A BLAST FROM THE PAST: Vanderbilt U’s football debt to Tingley, Iowa, the tiny town that produced legendary Commodore coach Dan McGugin

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

COOPER, Iowa, Dec. 26, 2013 — When I was a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, back from 1965-’69, I would occasionally find myself around older Vandy sports fans.  When it would come up that I was from Iowa, I’d often hear, “Dan McGugin’s home state!”

I played baseball on McGugin Field.  A new building, the McGugin Center, was under construction as I was leaving, one that would become headquarters for Vanderbilt Commodore athletics.  It was clear that he’d been something special.

Soon I learned that Dan McGugin had been the head football coach of the Commodores from 1904-’34, when he made the Commodores a national power.  His teams compiled a record of 197-55-19, and he was inducted as a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

Seven years ago, I learned a whole lot more about him when I accompanied his grandson George McGugin, now 73, on his first-ever visit to the old coach’s hometown, Tingley, pop. 180, located north of Mount Ayr in Ringgold County.

I’ve been dipping back into the McGugin heritage this week while we Vanderbilt fans have been psyching up for the Jan. 4 “BBVA Compass Bowl” game in Birmingham, Ala.   It’s only our school’s sixth bowl game in 125 years of football, so you can imagine our excitement.  This year’s Commodores, 8-4 and on the rise in the Southeastern Conference, play the 8-4 University of Houston Cougars, likewise a rising power in their American Athletic Conference.

Vandy Dan McGugin 1921.jpg
The current keeper of the McGugin story in Tingley is Sue Richards, who is interested in local history, has been the informational contact for members of the McGugin family, and who is something of a sports legend herself.  She was a seventh grader who was on the high school varsity squad when the Tingley High School girls’ basketball team made their first-ever trip to the state tournament in 1952, and she was a starter when the trip made return trips to state in ’54 and ’57.  “We didn’t have a gym for games in Tingley, so all our games were ‘away’ games,” Richards said. “I don’t think we ever really had a team nickname, but our coach told the reporters in Des Moines that maybe we should be called the ‘Tingley Travelers’ since we were on the road all the time.”

Back to the McGugins.  “They were farmers and had a place east of town and just a little north,” Richards said.  “There’s no house on that place anymore.”

Benjamin Franklin McGugin was a Civil War soldier, considered by many a hero because he escaped from the Confederates’ dreadful and deadly Andersonville Prison in Georgia.  Richards said she’s seen references to McGugin being one of the founders of the “Grand Army of the Republic,” the fraternal organization of Civil War veterans that was founded after the war and became a powerful political body across the nation.  Benjamin McGugin married Melissa Critchfield, and they had a daughter in addition to son Daniel Earle McGugin, who was born in 1879.

There was no football, and possibly no other organized sports, when Dan McGugin was going through Tingley High School.  He graduated in 1895 “in a class that had only eight people, but was one of our more famous graduating classes,” Richards said.  “One of the class members was Dan McGugin, who became famous in sports.  Two of the other classmates, Roy Pollock and Stella McClure, married and were the parents of Jackson Pollock,” the famed American abstract artist who died in 1956. “And there was another classmate Ralph Tidrick who became a missionary, went to Sudan to work and was killed by a lion,” Richards said.

The Des Moines Register, in a 1955 story that profiled Dan McGugin as a new member of the newspaper’s Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, wrote that he had an odd start into sports.  When he was 15, a vocal quartet from Drake University came to Tingley to perform at a Sunday evening church service.  One of the singers was W.W. Wharton and he had been the first football coach at Drake, the paper reported.  “Wharton, a man of many talents, demonstrated his baton twirling abilities between musical numbers,” the Register story said. “After the service that evening, a stalwart young man approached Wharton.  He was intrigued by the baton twirling. He wondered if he could learn to do it.  But the strong young physique suggested other possibilities to a man who had coached football. ‘Come to Drake University,’ Wharton suggested, ‘and we’ll make you as fine a tackle as there is.’ ”

So McGugin played two years at Drake, graduated in the spring of 1901, went to the University of Michigan that fall to start law school and wound up being recruited by a new young coach, Fielding Yost, to play guard for the Michigan football team.  Over the next two seasons, Michigan went undefeated, scoring 1,194 points to the opponents’ total of 12 points.  Included was a 107-0 victory over Iowa.  McGugin and the Wolverines also played in the first Rose Bowl, in 1902, beating Stanford 49-0.  In the spring of 1903, McGugin earned his law degree, stayed at Michigan the next fall as an assistant coach to Yost, then in 1904 jumped at the chance to become head coach at Vanderbilt.  McGugin and Yost wound up marrying twin sisters in Nashville, and were friends and coaching competitors the rest of their careers.

Almost overnight, McGugin had Vanderbilt playing “…fine football, the best in the South.  It was unbeaten by other Southern schools for a seven-year stretch…  During that stretch, Vanderbilt also acquitted itself well against Fielding Yost’s Michigan team, Jim Thorpe’s Carlisle team, other powerhouses such as Ohio State and Navy, and even held mighty Yale, the unchallenged colossus of college football, to a scoreless tie in 1910.”  That’s from a biography of famous sportswriter and poet Grantland Rice, who was a Vanderbilt football player before his 1901 graduation.  He and McGugin were great friends.

One of the most amazing facts about McGugin is that throughout his coaching career, he was also a practicing attorney in Nashville, working days in a local law firm and even teaching a course at Vanderbilt’s law school.  And he served one term as a Tennessee state senator in the early 1920s, according to documents on file in the Vanderbilt University Library.  “According to an article published during his term,” one story reports, “McGugin didn’t want to get involved in politics, but he ‘was drafted into service by a citizens committee.’ ”

McGugin coached through the 1934 season, and died of heart failure two years later when he was only 56 years old.  He is buried in Nashville.  His son Dan McGugin Jr. and grandson George McGugin both played football for the Commodores, and George’s sons Bill and Dan were Vanderbilt tennis players.

George McGugin, an attorney, and one of his sons have made separate trips to Tingley since 2006.  They’ve visited with Richards and others in the community, exploring the McGugin roots.  “George and I stay in pretty close touch,” Richards said. “He always sends a card at Christmas time, and we email back and forth at least two to three times a year, sometimes more often, when he wants to check out some new piece of information he’s found about the family.”

You can understand how proud a latter-day Vanderbilt man from Iowa, like me, would be about all this.

This story was first published on Dec. 30, 2011, by KMA Radio in the author’s hometown of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa, as Vanderbilt was preparing to play in the Liberty Bowl football game late that year. You can email the author at chuck@Offenburger.com or use the handy form below to comment on the story.

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