Good luck with today’s trivia question: Which football coach holds the record for the longest tenure at one school among Southeastern Conference members?
Bear Bryant immediately comes to mind. He spent 25 years at Alabama. But he’s tied for second on the list, along with Vince Dooley of Georgia, Shug Jordan of Auburn and Bill Alexander of Georgia Tech.
Johnny Vaught of Ole Miss? 24-plus years.
Wally Butts of Georgia? Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech? Tied for seventh with 22 years.
General Neyland at Tennessee? 21 years. Mike Donohue of Auburn (19 years) rounds out the top ten.
The man topping the list is Dan McGugin of Vanderbilt, who coached the Commodores for 30 years, from 1904-34. He missed the 1918 season while serving in The Great War.
McGugin posted a record of 197-55-19 for a winning percentage of .762. He set a standard of excellence for Vanderbilt football that has never been equaled.
A member of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, McGugin coached four undefeated teams, and 11 others lost a single time.
He was the first coach to utilize pulling guards to lead interference for backs, and the first to successfully invoke the onside kick. McGugin was also an early proponent of the forward pass.
McGugin proved so successful that when Dudley Field opened in 1922, it was the largest football facility in the South. When Tennessee hired Robert Neyland in 1926, they charged the future General with finding a way to beat McGugin.
According to football historian Fred Russell, McGugin was "responsible, more than any other man, for southern football gaining national recognition."
McGugin was born in Ringgold County, Iowa, on July 29, 1879. At an 1896 church service, he became fascinated by a baton twirler, of all things. After the service, McGugin asked about learning to twirl.
The twirler, W. W. Wharton, also happened to be the football coach at Drake University. Noting McGugin’s size, Wharton invited McGugin to come to Drake — and taught him how to play football.
After playing at Drake for two years, McGugin enrolled in Law School at the University of Michigan. He arrived in Ann Arbor simultaneously with Fielding "Hurry Up" Yost, the greatest coach of the early 1900’s.
McGugin played two years for Yost. He played in the very first Rose Bowl game, as Michigan defeated Stanford 49-0 on Jan. 1, 1902. He then spent a year as Yost’s assistant coach, while he earned his law degree.
In 1904, Yost recommended McGugin for the head coaching position at Vanderbilt. McGugin applied but, before he received a reply, was offered the head coaching job at Western Reserve in Cleveland. Western demanded an immediate reply.
McGugin wired his acceptance to Western. Upon arriving back home, he received a wire from Vanderbilt, offering him their job. McGugin decided he’d take the Vanderbilt job if he could recall his telegram to Western. The recall occurred three minutes before delivery.
McGugin made an unprecedented arrival in Nashville. In his first game, Vanderbilt thrashed Mississippi State 61-0. Then they trounced Georgetown (Kentucky) 66-0. Finally, they walloped Ole Miss 69-0. McGugin remains the only coach in history to open his career with three straight 60-point wins.
McGugin and Yost remained close. Yost was the best man at McGugin’s wedding, and wound up marrying the twin sister of McGugin’s wife. The two lived in Nashville in the offseason and practiced law together.
That friendship produced one of the first great inter-sectional rivalries in college football. In fact, it was Yost’s Michigan team that agreed to play in the inaugural game at Dudley Field.
McGugin pulled out all the stops for his pre-game pep talk. As related by Benny Friedman in Liberty Magazine, McGugin went over to a locker room window and pointed to a cemetery near the stadium.
"Boys, over in yonder cemetery lie your forebears, the Confederate dead. They fought and they died for the South where you were born, the South that you love.
"And who filled those graves over yonder with Confederate dead? The forefathers of the boys whom you are going to play in a few minutes."
Vanderbilt went out and played mighty Michigan to a scoreless tie.
One of McGugin’s All-Americans, Pete Gracey, told Russell a story that appeared in Russell’s book, "Bury Me In An Old Pressbox:
"In my first varsity year, the night before we played Georgia Tech, coach McGugin casually walked up to me in the lobby of our hotel, put his arm around my shoulder, and sorta whispered, ‘I was with some Atlanta newspapermen this afternoon, and I told them you were the finest sophomore center I had ever coached. I hope that I haven’t made it embarrassing for you.’
"We beat Tech, 49-7. Afterward, I talked to seven other players, and you know, coach McGugin told them all the same thing he told me!"
After retiring as football coach, McGugin continued as Vanderbilt’s athletics director, and kept practicing law. He died on January 19, 1936, of a massive heart attack, at the age of 56.
Vanderbilt football hasn’t been the same since.