This is not to say Alabama and Auburn do not snipe at each other. They do, and they begin with definitions. An Auburn man to an Alabama man is a guy who has plowman's stoop and drives a pickup truck to the game on Saturday. Auburn is Cow College. Auburn people call Alabama people country-clubbers and silly sophisticates. They derive satisfaction from pointing out that Snug Jordan, the Auburn coach, high-mindedly refuses to endorse any kind of product, even the ones sponsoring his Sunday television show, while Paul Bryant munches Golden Flake Potato Chips on his TV show as though he really liked them. Alabama people say the only reason Jordan has a show is to alibi for mistakes made on Saturday, and if he ever lost his list of excuses he would have to cancel out. Auburn people say there is nothing cornier than Paul Bryant talking about Mamas and Papas. "And he mumbles," says an Auburn man.
Paul Bryant-Shug Jordan stories make the rounds, but the two maintain a cordial relationship, and occasionally even get together for a grimace-and-bear-it round of golf. They are not really buddy-buddy, however, because they are in a terribly direct competition—the continuing dogfight for the state's best high school football players.
Jordan played at Auburn and came back to be its coach in 1951; Auburn had lost 10 in a row the year before. Just like that he had the War Eagles—or Tigers or Plainsmen, your choice—out of purgatory and winging. They later ran up a string of five victories over Alabama and won a national championship in 1957. Then in 1958 Paul Bryant, a former Alabama player, came back to be his team's coach. Alabama had won four games in the previous three years. Since then, The Tide has beaten Auburn six out of eight and won two national championships.
" Bryant," said Jordan in a moment of reflection last week, "made us work harder." Jordan understated the case. Auburn is known as a technical and agricultural school, although it is much more than that. "But when you've got doctors and lawyers recruiting against engineers and farmers," says one Auburn man, "the doctors and lawyers win every time." It is likely that in knuckles-down competition Alabama gets as many as eight of every 10 good high school football players in the state.
You might not have expected either team to wind up as royalty after the first games of the season, because Alabama got knocked off by Georgia 18-17 and Auburn lost to Baylor. One night aftter the Georgia game, Bryant says, he dropped his car keys in a campus parking lot and was down on all fours trying to find them when he heard two coeds passing comments on his posture. One of them ( Bryant's words again) said, "Look at that. He loses one lousy game and right away he turns into an idiot."
The story demonstrates that Bryant can make up Bear Bryant stories along with the rest. It does not tell you that the Georgia loss turned Bryant into a doubter of the newly allowed two-platoon play. He discovered there were boys on his offensive team who were sorely needed to help his little boys play defense. Little is not a facetious term—neither Alabama line, offensive or defensive, averages 200 pounds a man. He found as many as 14 players capable of absorbing instructions on both.
Center Paul Crane wound up playing 50 minutes a game. Crane was so consistent a blocker and so fierce a tackier that an LSU man challenged his program weight of 191. "He weighs at least 215 pounds," said the LSU man. Publicist Charley Thornton got out the scales for a weigh-in. Crane weighed 194.
Alabama also had the best fullback in the league—Steve Bowman, the leading ground-gainer—and, unsurprise of un-surprises, Steve Sloan turned out to be just the quarterback to follow Joe Na-math into the hearts of Alabamans. The fact was that Sloan, who had been playing second chair to Namath for two years—but a very active second chair because Namath was out frequently—always came through beautifully. He is a handsome boy, with glistening teeth and a case of double humbleness. He has serious doubts that he will be able to play pro football because he thinks he does not throw hard enough. He is also the most accurate passer Alabama ever had.
With Bowman running and Sloan throwing and that little defensive team swarming over everybody, Alabama did not lose again after the Georgia game, though there was a tie with Tennessee, and it had accepted its second straight Orange Bowl invitation when it went out to play Auburn on Saturday. Auburn, which had lost two more games outside the SEC, did not figure to be a challenger, but within the conference it somehow had stayed unbeaten and it would now play Alabama for the championship. Auburn, too, had accepted a bowl bid—to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis—a prize, to be sure, but hardly an appropriate one, Auburn people were saying, if the Tigers were to beat Alabama and win the SEC.
Jordan made a major change in mid-season that had a galvanizing effect on his offense. Never one to put much stock in the forward pass, he now put his best running quarterback, Tom Bryan, at fullback, and Alex Bowden, an ungainly kid who had been around Auburn five years and at one point was listed as a fifth-stringer, became his No. 1 quarterback. Bowden tripped over his own feet just trotting onto the field for one game, but all he did was start throwing 50-yard touchdown passes. Jordan found he was enjoying football more. "Exhilarating." he said. "I think the passing game is exhilarating."