The very first Auburn football coach was actually a history professor who just happened to love the fledgling sport of football as well.
Dr. Mark Wilson of Auburn’s Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities spoke about Coach George Petrie in a recent visit to the Guntersville Historical Society. Petrie taught at Auburn for 53 years from 1887 until 1943. His legacy is still very much alive at the university as he penned “The Auburn Creed” as one of his final acts for the school.
A book about him was recently published called "Auburn Man: The Life & Times of George Petrie."
Petrie was born in Montgomery in 1866 and is considered the first Alabamian to earn a PhD. He got his undergraduate education at the University of Virginia then continued his studies and earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins.
Early in his education, he loved classical languages and did not particularly care for history. But a later professor ignited a passion for the subject in him. He enjoyed applying the scientific method of research to history.
He was hired in 1887 to start the history department at Auburn, which was known then as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama.
A fire occurred in the building where he’d been slated to teach just a week before he arrived on the Plains. But that turned out to just be a small setback for Petrie.
One of his lecturers at Johns Hopkins had been Woodrow Wilson, who would go on to become President of the United States. Wilson was also a football enthusiast and was one of those whom Petrie learned the game from. Wilson coached the Princeton team in 1890. Petrie would continue to correspond with Wilson for the rest of his life.
In 1892, charged with bringing more physical activity to Auburn students, Petrie formed the first football team.
Auburn played the University of Georgia in Atlanta in February of 1892, Wilson said. It was the first game in what is now considered the Deep South’s oldest football rivalry.
“They played at Piedmont Park in the mud,” Wilson said. “Petrie personally financed the uniforms for all the players.”
When it came time to chose colors for his team, Petrie harkened back to his days at the University of Virginia and chose burnt orange and navy blue.
Auburn won the first game over Georgia 10-0. The conditions were so muddy that it was hard to tell one team from the other by the end of the contest.
“Football then was a very different game than football today,” Wilson said. “They played two 45-minute halves with a 10-minute rest period in between. Touchdowns counted 4 points and field goals 2 points. It was a game of brute strength as the forward pass had not yet become part of football. Auburn’s take from the gate was $506. Its expenses were $465. Football was going to be a money making sport.”
Auburn’s first team went 2-2. In addition to the Georgia win, they lost to Trinity and North Carolina and defeated Georgia Tech.
Petrie only coached the single season at Auburn. But he continued to teach thousands of students over the course of his long career and he helped mold Auburn University as an institution.
He coached the school’s first baseball team and brought the first tennis courts to the school. He is considered the father of both the history department and the graduate school at Auburn.
His students conducted groundbreaking research on slavery in 1907. He lectured on current events, wrote newspaper columns and also has a radio program.
Ralph “Shug” Jordan, who would later go on to fame as an Auburn coach himself, carried a copy of Petrie’s “Auburn Creed” in his boot when he stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Petrie died in 1947. His papers are preserved in a special collection in the Auburn University library. He is buried in Auburn’s Pine Hill Cemetery.
Wilson invited anyone from Guntersville who happens to be visiting Auburn to stop by his building, the Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities, for a tour. Guntersville Historical Society president Tyrus Dorman presented Wilson with a copy of the book “Guntersville Remembered” as a token of appreciation for sharing Petrie’s story with them.
Wilson has been going around the state talking about Petrie as part of Alabama's bicentennial celebration.