I am often asked to list the best rivalries in college football. My list is probably about the same as yours: Georgia-Florida, Texas-Oklahoma, Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Tennessee, Miami-Florida State.
I always leave out Alabama-Auburn and so the question is inevitably asked about the omission. Why do I not list Alabama-Auburn? Because, in my experience, Alabama-Auburn (or Auburn-Alabama) is much, much more than a mere football rivalry. It is a cultural war and the participants just use football to fight it.
If I ever had any doubt about this, those doubts were erased on Dec. 2, 1989, when I attended the most emotional football game of my career.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since Alabama went to Auburn for the first time ever.
Auburn hosting Alabama doesn’t seem like a big deal to this current generation of college football fans. They don’t know that Bear Bryant vowed that as long as he was alive, Alabama would never leave Birmingham’s Legion Field and go to Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the game had been played since the series was resumed in 1948. His successor, Ray Perkins, took the same position.
But Bryant died in 1983 and Auburn coach Pat Dye, who took over in 1981, was determined that taking the Iron Bowl to his campus would be a major step towards putting the programs on a more equal footing—both competitively and psychologically. And in 1989 it finally happened.
There are so many memories of that day. But the one I will never forget was the Tiger Walk by the Auburn players down to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Alabama State Patrol told us there were between 20,000 and 30,000 fans lining either side of the street. I still remember seeing grown men crying because they were caught up in the historical significance of the moment.
“You have to understand that for so long Alabama looked down on us,” former Auburn athletics director David Housel told me at the time. “They wanted to keep the game in Birmingham because that was their power base in the state. On that day, for so many of our people, this was proof that they couldn’t look down on us anymore.”
Alabama was 10-0 ranked No. 2, and in position to win a national championship under Bill Curry. There were elements at Alabama who did not like Curry, who thought hiring a Georgia Tech man was a bad idea from the get-go. Curry had a great team in 1989 but all those critics remembered was that he had lost to Auburn in 1987 and 1988 as Dye’s Auburn program was in full throttle.
I will always remember what somebody with knowledge of the situation told me before the season. “If he (Curry) goes 10-1 and the one is Auburn, he is gone.”
Auburn won the game 30-20 and shared the SEC championship. Alabama finished 10-1 and played Miami in the Sugar Bowl. The next season Bill Curry was the head coach at Kentucky.
After the game Pat Dye was as emotional as I’ve ever seen him. As a former assistant at Alabama, he understood the historical significance of this day. He knew that the Alabama-Auburn rivalry had been changed forever and he had a tough time holding back the tears as he spoke to his team.
After the game Dye told us about a letter he received from an Auburn grad and a World War II veteran. Jim Fennel, who served under George Patton, wrote of being captured by the Germans and how he and his fellow soldiers managed the darkest days with defiance for the enemy. Fennel did not want Alabama to come to Auburn for the first time and walk away as victors. Dye read the letter to his team the night before the game. There was not a dry eye in the room.
This Friday, some two decades later, Alabama will arrive at Jordan-Hare Stadium with the No. 2 team in the nation. Next week the Crimson Tide will play No. 1 Florida in the SEC championship game. At stake will be a shot at the national championship. Auburn has a chance to repeat one of the most historic moments in the history of the school.
Can Auburn do that? Probably not. I think Alabama is the best team in the country. But Auburn will be motivated to play. Of that you can be sure.
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