Rational Champions: Birmingham lawyer’s new book argues Auburn should claim 7 more national titles

Got 9?

Michael Skotnicki is a Birmingham lawyer with two degrees from Auburn and magna cum laude honors from Samford, and he’s written a bunch of scientific papers and even briefs that have been reviewed by the Supreme Court, and the dude just comes out with it: Auburn has nine teams, not two, that should be claimed and heralded and celebrated by Auburn fans as National Champions.

And he’s not talking some halftime Text Your Answer To The Jumbotron. He wants banners. That’s the way he ends every chapter of his book, “Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championships”—with a demand for banners at Jordan-Hare.  And “agree with the premise or not,” as David Housel blurbs on the back cover—our own Van Allen Plexico blurbs, too— you have to respect that.

You respect it even more when you realize Skotnicki isn’t appealing to Auburn fans and our need to keep up with the Jones’ and their tacky bumper stickers, but for the players—the bruised and bloodied sepia-toned 20-year-olds who bent themselves to the glory of Auburn 100 years ago as much as Zeke and Burkett and Cam and Nick after them, and in many ways more (the exploits of the 1913 and 1914 teams will drop your jaw).

We interviewed Skotnicki about his motivations for writing the book, how it could affect Auburn’s self-esteem, and just why the university seems intent on celebrating a lack of banners almost as if it was a banner itself.

Why did you attend Auburn? Did you grow up an Auburn fan?

I didn’t grow up an Auburn fan, and perhaps that keyed my interest in learning about Auburn football history when I eventually attended Auburn. I grew up in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1960’s and 1970’s and followed Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Penn State football. I decided to attend Auburn for college because at that time I wanted to be a fisheries biologist and Auburn had the best program in the nation. Like many people, I changed majors and ended up getting both a B.S. and M.S. in geology and even taught Geology 102 in 1985 and 1986 when I filled in for a professor on sabbatical. Several years later I went to law school and I have made a career in law ever since.

Why did you write “Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championships”? When did the idea come to you? What was the hardest thing about writing it? The easiest?

I wrote the book because I simply grew tired of the ignorance about the greatness of Auburn football history that you see in both national and in-state sports media, who think the only highlights of Auburn football before Bo Jackson went “Over the Top” in 1982 were the 1957 National Championship, the “Punt Bama Punt” game in 1972, and the fact John Heisman was the head coach for five years in the 1890’s. I wanted to bring to the attention of people that Auburn was a true power in college football with Coach “Iron Mike” Donahue. That period is an important part of Auburn’s football history that the Auburn administration has neglected and most Auburn people thus know very little if anything about.

The idea came to me this past summer when I read that the University of Minnesota had decided to claim a National Championship for 1904 based on the ranking of a recognized retroactive selector, the Billingsley Report. Then I read that Texas A&M University, upon joining the SEC in football, had decided to claim being National Champion for 1919 and 1927, also based on the rankings of retroactive selectors. I had a good idea from my reading of Auburn football history that Auburn could make similar claims and I set about gathering the information to support making such an argument. When I realized there was plenty of material available, I set out to write a book that would tell a concise history of Auburn football, focusing on the seven seasons where, using a strict standard, Auburn could legitimately claim additional National Championships.

The hardest thing about writing the book was actually finding information about Coach Donahue and his teams. I had to scour many out-of-print books about Auburn football and newspaper archives available over the internet just to find the information I provided in the book.

The easiest thing was actually making the case for Auburn to claim a National Championship for the seven seasons discussed in the book. As an appellate brief writer, I often struggle trying to make the case for a client that the trial court’s ruling was in error and should be reversed because there is little evidence or law to support the argument. I had no such problem writing this book. In fact, the issue is a “slam dunk” for some years, such as 1913, 1983, and 2004.

Why has Auburn never claimed some of these championships? Did some of the older teams think of themselves as national champions? 1913? 1914? When did the NCAA officially recognizes Auburn as a national champion for 1913?

I don’t know why Auburn decided not to claim these additional National Championships. Certainly the Athletic Department is aware of the possibility, as the Football Media Guide makes note of most of them in fine print no one notices. Many universities in addition to the University of Alabama do so. For example, in 2004, the University of Southern California claimed a National Championship for 1939, when it was the undefeated Pacific Coast Conference Champion.

