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College Football's Great Rivalries: Alabama vs. Auburn

This profile of the Alabama and Auburn college football rivalry originally appeared in Athlon's 1995 college football annuals. As the rivalry is renewed this week, we thought it was relevant to take a look back at the history of the single-most important game played in the state of Alabama each year, the "Iron Bowl."

Great Rivalries — Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Auburn Tigers

By Clyde Bolton, The Birmingham News

You're playing golf with a fellow who usually beats you. But today is your day to win.

Do you trounce him? Or would you rather slice the ball into the woods, listen as it ricochets from tree to tree, then watch in delight as it caroms onto the green and stops beside the cup, enabling you to make the deciding putt while your opponent screams about the injustice of it all?

The football equivalent of the second option happened in the 1972 Auburn-Alabama game, and Tiger fans still delight in needling their Crimson Tide friends with "Punt, Bama, Punt."

"When are you folks going to quit talking about those blocked punts?" an Alabama man demanded of Terry Henley years later. Henley, who was Auburn's tailback that day, smiled and said, "When you folks stop singing about playing in the Rose Bowl."

The Alabama-Auburn rivalry has been called everything from the nation's greatest to a sickness, but that game almost a quarter of a century ago in which an overmatched Auburn team blocked two consecutive punts in the final minutes and returned them for touchdowns to win 17-16 is indisputably its most famous edition.

Bill Cromartie, author of Braggin' Rights, the definitive history of the Auburn-Alabama series, didn't hesitate to pronounce it "the most incredible football game ever played."

Cromartie, who has written histories of Georgia-Georgia Tech, Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma, Notre Dame-Southern California and Duke-North Carolina, also says, "This is by far, I think, the nastiest rivalry in the country. I doubt if anything else touches it. I don't know if it's because the game of football is so intense in the state and they've both had good teams. But even when one team is real good and the other is real bad, it's still nasty."

This is what happened at Birmingham's Legion Field on Dec. 2, 1972: Alabama was undefeated, untied and ranked second in the nation. Auburn, having lost quarterback in Pat Sullivan, the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner, and consensus All-America receiver Terry Beasley to graduation, had been picked to finish in the lower reaches of the Southeastern Conference. But the Tigers had forged a surprising 8-1 record and were ranked ninth nationally. Still, a 35-7 loss to LSU marred their record, and they were 16-point underdogs to the Tide.

Auburn amassed a grand total of eight yards of offense in the first half. Largely forgotten, because it seemed of no importance at the tim, was Tiger defensive back Roger Mitchell's extra-point block after Alabama's first touchdown. And Auburn further demonstrated its inability to move the ball when coach Shug Jordan had Gardner Jett kick a 42-yard field goal with 9:15 left in the game and the Tide ahead 16-0. As Tiger fans booed Jordan's decision, he turned to trainer Kenny Howard and said, "They don't think we're going to win, do they?"

With 5:30 to play, the score 16-3 and the ball at midfield, Auburn linebacker Bill Newton rushed through unchecked and blocked Greg Grant's punt. The ball took a perfect hop into the arms of defensive back David Langner, who sped 25 yards into the end zone. Jett's extra point made it 16-10.

Then, with 1:34 remaining Grant prepared to punt again. The line of scrimmage was the Alabama 43. And again, Newton blocked Grant's punt. It bounded as if by design into Langner's arms, and he returned it 20 yards for the touchdown with 1:24 remaining. Jett's PAT gave Auburn a most improbable 17-16 victory.

Or at least I'm told Newton blocked another punt and Langner scored another touchdown. I covered the game for The Birmingham News. I was making my way to the sidelines before going to the dressing room to interview Jordan, the man I thought would be the losing coach. I didn't see the second block because my 5-7 frame was behind Auburn fans who were standing at the end-zone fence. I've always regretted that.

"What happened?" I asked when they went insane.

"The same thing that happened before," a fellow screamed. I had to work my way out of the crowd before I could deduce that I had missed one of the most amazing plays in football history.

