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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.'



"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.'

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"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.

There's something strange about this series, though, something that sets it apart from other rivalries rooted in antiquity. After the rivals tied 6-6 in 1907, they didn't meet on the gridiron again until; 1948, when Alabama won 55-0. Talk about a timeout.

Some consider the break in relations as fascinating as the games themselves. Over the years, two myths gained currency, neither of which is true. According to one, there was a riot at the 1907 game, and that was why the schools stopped playing each other. According to the other, the state legislature forced the two teams to get back together. Cromartie was surprised to learn just how mundane were the details of the split.

"I had always heard there was a killing in the 1907 game," he told me. "I went to the Birmingham paper thinking there would be some big headlines about the killing. I was going to the courthouse to get the records.

"But there was nothing about a fight. I thought maybe it was too late to get in the Sunday paper. So I looked in Monday's paper. Nothing there, either."

Cromartie's research into the origin of the 41-year break revealed a startling truth: "It was over $34."

The teams couldn't reach an agreement on the terms of the contract for the next year, so they didn't meet. It's an instructive example of how a rift can expand to chasm, whether between spouses, nations or institutions.

Over the years, efforts were made by various parties to bring the schools together, but it didn't happen until 1948. Mike Donahue, Auburn coach from 1904 to 1922 with a year off in 1907, was director of intramurals at LSU by then. When relations were resumed, he was interviewed by The Birmingham News.

"It would be a very fine thing for football if they will accept the game like any other game," Donahue said. "I tried to bring the schools together several times after relations were broken in the spring of 1908. The game was always very cleanly played during the time I was coaching at Auburn, beginning with the 1904 game. I have heard that riots and the conduct of the players were responsible for the severance of relations. I want to tell you this is not true. Failure to agree on details, where the teams would stay, expenses, how many players each squad would be permitted to have and officials caused the break in relations."

When Alabama and Auburn met again, it wasn't because the legislature required it but because two reasonable men, Alabama president Dr. John Galalee and Auburn president Dr. Ralph Draughon, decided it was time.

The legislature occasionally approved resolutions asking that they play each other, but they carried no official weight.

"It used to come up in the legislature, but both schools absolutely turned their backs on that," says Jeff Beard, retired Auburn athletic director.

Finally, Beard attended a get-together at which representatives of both schools reached an agreement to resume the series.

"Dr. Draughon and Dr. Galalee had been to a meeting at the old Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham, and when it was over, they were walking to their cars," Beard recalls. "They started talking about it and decided there should be a game. The went home and talked on the phone about it some more. We met later at the Anne Jordan Farm near Sylacauga and had a nice dinner and got all the details worked out."

It has not been "like any other game," as Donahue suggested it should be. College football television analyst Beano Cook said ti well: "Alabama-Auburn is not just a rivalry. It's Gettysburg South."

Former Alabama coach Ray Perkins called it the most important football game in the world. More people in Alabama care passionately about it than about the Super Bowl, he said. He was right.

I have covered college football throughout the nation for 40 seasons, and I can say with assurance that the sport is embraced more enthusiastically in the state of Alabama than anywhere else.

I have a theory as to why college football is so important to the people of Alabama. The state traditionally has been ranked near the bottom in meaningful categories such as education and health. It is perceived by many as redneck and racist. But, by golly, we can be No.1 in football. We can be at or near the top in The Associated Press poll. Bear Bryant raised Alabama to the pinnacle in something, even if it is a game. Auburn responded to the challenge and we have a unique rivalry.

In recent years, the state's status has improved in many significant respects. It is frequently mentioned in those "best places to live" articles that appear in magazines. Meanwhile, our passion for football hasn't diminished.

A poll in 1989 asked residents of the state to name their most admired Alabamian, living or dead. Former governor George Wallace and Bryant were 1-2 in a landslide. Surely the third spot must have gone to Martin Luther King Jr. or Hugo Black or Booker T. Washington or Helen Keller or Julia Tutwiler, you say? No, it went to Bo Jackson, Auburn's 1985 Heisman Trophy winner and pro football and baseball player.

Even the color of money changes from orange and blue to crimson and white during Iron Bowl week. A scalper on a talk radio show offered two tickets for sale, adding, "Auburn fans need not call me. I don't want their money." (Scalping, incidentally, is legal in Alabama, and pairs of tickets to the 1994 Iron Bowl routinely fetched $400.)

Losers can expect to be seriously razzed for year. When fans say the game is for bragging rights, they aren't kidding.

"Talk about the Texas-Texas A&M game will start a week before the game and continue for a week after," says Alabama coach Gene Stallings, an ex-Aggie player and head coach, "but talk about the Alabama-Auburn game never stops. They're talking about it on the Fourth of July. That's what makes this one different from all others."