While the idea of a National Champion was discussed in the early years of college football, there really was no means to determine a national champion and so newspapers would name regional champions. The 1908, 1910, 1913, and 1914 Auburn teams under Coach Donahue were all named “Champions of the South” and it wasn’t until 1936 that the Associated Press developed the first college football ranking poll that named a National Champion. Certainly, the information I found suggests that those Auburn teams, and students and alumni, were very proud of the fact that they were Champions of the South. Auburn football was very important in that era when it was by far the dominant football team in this state and was only challenged for dominance in the entire South, from Louisiana to Virginia, by two other schools.

The NCAA does indeed recognize Auburn as a National Champion for 1913 based on the retroactive rankings of Richard Billingsley, who developed a computer program for rating college football teams based on strength of schedule in 1970. Billingsley’s current program is one of six computer formulas used in creating in the current BCS rankings.

I’m not certain when the NCAA began recognizing retroactive National Championships for years before the A.P. poll started in 1936, but I do think that Auburn should recognize the 1913 team as a National Champion if for no other reason that that the NCAA does. Having a stricter standard than the NCAA makes no sense to me.

In recent years, the prevailing “Well, if we counted like Bama…” mentality among Auburn fans seems to have established a refusal to claim Auburn as national champions in at least more well-known So-Close seasons like 1983 and 2004 almost as a point of pride, another thing to set us apart (“We Don’t Do That”), even to the point of temporarily erasing undefeated seasons from Auburn history. Do you think that would factor into the university’s reluctance to change its official policy (if there is one) toward recognizing these teams as national champions?

I completely understand that point of view that some Auburn people, and apparently some very important Auburn people, have. I simply disagree and believe it is holding the Auburn football program back from being recognized for the greatness that it has earned on the gridiron for over a century through the efforts of these coaches and players. I say why let what Alabama does control what Auburn does? Moreover, it’s just not Alabama. Many universities have done the same. In addition to my mention of Texas A&M, in the SEC, the University of Tennessee claims six National Championships. Just one of those is an A.P. title and another is its 1998 BCS title. The other four are from retroactive selectors just as I propose Auburn should claim for 1913 and other years.

You straight up say “Auburn should do this…” for each team at the end of each chapter. But how likely do you think that they will? How do you imagine it happening? How do you think Auburn fans would feel about it? Alabama fans? 

I can’t say how likely it is that Auburn will ever claim a National Championship for any of the seven years discussed in my book. My hope in writing the book was that if I could make the case for each of these seven seasons – and there is a strong case in each instance, the Auburn people would judge for themselves what should be done. If there is enough of a clamor for a change in the Athletic Department’s position then I believe it is possible that Auburn will one day recognize additional National Championships.  I don’t believe that Auburn would claim all seven additional National Championships at one time, although there is precedent given that Alabama’s Athletic Department claimed five additional National Championships in 1986. I think it might be done a few years at a time, on the occasion of an anniversary season. Given that this year will be the 100 year anniversary of the 1913 team, there would be no better time that this fall to recognize that 1913 team as a National Champion. It is also the 30th and 20th anniversaries of the 1983 and 1993 teams, so this makes it a great year to add a trifecta of National Championships.

That’s the 1983 Alabama media guide. National championships listed? Six. Three years later, they had 11.

I think Auburn fans, true Auburn fans, would be proud to claim additional National Championships if they understood the strength of the arguments supporting such a claim. I’m sure Alabama fans would find some way to complain or try and belittle Auburn for taking such action. However, given that the standard for Auburn claiming additional National Championships that I set forth in my book cannot be met for at least one of the National Championships claimed by Alabama (1941), Alabama fans would have actually very little to argue about unless they want to start subtracting championships from their own total.

What’s the reaction been to the book so far?

I’ve had a good reaction from those who have read it. Many Auburn people tell me they are surprised to learn how dominant the Auburn football program was under Coach Donahue. A few former players have passed word to me that they appreciate my efforts at getting their teams officially recognized by Auburn as National Champions. The book has begun what I think is an important discussion for Auburn people, and I hope that discussion continues as we move toward the 100th anniversary of the 1913 team.

You can buy Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championships at J&M Bookstore and online at www.auburnsunclaimed.com.

Related: Auburn Football Inspiration video updated to read ’7 Perfect Seasons’

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