Nobody was more amazed than Alabama's players. John Croyle, an all-star defensive end who went on to establish Big Oak Ranch for underprivileged, abused boys and girls, remembers the surreal qualities of the game.

The night before, some 20 players gathered in Croyle's room to pray.

"God, should we lose, make us men," one said.

"Should we lose?" Croyle thought. "No way."

For most of the game, nothing happened to change his mind.

"We could have given them the ball on the 10-yard line five times, and they would have never scored," Croyle recalls. "You know when you're beating somebody's eyes out, and we were beating their eyes out."

Not quite out.

"The score was 16-3 in the fourth quarter," Croyle says. "We were on the sidelines, and we knew the game was in the bag. We were so cocky we were even taking the tape off our hands. One of the guys said, 'Why don't we thank the Lord for the win?'

"It came time for me to pray, and I said, 'Lord, thank you for letting us be here, and I just want to praise your name for this ball game.'

"Thump.

"Roar.

"We jumped up, and here goes a guy running into the end zone with our ball. We all sat back down in a state of shock. I said, 'God, let's don't let this get out of hand.'"

But it did get out of hand. Jordan, who had avoided calling any victory his greatest or any team his favorite, affirmed both in the dressing room that afternoon. Alabama coach Bear Bryant, whose Tide teams won 19 of their 25 games against Auburn, never got over it.

In the late 1970s, I had fun with Bryant by asking when he was going to retire. During an Iron Bowl (Auburn vs. Alabama) week, he snapped, "When I block two punts against Auburn, I'll retire."

Doug Barfield, who would go 0-5 against Alabama and Bryant, was Auburn's coach from 1976-1980. I visited him the day after I spoke with Bryan, and he asked hopefully, "When is that old man going to retire?"

"He told me just yesterday that he'll retire when he blocks two punts against Auburn," I answered.

Barfield grinned and said, "Well, how about telling him I'll let him block two Saturday if he'll retire?"

Bryant, whose Tide was headed for a Cotton Bowl match with Texas, angered Auburn fans before the 1972 Iron Bowl when he told the Birmingham Monday Morning Quarterback Club, "I'd rather beat that cow college once than beat Texas 10 times."

The irrepressible Henley was never one to run away from a headline. In print, he said Bryant should be ashamed of himself.

After Auburn upset Alabama, Henley said, "When those cows get mad, they kick. There won't be enough people going back to Auburn to milk them tonight."

Henley, now a Birmingham insurance man, remembers a story from that game. "It was not against the rules for the players to sell tickets. I came up with the ingenious idea of buying all the other players' tickets, and I'd be the only one to have any.

"The game came around and I ended up with all the tickets in the XX, YY and ZZ temporary bleachers at the end of the field. People would call, and I'd tell them I had 50-yard-line tickets. They'd send me $100, and I'd send them a couple of end-zone tickets, I was making the money.

"We got off the bus at the stadium, and a lot of players walked around the field in their dress clothes to stretch their legs. I never cared about that. I liked to sit in the dressing room and try to find my name in the program.

"Johnny Simmons, our safety, came in the dressing room, and he said, 'Terry, there's a bunch of people out there cussing you and screaming for you.'

"I said, 'Are they Alabama fans?'

"He said, 'No, they are our fans.'

"Well, I had long hair, and I liked to lead the team out on the field with my helmet under my arm, letting my hair blow. But this time I tried to get lost in the middle of the team when we ran out. I could hear the fans yelling, 'Where is he? Where is he?' We were doing our exercises, and they were yelling, 'You scumbag, you put us in the end zone.'

"But you know where all 33 points were scored? In that end zone. After the game, people were coming up to me and saying, 'Terry, our seats were just great.' They loved me again."

The first Alabama-Auburn game was played on Feb. 22, 1893, in Birmingham. Auburn won 32-22. Disagreement between the sides dates all the way back to that day. Alabama considers it the last game of the 1982 season. Auburn considers it the first game of the 1893 season.