Nothing captures the fall from grace of the self-proclaimed Football capital of the South better than this: As 85,214 fans were preparing last Saturday to go to Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Alabama would defeat Auburn 28-17, only about 5,000 people, many of them mommies and daddies, were gathered at 83,000-seat Legion Field in Birmingham to watch 12 of the city's youth football teams play six games in the 32nd annual Shug-Bear Bowl. For much of the 20th century it was the games played at Legion Field that allowed Birmingham to adopt the aforementioned billing, which stretches in large, painted letters across the facade of sections 33 through 37 of the 72-year-old stadium. The slogan was particularly true on those Saturdays when the Crimson Tide and the Tigers engaged in the blood rivalry that brought all other activity in the state to a halt. But when Alabama made it official in February that beginning in 2000, as part of a new contract, it would host its renewals of the season-ending civil war on campus rather than at Legion—a change Auburn had made 10 years ago—big-time football at the House That Bear Built effectively came to an end.
Out of necessity the folks at Alabama-Birmingham still sing Legion's praises. "Legion has been a godsend for us," says UAB athletic director Gene Bartow, whose school, lacking an on-campus facility, has played almost all its home games there since fielding its first varsity team in 1991. This season the Blazers attracted a total of 102,244 fans for five home games, about 19,000 more than 'Bama and Auburn drew at Legion for their game last year. Alabama, which is contracted to play two home games per season at Legion through 2001, drew 80,110 for its Legion game against Houston on Sept. 11 and 80,312 against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 18. That's not bad, but it can no longer be said that a big-time football atmosphere breathes at "proud, majestic Legion Field," as the state's newspapers used to call it.
Ah, but it breathed once. It was at Legion in 1970, after Sam Cunningham led Southern Cal to a 42-21 rout of the Crimson Tide, that Bear Bryant finally became convinced that 'Bama needed a new kind of player—one with a black face. No doubt you've heard the line that emerged from that game: Sam Cunningham did more for integration in Alabama in three hours than Martin Luther King Jr. did in a decade. It was at Legion in '81 that Bryant passed Amos Alonzo Stagg's career victory mark of 314 with a 28-17 win over Auburn.
So whither Legion Field? Around Birmingham there seems to be little of the warm and fuzzy feeling attached to Legion that there is to Rickwood Field, the city's historic minor league baseball park, which is being lovingly restored. Art Clarkson, a Birminghamite who once owned the minor league Barons, has a plan for Legion: "Let's get 30,000 people lined up around the stadium, sing a few songs, make a few speeches and—wham!—blow the thing up." That idea would get support in some quarters, but not at UAB. After a home game a few seasons ago, Blazers coach Watson Brown walked back onto the Legion gridiron and saw the opposing coach standing, hands in pocket, scanning the empty bleachers. "What are you doing?" Brown asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Well, Watson," he said, "for a little while longer I just wanted to stand where Bear Bryant stood."