Skotnicki earned two degrees from Auburn University in the 1980's, and he taught at Auburn as an instructor for one year. He also graduated magna cum laude from the Cumberland School of Law of Samford University, served as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and then staff attorney to several justices of that Court, and has practiced law in Birmingham for nearly fifteen years. He has written scientific research papers published in peer-reviewed journals, judicial opinions, articles on various legal topics, and legal briefs filed in appellate courts across the country, including the United States Supreme Court.

Recently, I was able to speak with Skotniki about his book and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions:

Give us a little bit about your background, and how you became an Auburn fan/alum.

"My introduction to Auburn football was as student coming all the way from Pennsylvania to become a Fisheries Biology major in the fall of 1978. It wasn't long before I switched majors to geology and earned both B.S. and M.S. degrees from Auburn. When I came to Auburn, I was most familiar with the Pitt and Penn State rivalry, which was pretty sporty back in the 1970's when I was a teenager and both had very good teams. But I saw pretty quickly that the intensity of that rivalry paled in comparison to Auburn's rivalries Georgia and Alabama."

What was your motivation behind writing the book?

"Over the years, I've read most of the books that have been written about Auburn football, including many now out of print and hard to find. I found that few really presented a coherent history of Auburn football and explained why Auburn has had extensive periods of excellence as well as periods where the football team was marginal or even much worse. In studying closely the periods of excellence I realized that in years other than 1957 and 2010, Auburn had a great case to claim a national championship like many other universities have done, based on selectors other than the polls from the news wire services. I think Auburn fans have talked among themselves for years about how many national championships Auburn could legitimately claim if the athletic department chose to do so, but no one had every publicly made the case for doing it. I'm pretty passionate that this is something Auburn should do to bring recognition to these great teams. So as an attorney whose practice is now almost entirely devoted to making a client's case to an appellate court by writing a brief by presenting the facts and argument, I decided I could be the person to write such a book."

Before writing this book, did you have a good knowledge base of Auburn football from which to work, or did you have to go back and educate yourself on most of the history contained in the book?

"I did have to educate myself about a lot of Auburn football, because by the time I became a student and Auburn fan, the Shug Jordan years were over. I had never really learned about the Jordan era and everything that came before. My education about Auburn football history really began about a decade or so ago, and I became amazed about how much glorious football history Auburn has that the athletic department seems to mostly ignore because it occurred before the Associated Press Poll began in 1936. I always knew that Donahue Drive was named after Coach Donahue, but until I began reading everything I could find about his teams, I never knew that his coaching career over nearly twenty years at Auburn was so outstanding that he was inducted into the inaugural class off the College Football Hall of Fame. He's clearly one of the greatest college football coaches of all-time, and that surprised me because I didn't learn it through the osmosis of simply being an Auburn fan. I believe more needs to be done to bring recognition to Coach Donahue who, by all accounts, was an amazing man as well as football coach."

How did you arrive at the specific years included in the book? What formula did you use to argue that season A should be considered a national championship year over season B, C and D?

"When I started researching the history of college football national championships, one thing I discovered is that for most of college football history, a national championship, like beauty, has been in the eye of the beholder. Even recently, during the BCS era, we've had a year, 2003, in which LSU was named BCS National Champion, while USC was named national champion by the AP Poll. Although as far back as 1929, John Heisman proposed a four-team playoff to name a college football national champion, we don't yet have such a system in place, and so over the decades, many different selectors have named national champions. While polls such as the AP Poll or Coaches' Poll have generally been accepted as controlling, that's mainly because they have been pushed on college football fans by the media, not because they are necessarily the best or most accurate means to judge the issue. There's a reason why the BCS includes computer models that factor in strength of schedule; the national champion polls have been largely a popularity contest between the top three or four teams.

"So, when I started examining all the various entities who have named college football national champions, including retroactive selectors, I decided that basing a claim of a national championship solely based on being named such by one or more selectors wouldn't be a strict enough standard to lend a real sense of legitimacy. I wanted to set a standard where it would be undeniable that the team had a dominating season in which it could be accepted as a valid national champion. 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."

