TUSCALOOSA, ALA. (AP) - They start early in this part of the country.
Not long after one learns to stand upright and babble a few coherent words, it’s time to pick a side.
Alabama or Auburn.
“You got to declare when you’re a youngster,” said Gene Stallings, the former Alabama coach. “Certainly by the time you get to first grade, you’re for one of ‘em.”
There’s no other rivalry quite like it in college football.
“I’m prejudiced,” said Pat Dye, who coached at Auburn for a dozen years, “but I don’t think there’s any other game in the country that’s talked about on a daily basis as much as this one is by the folks in the state of Alabama.”
Oh sure, there’s plenty of passion stirred up in every nook and cranny of this vast, pigskin-obsessed nation, whether it’s the Civil War, Backyard Brawl, Bedlam or simply The Game.
But the series known as the Iron Bowl has a couple of things going for it that the others don’t:
_ Dueling programs in the same state that are, for all the inevitable ebbs and flows, evenly matched and traditionally among the best in the country. Alabama won the national title a year ago. Auburn is ranked second this season and could wind up playing for a championship of its own, but first it must get by the No. 9 Crimson Tide on Friday.
_ No big league teams to steal away the spotlight, leaving everyone to devote his or her full attention to the Tigers or the Tide. With a population estimated at 4.7 million, Alabama is the largest state other than Virginia that’s never had a Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA or NHL franchise.
“It’s not like we have the Falcons or the Braves,” said Dye, looking eastward to the big city of Atlanta. “The people over here, this is their culture and mentality. You know there’s one day out of the year when the poorest people in Alabama and the richest people in Alabama are on the same team.”
This year, that falls one day after Thanksgiving. More than 101,000 people will cram into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Friday and, over the course of some three-plus hours, become the fifth-largest city in the state. Never doubt for a second just how much this game means to every last one of them.
Auburn (11-0) is trying to stay on track for a shot at the title, even while star quarterback Cam Newton is under fire over allegations that illegal payments were sought during his recruitment. Alabama (9-2) would like nothing more than to knock off Newton and the Tigers in a game that, for the first time since 1994, features both teams in the Top 10.
“It’s a fun game,” Stallings said, “but the thing I’m telling you is, people talk about it the ENTIRE year. That’s what makes it so important.”
Against that backdrop, it’s downright laughable to think these teams could go more than four decades without facing each other. But that’s just what happened after they tied 6-6 in 1907, when a dispute over money (and not, as legend would have it, a huge brawl) led to a hiatus that lasted until 1948. Even then, it took a resolution by the Alabama House of Representatives to end the cold war.
The rivalry resumed with the Crimson Tide romping to a 55-0 rout, still the largest margin of victory for either side. The next year, Alabama was heavily favored to win again.
“When the Auburn team got on the bus at its hotel, a bunch of Alabama people were yelling, ‘Hey, Auburn boys, here’s a hundred (dollars) that says we’re going for 56 today,” said David Housel, the longtime sports information and athletic director at Auburn and still the school’s unofficial historian even as he enjoys retirement.
The Tigers pulled off a 14-13 upset.
“There are older Auburn people that will tell you, to this day, that was Auburn’s greatest victory,” Housel said.
Just like that, the rivalry had been restored to its rightful luster, the animosity building with each passing year. It was a series of streaks _ Alabama winning four in a row, Auburn taking five straight _ until that guy in the houndstooth cap put his unmistakable stamp on the series.
With Bear Bryant prowling the sidelines, the Tide won 19 out of 23 meetings from 1959-81. There was the occasional Auburn highlight, most notably the “Punt, Bama, Punt” game of 1972, when the Tigers blocked two punts in the fourth quarter and returned them both for touchdowns to hand undefeated Alabama its first loss, 17-16.
But for the most part, Auburn watched enviously as Alabama piled up win after win, championship after championship. From Housel’s point of view, that period really took tensions to a new level.
“It’s not good when either team is winning too much,” he said.
At the start of the 1980s, the Iron Bowl went through a changing of the guard. Bryant retired (and died shortly afterward), while Dye took over at Auburn, a brash young coach who saw no reason to bow down to the mighty Crimson Tide.
“The biggest thing he did for Auburn was not all the championships and the bowl games and the Heisman and Lombardi winners,” Housel said. “The biggest thing he did was change Auburn’s attitude. He knew that Auburn wasted too much time worrying about what was going on at Alabama. They needed to start worrying about what was going on at Auburn.”
Dye’s bravado helped put the rivalry on equal footing and launched a glorious era featuring one classic game after another. Bo Over The Top (Bo Jackson’s leap into the end zone that gave Auburn a 23-22 victory in 1982, Bryant’s final Iron Bowl). Wrong Way Bo (Jackson messes up a blocking assignment on fourth down at the goal line, helping Alabama escape with a 17-15 win in ‘84). The Kick (Van Tiffin’s 52-yard field goal as time expires gives the Tide a 25-23 win in ‘85).
Alabama leads the series 40-33-1. Since Bryant exited the stage, however, Auburn holds a 15-12 edge.
“I don’t think the game is quite as intense, quite as hate-filled as it was in the old days,” Housel said. “The game has evened out somewhat. Each side is going to have its day in the sun.”
The nickname is no longer historically accurate, either. The Iron Bowl stems from the days when the game was played every year in Birmingham, the state’s largest city and once the center of the iron and steel industry. The tickets at Legion Field were split 50-50, creating a feverish atmosphere that existed at only a few other games, such as Florida-Georgia and Oklahoma-Texas.
Now, there are true home games played on each team’s campus. Nearly all of the fans at Friday’s game will be dressed in crimson and pulling for the Tide, just as Auburn had a similar edge a year ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But even if the series has lost a bit of its venom, there’s no doubt that plenty of Alabamians put far too much emphasis on one football game, stoking the state’s reputation as a backward-thinking place that should spend more time worrying about things such as improving education.
Even Housel will concede that priorities have gotten out of whack.
“If Auburn wins, the Auburn guy, no matter how low his status in life might be, will think he’s a better person than an Alabama doctor or heart surgeon,” he said. “It’s the same if Alabama wins. But that’s just not true either way. People internalize it too much. It’s not good enough for my team to win. I want you to know your team lost. That is a problem.”
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