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Hank Hersch
December 11, 1989
Auburn seized its first opportunity to host bitter rival Alabama
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December 11, 1989

Home At Last

Auburn seized its first opportunity to host bitter rival Alabama

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The Birmingham news provided a public service for the fans of Alabama last week: a map to Auburn. Since this vicious rivalry began in 1893, Tide boosters had never needed to learn their way to the Tigers' home turf, and some had probably suspected the route would take them through haystacks and chicken coops. But last Saturday 'Bama diehards found that the roads to Auburn are indeed paved, even though their trip did not go smoothly. For by whipping the previously unbeaten Tide 30-20 before 85,319 delirious fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers dashed 'Bama's hopes of a national championship, earned a one-third share of the SEC title and served notice that they, and by extension their fans, were no longer a second-class act in their own state.

Two days before the kickoff, Auburn coach Pat Dye had railed in his office about a story in Bama, a Crimson Tide fan newsletter, suggesting that a win by the Tide would swing the pendulum of football might in the state back to its "normal place." The persecution complex that bedevils the Tigers was evident. No matter that after nearly a century of frustration Auburn had finally brought its series with Alabama to Jordan-Hare Stadium. No matter that the Tigers had beaten the Tide the last three years. No matter that Auburn had won the SEC crown in 1987 and '88. "Alabama fans don't want you to walk on the same side of the street as them," said Dye. "They want you in slavery. They want you in bondage."

After a week of name-calling and three hours and 22 minutes of football, Auburn had acquired 365 days of bragging rights. Reggie Slack, the Tigers' senior quarterback, who was booed at home in a 10-7 victory over Florida on Nov. 4, was buoyed by chants of "Reggie! Reggie!" In a shocking departure from Auburn's customary grind-it-out attack, he threw 26 passes—and completed 14 of them, for 274 yards. He threw for no touchdowns, but three exquisite long passes set up the Tigers' first 17 points. Fleet wideout Alexander Wright hauled in seven of Slack's throws for 141 yards. "We came into the game loose, with the attitude we'd come out and be freewheeling," said Slack afterward. "Big plays were the key. They put us in a position to stick it to them."

Auburn's defense was as formidable as Slack. It held Tide runners to only 87 yards, forced three turnovers and put a fire-breathing four-man rush on quarterback Gary Hollingsworth on nearly all his 49 throws. "We let him feel our presence on every play," said outside linebacker Craig Ogletree, who had one of the Tigers' three sacks. Asked what was most meaningful about the win, Ogletree couldn't help but gloat before lighting a victory cigar. "I'm kind of used to winning conference championships," he said, "so I guess it's beating Alabama four in a row."

For the Tide, such utterances underscored the cruel arithmetic of the defeat. "From 10-0 to 0-10," Auburn fans taunted after the game, a reference to Alabama's unblemished record on entering the game and to coach Bill Curry's winless record versus the Tigers—he was 0-7 against them at Georgia Tech before arriving at Alabama three years ago. The Crimson Tide will still represent the SEC against Miami in the Sugar Bowl—Auburn finished 9-2, and though Tennessee was 10-1, its loss was to 'Bama—but that was of small consolation to Alabama, even though it will be making its first trip to the Sugar Bowl in 10 years. "In this state you have to beat your intrastate rivals to be a great team," said Curry, "and we didn't do it."

No rivalry means so much to so many people in one state as Alabama-Auburn. With Ohio State-Michigan and Oklahoma-Texas, a state line separates the victors from the vanquished. With USC-Notre Dame and Army-Navy, rooting interests are scattered across the country. But the Tide and the Tigers share the same borders and the same fan base. The schools battle each other for state funding, for recruits, for sidewalk alumni, for a sense of superiority. Some four million clannish people, many of them adults, define themselves by which set of colors they wear. Says Tide nosetackle Willie Wyatt, who grew up in Gardendale, 70 miles from the Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, "When I started watching football, I realized the hate—well not hate—but really the, yeah, hate between Alabama and Auburn."

Feelings ran especially deep last week in Auburn, where the series moved for the first time since it began in 1893. Of the first 53 meetings, 47 were played in supposedly neutral Birmingham (four games were in Montgomery and two in Tuscaloosa).

But Birmingham is a stronghold of influential 'Bama alums, and the Tide even plays two or three other games a year there. As a school with an agricultural heritage and one with neither the political clout of Alabama nor an icon of the magnitude of former Tide coach Bear Bryant (who was wont to call Auburn "that cow college"), Auburn had bristled but accepted its lot.

All the while, though, it worked toward the day when the Tide could no longer refuse to play at the Tigers' place. Over the years, Auburn floated bond issues and dangled ticket packages in front of alumni to finance the expansion of what is now Jordan-Hare Stadium from its original 7,500 seats 50 years ago to today's capacity of 85,214. The entire population of surrounding Lee County is only 80,000.

At a meeting between the two schools last year, Alabama finally agreed to visit Auburn. The next three games will be in Birmingham, but after that they will be played on a home-and-home basis. Last Saturday's game pumped an estimated $8 million into the economy of the town of Auburn, but the thought of having stands awash in blue and orange is what made Tiger fans giddy.

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