Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Age-old football matchup celebrated 65 years later

When The University of Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn University Tigers met at Legion Field in Birmingham on Dec. 4, 1948, they hadn’t played football together in 41 years. Their last game, played in 1907, ended in a 6-6 tie, but disagreements over finance and officiating ended the series. Attempts were made in the decades following to restart the game, but the schools could not come together.

In 1923, Auburn President Spright Dowell said, “games, contests and activities would be made subservient to the one supreme event of the year.”

The UA Board of Trustees rejected an attempt by Gov. Chauncey Sparks in 1944 to restart the game, saying “it would result in an accelerated over-emphasis of football in the state.”

Not quite an act of Congress, but it did take the state legislature to get the game going again. In 1947, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution calling for the schools to play. In April 1948, UA President John Gallalee and Auburn President Ralph Draughon had a short conversation in the parking lot of Birmingham’s Tutwiler Hotel.

“Why don’t we just play,” Gallalee said.

“Fine,” Draughton said. “Let’s do it.”

Later that year, the two schools restarted what has become one of the most intense rivalries in all of college sports. For decades, it was simply the “Alabama-Auburn game,” but Shug Jordan, Auburn’s head coach from 1951-75, coined the name by which it is known today: the Iron Bowl.

In the first game of the renewed series, Alabama shut Auburn out with a final score of 55-0, a margin of victory that remains the highest in the series to this day, which included a touchdown scored by Rebel Steiner.

“It’s just as big a game as you’d like to play in,” Steiner said. “Good players on both sides. But I think our side was the best.”

David Housel, co-author of “The Alabama-Auburn Rivalry Football Vault” with Tommy Ford, said Alabama fans were riding high on the previous year’s victory when the teams met for the next game in fall 1949.

“Alabama had won 55-nothing the year before, and when Auburn got off the bus, the Alabama fans were holding out $100 bills and saying, ‘56, 56, 56, Auburn boy, we’re gonna beat you 56 today,’” Housel said.

Auburn won 14-13, thanks to a missed extra-point kick by Alabama. After the game, an Auburn fan decided to test just how far bragging rights could reach.

“After the game, a bunch of Auburn guys went to the Jefferson Hotel in Birmingham and put in a collect call to the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace and were informed that the queen is asleep and did not wish to be bothered,” Housel said. “He said, ‘When she wakes up, tell ‘em Auburn just beat the hell out of Alabama.’”

Those first two games, in which Alabama and Auburn traded wins, helped restart the rivalry and set a precedent that would continue in later years when the two teams alternated blowout victories and extremely close losses, often in back-to-back years. But it took a while for Auburn to become Alabama’s biggest rival. For the Alabama fans and players who had been with the team through the gap, like Paul “Bear” Bryant, Tennessee remained their biggest rival.

“Bryant’s head coach when he played here was Frank Thomas,” Taylor Watson, curator of the Paul Bryant Museum, said. “Frank Thomas was more worried about Tennessee.”

But by the time Bryant became head coach of Alabama in 1958, Auburn had replaced Tennessee, at least in the minds of the fans.

“By the time coach Bryant got back here in [1958], Auburn had taken Tennessee’s place as our chief rival,” Ford, co-author with Housel, said. “And that was just because we lived with them, we worked with them, we went to church with them.”

Gene Stallings, head coach of Alabama from 1990-96, said winning the rivalry matchup was essential for either side to call a season successful.

“And I know, having coached here, that if you’re to be accepted by the Alabama people, you’ve got to beat Auburn, and if you’re really going to be accepted by the Auburn people, you’ve got to beat Alabama,” Stallings said.

A few games stand out for both teams as the biggest and best of the series. Ford said the biggest game for Auburn came in the 1972 matchup, better known as Punt Bama Punt, a comeback win for Auburn over an intimidating Alabama squad.

“It was like little David versus Goliath,” Housel said. “The Alabama line was just tremendous. Doug Layton, who was on the Alabama Radio Network, referred to them as a redwood forest.”

By the fourth quarter, Alabama led 16-0, and Auburn had managed to produce only 44 total yards.

“We’re statistically dominating the game, have a 16-3 lead late in the game,” Ford said. “They blocked two punts and ran [both] of them back for touchdowns. It’s almost like you were watching the same exact play. The same guy blocked the punt; the same guy picked it up and ran it in. The block came from the same direction. It’s been 41 years ago, but for Alabama fans, that was a tough one to swallow.”