Without giving away too much content of the book (because we want folks to read it for themselves), do you think Auburn's football program would be even more historically successful today had certain decisions been made differently after Mike Donahue's time ended at Auburn?

"At the time Coach "Iron Mike" Donahue left Auburn following the 1922 season, Auburn was by far the dominant in-state football program and had few equals in the entire South, from Texas to Virginia. Auburn had played games from Austin, Texas to West Point, N.Y. (against Army) and had played Northern powers Ohio State and the Carlisle Indians team in some of the few intersectional games played in the South. Auburn's reputation as a championship team was known far and wide. Unfortunately, at a crucial point in the history of the program as to who would replace Coach Donahue, neglect by the Auburn administration (some would say purposeful neglect) let all that slip away within just a few years. What followed was three decades with only a few winning seasons and one conference championship. Things could have been much different. Better leadership at that time would not only have changed Auburn football history, but Auburn history as a whole, as well. It's a history lesson that Auburn people would be wise to remember."

Since the book's release, have you been contacted by anyone from Auburn? If not, have you contacted anyone at Auburn (maybe the Sports Information Director) about discussing the possibility of claiming these championships?

"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, but didn't receive a response. Of course at that time, I'm sure they were caught up with the losing season and the eventual decisions to replace Coach Chizik and hire Coach Malzahn. But now, even though the book has gotten a good bit of publicity among Auburn people, been well received and has sold fairly well, I've not been contacted by anyone at Auburn. I tend to think that it may because it is an issue the Auburn athletic administration would rather avoid, which, if true, I simply don't understand."

Some Auburn fans enjoy a certain level of moral superiority over other schools *cough* 'Bama *cough* who claim what they might call dubious National Championships. Does your formula for arguing Auburn's National Championships differ from other schools' method of claiming National Championships? If yes, how so?

"As I noted, I've applied a fairly strict standard as to what can be considered a national championship season. One thing I think people should keep in mind that even applying such a standard, there will be more than one national champion each year. The BCS system brought us closer to a definitive national champion, but it will take the four-team playoff system to do so, and so the issue of national champions before the BCS system is debatable among several teams each season. In 1986, the sports information director at Alabama took advantage of this uncertainty to claim five national championships based on retroactive selectors. in addition to those it won based on the wire service polls during the Bryant era. One can nitpick a few during the Bryant era because for a time, the polls chose a national champion before the bowl games, and Alabama would go on to lose a bowl game. But as a whole, I don't have a problem with what Alabama has done, other than its claim of a national championship for 1941. In 1941, it was 9-2, with two shutout losses, and finished third in the SEC and 20th in the AP Poll. I don't understand why Alabama's SID chose to claim that one because Alabama football has a tremendous history even without claiming 1941. I believe Alabama badly overreached, opening itself up to criticism for other years as well. I've tried to avoid opening Auburn up to such criticism by applying a stricter standard that the team must be at least tied for conference champion or undefeated in addition to being named national champion by a selector. Hopefully that standard would satisfy those Auburn people seeking moral superiority."

Do you think that level of moral superiority would tend to prevent some section of the Auburn fan base from claiming these championships? What would you say to someone who might be afraid to claim them?

"I think there are several reasons why the Auburn administration or Auburn fans might not want to claim the additional national championships discussed in my book. Some might think the past, especially fifty or more years ago, is unimportant. Some might be convinced that before the BCS system, the only valid national champions are those teams named by the polls by the news wire services, AP and UPI. And some might feel that they would lose the right to belittle what Alabama has done in claiming additional national championships based on retroactive selectors. That feeling of moral superiority has apparently made life somehow easier for many Auburn fans living in this state.

"In response to those who hold such opinions, I would say that 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 against their peers. While the Auburn Media Guide may contain footnotes about many of these teams acknowledging that other entities have named them national champions, I think it is an insult that Auburn, their beloved Auburn, won't officially do the same. 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.