In one of the state's small towns, police arrested an Alabama fan and charged him with the shotgun death of an Auburn supporter a few hours after the 1994 game at Birmingham's Legion Field, won by Alabama 21-14. The Auburn fan watched the game on TV at a friend's house and returned home to find his car had been egged and his trees covered with toilet paper. Police said he apparently suspected an Alabama devotee. When the man went to the Bama fan's house trailer to confront him, he was shot.

Former Alabama coach Bill Curry said some of his players received death threats before the 1989 game with Auburn, the first to be played at Auburn. They would be protected from the time they left Tuscaloosa until they returned, he stressed. "Our players will virtually be surrounded by security," Curry said.

"It's one of the nastiest rivalries there is," says Siran Stacy, who was Alabama's star runner that year. Stacy says he received a threatening phone call.

"The caller said something about I would never set foot in Jordan-Hare Stadium. There was no name, no reason. Just a mean call. I guess the thought by threatening me I'd get all stirred up. I guess they thought it would affect me and it would hurt the team. They thought wrong."

Stallings and Auburn coach Terry Bowden appear to be making an effort to turn the rivalry into something a little less mean-spirited. Neither is likely to make a gratuitous statement such as one Perkins made about Pat Dye when they were coaching Alabama and Auburn respectively. Dye, said Perkins, couldn't have the same feelings about the rivalry that he (Perkins) had because Dye hadn't played at either school. Ridiculous, said Dye, a former Georgia All-American.

"We don't spend any more time getting ready for Auburn than we do for Chattanooga," Stallings said. "There's more pressure on me personally to play somebody you're supposed to beat than to play a good strong rival."

After Auburn lost the 1994 game, which gave the Tide a 34-24-1 series lead, Bowden said, "I guess I'll go back to being Buster Brown now," a self-deprecating reference to his lack of height.

More humor and common sense and less rancor are welcomed in the Alabama-Auburn series, but neither coach has any illusions about it being just a game.

"It's important to win," Stallings says, "and if the coach at either school can't take that, he shouldn't be working there."

Following are 11 (appropriately) memorable Auburn-Alabama games in chronological order:

*(1948) Alabama 55, Auburn 0. "They'll take the bandages off a 41-yeard-old football wound tomorrow and see if the scar is healed," Sterling Slappey wrote in The Montgomery Advertiser. The presidents of both student bodies actually buried a hatchet in a park in Birmingham, but everyone was uneasy, wondering just what would happen at the renewal. There were no unusual problems with fans, but Alabama halfback Ed Salem did lead the worst mugging Auburn had suffered since 1917.

*(1949) Auburn 14, Alabama 13. It remains the greatest upset in a series that has had precious few upsets. The 6-2-1 Tide was a 19-point favorite over the Tigers, who had won only one game. Billy Tucker, who later would be crippled by polio, kicked the winning extra point.

*(1957) Auburn 40, Alabama 0. It wasn't much of a game, which is precisely why it was notable. It was the last building block in Auburn's national championship season. The Tigers led 34-0 at intermission, Jordan called them the best team, for a half, he had ever coached.

*(1961) Alabama 34, Auburn 0. Bryant returned to his alma mater in 1958 after coaching stints at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, and Auburn's dominance in the series ended. This victory was the centerpiece in Bryant's first of six national titles. Quarterback Pat Trammell, Bryant's favorite of all the players he coached, a man who would die young, led the win.

*(1971) Alabama 31, Auburn 7. Only once have the teams met when both were undefeated and untied, and this was it. On Thursday, Sullivan was named winner of the Heisman Trophy, and the Tigers weren't down off their cloud on Saturday. Tide All-American Johnny Musso and company brought them back to earth, though.

*(1972) Punt, Bama, Punt.

*(1981) Alabama 28, Auburn 17. Bryant's 315th victory this day made him the all-time winningest coach in Division I-A college football history. He would win 323 games, lose 85 and tie 17 in 38 years as a head coach, 25 at Alabama. His Tide came from behind in the fourth period on a pass from Walter Lewis to Jesse Bendross to beat its No. 1 rival in 1981.

*(1982) Auburn 23, Alabama 22. Bo Jackson scored over the top to score the winning touchdown with 2:26 to play in Bryant's last Iron Bowl. It was the Tigers' first victory over the Tide since 1972. Dye, in his second year at the Auburn helm, became the first Bryant pupil to beat the master in 31 games over 12 years. Two months later, Bryant was dead of heart failure.

*(1985) Alabama 25, Auburn 23. This was perhaps the most breathtaking game of the series. The lead changed hands four times in the fourth period. Van Tiffin kicked a 52-yard field goal on the last play to win it.

*(1989) Auburn 30, Alabama 20. Despite protestations by Alabama that it would never happen, Auburn moved its home games with the Tide to its campus. This was the first one, and Dye likened it to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

*(1993) Auburn 22, Alabama 14. Auburn's new coach, the boyish-looking Bowden, closed an unprecedented 11-0 rookie season in Division 1-A with a victory on the Plain. Backup quarterback Patrick Nix helped him get it with a spectacular touchdown pass to Frank Sanders.