For Alabama fans, the iconic game came in 1985 during a period of intense competition in the rivalry. Alabama entered the game unranked against No. 7 Auburn.

“We’re underdogs. Pretty good football team, they had a really good football team. It’s back and forth,” Watson said. “There’s this great drive at the end, and then Van Tiffin.”

With six seconds left on the clock, Van Tiffin walked onto the field to attempt a 52-yard field goal in less-than-ideal conditions to win the game.

“It wasn’t the best conditions at the time, it was kind of windy, and we were kicking into the wind,” Tiffin said. “So that’s a long kick to be kicking into the wind with.”

But the kick was good, and Alabama beat Auburn 25 to 23.

“I knew it was going to be good before anybody else did,” Tiffin said. “I remember looking up and seeing it go straight down the middle, and it was just a huge relief. Like somebody took a tremendous boulder off my shoulders.”

What makes the Iron Bowl one of the most intense rivalries in the country isn’t the memory of a few big games, but the passion that fans feel for the game year round. The Iron Bowl is unlike any other rivalry in the country, Stallings said.

“The big difference is that here in Alabama, any day of the year, you can go into a restaurant, a cafe, a filling station or whatever, people will be talking about the Alabama-Auburn game,” Stallings said. “When I was growing up in Texas, Texas A&M and Texas was a big game. We talked about it a week before the game and week after the game, and that was about it. That’s the reason this rivalry is so big, is because they talk about it the entire year.”

At some hospitals in Alabama, parents are even asked to choose their newborn child’s allegiance with an Auburn or Alabama blanket.

“If you’re a sports fan in the state of Alabama, you’ve got to choose,” Watson said. “Probably at a young age.”

Unlike in many other rivalries across the country, Alabama and Auburn fans live side-by-side year-round. Watson mentioned that his daughter is actually an Auburn fan. Ford also comes from a split household.

“From what I see, everybody was glad to see the teams play each other, but it also created more tension among families, co-workers, neighbors, church-going friends,” Ford said. “I have a mixed marriage. My wife’s an Auburn grad.”

However, the intensity the fans feel for the game is not always shared by the players themselves.

“The players probably traditionally get along better during the game than the fans do away from the game,” Ford said. “Both schools are outstanding and it’s just a matter of school pride.”

But for other players, old friendships and rivalries can fuel the legendary game.

“For most players, they know the kids that are playing for Auburn,” Watson said. “Some of them they played against, some of them they were teammates in high school. The rivalry isn’t as intense as it is for the average Joe.”

There is one aspect of the rivalry that has been put aside over the years. The name itself, The Iron Bowl, came from Birmingham’s status as an iron-producing town, and was meant to honor the role the city played in bringing the two teams together.

In 1989, the game was played for the first time in Auburn when the two teams agreed to hold the game at their respective home stadiums on alternating years. In 1998, the Iron Bowl was played in Birmingham for the last time, and the University stopped playing games in the city entirely in 2000.

“You can’t call it the Iron Bowl anymore, I don’t care what anybody says,” Watson said. “If it’s not played in Birmingham, it’s not the Iron Bowl. Birmingham was part of that group that got the two back together to play.”

When the game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham, tickets were split 50/50 between each team, but the split would leave fans on either side out of the action every year, Ford said.

“From a fan standpoint, I think it is best now that it’s the true home-and-home,” Ford said. “When it was 50/50, there were a lot of Alabama fans and Auburn fans that were shut out from that game every year because the other team has half the seats. Whereas now, it gives the opportunity for more Alabama fans and more Auburn fans to see their team play in their home stadium.”

Stallings said he recognized it was probably a good move to make the Iron Bowl a home game but looked back fondly on playing in the split stadium.

“It’s probably better, the home-and-home, even though to be perfectly honest, I thoroughly enjoyed playing that game in Birmingham,” Stallings said. “But you know, the splitting right down the middle, half the fans are Alabama and half the fans are Auburn, I thought that was pretty neat to tell you the truth.”

Even with a decades-long legacy of close games and intense rivalry, the upcoming Iron Bowl in Auburn could be the biggest of them all.

“At the beginning of the year, I didn’t know how big a game this was going to be,” Stallings said. “Now, whoever wins this game will go to the championship game. That’s what we all want, if you’re in this conference. Before you can even think about playing for the national championship, you’ve got to get in the championship game for the SEC, and whoever wins this game will be in that championship game. But I will say this: I think Alabama’s got the best football team, but the best football team doesn’t always win.”


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