"Next, I don't think it's wise to neglect the past. As Shakespeare wrote, "What's past is prologue." The past, and how it's viewed, sets the stage for the present and future as to both how you see yourself and how others see you. If you see Auburn's history as only having won national championships in 1957 and 2010, then it appears that Auburn is the sort of football program that might be lucky to win just one in a person's entire lifetime. But if you view Auburn's history as having won national champions in 1910, 1913, 1914, 1957, 1958, 1983, 1993, 2004 and 2010, then I think you see the Auburn football program in an entirely different light. The past does influence the future and I think it's plainly in Auburn's best interest to claim these additional national championships. 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."

Recently, Texas A&M claimed additional national championships to bolster itself after joining the SEC and received a bit of backlash for doing so. Do you think Auburn University and fans fear that sort of backlash if they were to now claim these championships?

"Last summer, Texas A&M did officially claim national championships for 1919 and 1927 and put those years up on the outside of its stadium. The University of Minnesota claimed a national championship for 1904. I say, 'good for both schools.' If they received any backlash, it wasn't sufficient to have them retract claiming those championships. I imagine if Auburn sent out a press release tomorrow announcing that the athletic department were claiming seven additional national championships, it would be big news and be fodder for sportswriters and commentators, talk radiand football fan message boards. But how long would that last? And if Auburn then wins football games the jokes no longer go very far or sound very funny.

"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. We had a taste in 2010 of what it is like when Auburn's Athletic Department leadership is willing to take a stand against public and media pressure, and that resulted in the 2010 national championship. I would like to see more of that leadership style from the Athletic Department and I think many other Auburn people would as well.

"Also, I don't believe it's necessary for Auburn to claim seven additional national championships all at one time. This year is the 100th anniversary of the 1913 season, a national championship already officially recognized by the NCAA. Auburn should start by officially claiming that national championship come this football season. This year is also a key anniversary for the 1983 and 1993 seasons, and if it were my decision, I would claim those three national championships this year, possibly honoring the three teams at Homecoming."

Because you have obviously done your homework on this subject, should Auburn claim these championships, give us your objective (as objective as you can possibly be) opinion as to Auburn place in history among other schools. Where would you rank Auburn? Top 10? Top 5?

"I believe that in the past ten or twenty years, Auburn is a certainly top-10 football program. Three undefeated seasons (1993, 2004, 2010) in twenty years is pretty strong. I think there have been only six undefeated seasons in the SEC during that period, and Auburn owns three of them.

"But if you look back over the entire history of Auburn football, as rich as it is, I think Auburn ranks probably just outside the top 10. I believe Auburn is 12th in all-time wins. Given that the three decades of Auburn football following Coach Donahue were mediocre at best, it's a tribute to the work of Coach Jordan and those coaches who came after him that Auburn now ranks where it does all time."

Do you have any plans for other books on Auburn? If so, what areas? Football? Toomer's Corner? The university itself?

"In writing this book, I used up everything I could find out publicly about Coach Donahue. If there was enough additional information made available to me, I'd consider writing a book about him, because I think much more attention to his career is deserved.

"I do have plans with regard to a much different type of book. My wife has an illness affecting her balance and she uses a balance assistance service dog. In the three years she has used a service dog we've found that many people are just not accepting of them. Less than six months after Janet started using a service dog at work, her position was eliminated. In an effort to help change society by starting with children, Janet has visited local elementary school classes to teach them about the wonderful things service dogs do to help people and we plan to write a children's book about the life of her service dog, a wonderful Great Dane named Splash."

Once again, I would like to thank Mike Skotnicki for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find his book on his site, www.auburnsunclaimed.com, at J&M Bookstore in Auburn, at Little Professor Bookstore in Birmingham and on Amazon here. Skotnicki will have a Kindle version out in summer 2013. Follow him on twitter at @MSkotnicki.

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