Only big-time college football fans understand rivalry games. People in Ohio and Michigan, at least a lot of them, understand Ohio State vs. Michigan in their annual battle. Texas and Texas A & M fans understand the same. So do those who went to West Point and Annapolis when Army plays Navy.
But no game has more emotion, more lasting joy and bitterness, than Alabama vs. Auburn. In this rivalry the state legislature had to force the schools to play in the 1940s after a long lull in the series because of events surrounding the game that made it difficult to play it without danger to the fans.
This game even has a special name: The Iron Bowl. The reason for this is because the game was annually played in Birmingham, until about twenty years ago, and Birmingham was the iron city. The name stuck even though the game is play home and away now. Today’s crowd, because of Alabama’s stadium addition, will be the largest to ever witness the Iron Bowl. Nearly 102,000 will be jammed into Bryant-Denny Stadium. And this one really matters as Auburn is pursuing a chance to play in the BCS Championship game, where Alabama won last season. The Tide wants to upend the Tigers more than ever.
When I was a student at the University of Alabama (1967-69) I once drove back to campus (I lived over 240 miles away) on Thanksgiving Day, after our family celebration, just to see the Tide beat Auburn in Birmingham on the Friday following Thanksgiving. I was not going to miss this game.
I once saw Notre Dame play Alabama in South Bend some years after my college time. I got onto the field the day before the game because the Sports Information Director at Alabama was my friend and gave me a special pass. I listened to the coach talk about the great venue of Notre Dame Stadium and the challenge of the game the next day. It was inspiring. (Alabama lost big time on Saturday. So much for pep talks!) While waiting for the team to arrive I discussed the game with Alabama fans outside the stadium. I played like I did not much care who won the next day and asked: “Would you rather beat Notre Dame or Auburn?” Without hesitation I heard, again and again, “No, we can drive home from South Bend but if we lose to Auburn we have to live in the state of Alabama for the next year!” For most fans this is good natured fun but for a few it is bitter and ugly.
For Tide and Tiger fans there are memories galore related to this game. I was there, for example, when Alabama kicked a 54-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Bo Jackson led Auburn team when he was a superstar. There is a portrait of this final play simply called: “The Kick.” And I still remember Alabama getting two punts blocked in the fourth quarter, on the same spot on the field by the same Auburn player. Both blocks were returned for touchdowns and Auburn won 17-16. The Tiger fans call this game: “Punt, Bama, Punt.” On and on it goes.
Ironically, most of my best friends in the state of Alabama went to Auburn. I have always told them God gave me so many great Auburn friends to keep me from getting too deeply involved in the passion of this game.
Today I will watch the Iron Bowl. Auburn has the better team this year, so it seems. But Alabama is at home and this is their biggest game. A lot is on the line, especially for Auburn. If you like to see college athletics played with deep passion watch the Iron Bowl. If you do not care at all then at least pray that I will survive another Alabama-Auburn game. Iron Bowl 2010. Bring it on.