The Sewanee Tigers were pioneers in American intercollegiate athletics and possessed the South's preeminent football program in the 1890s. Their 1899 football team had perhaps the best season in college football history, winning all 12 of their games, 11 by shutout, and outscoring their opponents 322-10. Five of those wins, all shutouts, came in a six day period while on a 2,500-mile (4,023 km) trip by train. Ten of their twelve opponents, including all five of their road trip victims, remain major college football powers to this day.
Sewanee was a charter member of the Southeastern Conference upon its formation in 1932, but by this time its athletic program had declined precipitously and Sewanee never won a conference football game in the eight years it was an SEC member. The Tigers were shut out 26 times in their 37 SEC games, and were outscored by a combined total of 1163–84.
When vice chancellor Benjamin Ficklin Finney, who had reportedly objected to Sewanee joining the SEC, left his position in 1938, the leading candidate was Alexander Guerry, a former president of the University of Chattanooga. According to a university historian, Guerry agreed to come to Sewanee only if the school stopped awarding athletic scholarships. In 1940, two years after Guerry's arrival, Sewanee withdrew from the SEC and subsequently deemphasized varsity athletics. Guerry's stance is sometimes credited as an early step toward the 1973 creation of NCAA Division III, which prohibits athletic scholarships.
Today, Sewanee is a member of the Division III Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC), offering 11 varsity sports for men and 13 for women. As of 2009[update], 27 Sewanee student-athletes have received the prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship for academic excellence since the program's inception in 1964.
Sewanee announced that they, along with six other SCAC members, would leave the conference effective July 1, 2012 to form the new Southern Athletic Association beginning with the 2012-13 season. The announcement was made in Atlanta at the 2011 annual meeting of SCAC presidents.