On the first Saturday morning in December 1948, the student-body presidents of Alabama and Auburn dug a hole in Woodrow Wilson Park in downtown Birmingham. Then they dropped a hatchet into the hole and covered it with dirt. With the hatchet symbolically buried—and safely out of the hands of their schools' sometimes crazed fans—they went off to watch their football teams square off for the first time in four decades. "There were a lot of hard feelings between the students," recalls Gillis Cammack, the Auburn student-body president in '48. "We were trying to get everyone to settle down and not be so vicious."
Though the football teams hadn't met since a 1907 dispute between Auburn and Alabama over petty matters that included how many players could travel to the game and where the officials would come from, the fierceness of the rivalry had not diminished—and it still hasn't. Auburn, originally a private college, was given to the state in 1872 for use as a land-grant institution, a fact Crimson Tide fans don't let Tigers supporters forget. Aubarn is a common pejorative, and legendary 'Bama coach Bear Bryant referred to his archrival simply as "that cow college." Dennis Franchione, who coached the Tide in 2001 and '02, seldom uttered the name of the university 165 miles southeast of Tuscaloosa. "That school down the road," he called it. In turn, folks on the Plains view Alabama fans as unmitigated snobs.
Fearing that fans might brawl when the football series resumed in '48, Bull Connor, the Birmingham police chief who 15 years later would gain national infamy for attacking peaceful Civil Rights protesters in his city with police dogs and fire hoses, called Cammack and a few other students into his office the week before the game and warned them that he would not tolerate any trouble. He got none, as 43,954 fans packed into Legion Field—which would serve as the game's neutral site for the next 40 years—and politely watched the Crimson Tide destroy the Tigers 55-0. The next year Auburn exacted revenge, winning 14-13. Cammack, who graduated in the spring of '49, had moved to Detroit, but he caught the game on a Windsor, Ont., radio station.
Indeed, it is almost unthinkable for natives of the most college-football-mad state in the Union to miss the Iron Bowl (so named because of the large iron-ore deposits around Birmingham). This Saturday the eyes of virtually every Alabamian will be on Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the teams will face off for the 68th time. ('Bama leads the series 38-28-1.) As host of the state's most-listened-to sports radio show, Paul Finebaum has spent much of the last decade moderating talks on the series, so forgive him if he waxes hyperbolic. "It's like the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he says. "They essentially live on me same piece of land, and in a way they wage war 365 days a year. It never stops, no matter who tries to intervene or referee."
To fully appreciate how seriously the rivalry is taken, you have to witness it firsthand. Bill Curry grew up in Atlanta, played and later coached at Georgia Tech and had a 10-year career as an NFL center. In 1987 he was hired to coach the Crimson Tide. "I played in three Super Bowls—heated national, international stories—so I felt like I was a man of the world," says Curry. "When I got to Alabama, people said, 'You don't understand how this is going to be with Alabama and Auburn.' I said, 'Don't worry. I understand intense football.' " Curry pauses. "I did not have a clue."
In 1987 Curry's team lost to Auburn 10-0. In 1988 his club won nine games but lost to Auburn 15-10. The next summer he was stopped by an elderly woman on campus. "She was pained in her expression and had tears in her eyes," he recalls. "She reached up and took my arms in her hands, and all she said was, 'Coach, do you think we can win this year?' And I knew exactly what she meant." In 1989 Curry took a 10-0 team that was ranked No. 2 in the country down to Auburn and lost 30-20.
In 1990 Curry was coaching at Kentucky.
What Curry failed to realize when he took the job is that the clich� about football being a way of life isn't a clich� in Alabama. The sport has long been a source of state pride, something that was not easy to come by in the 1950s and '60s. "You had Bull Connor, church bombings, the hoses, the dogs, the nightmare of all that," says Curry. "Southerners were embarrassed—as well we should have been. The one thing that wasn't embarrassing was when Bear and his little old skinny boys whipped up on other football teams, especially the Yankee football teams."
The Bear's wins didn't, of course, make the Auburn fans in the state happy. They got their thrills from beating Bryant. In 1972 Bear's boys were undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country. They held a 16-3 lead over the Tigers in the fourth quarter, but Bill Newton blocked two punts and David Langner returned both for touchdowns as Auburn rallied for a 17-16 win. The Tide's national title hopes were shot, and the Tigers had fodder for a sticker that can still be seen on some of their fans' bumpers: PUNT, BAMA, PUNT. Shortly after moving to the state, Finebaum spent Thanksgiving with a family whose postfeast tradition was to retire to the parlor to listen to a phonograph recording of that game.
The rivalry has undergone changes of late. Sick of going to Birmingham every year, Auburn insisted on playing every other year in Jordan-Hare Stadium, starting in 1989. In 2000 Alabama moved its home games in the series to Tuscaloosa, so now the crowds are partisan. "It was really something special when it was played in Birmingham and the fans were split 50-50," says Curry. "The intensity never relented, because half the stadium had something to cheer for all the time."