Heard the latest Auburn football joke? Seems that two Tiger players, fresh from a class in Fundamentals of Hawg Sloppin' II, were sent to check out Auburn's new deluxe team bus—a pickup truck. While one player stood behind the vehicle, the other flipped on the directional signals and then shouted, ' "Are they workin'?" "No, they ain't," cried his companion. "Er, yes, they is...no...yes...no...yes...."
Richard Todd, the Alabama quarterback, felt called upon to relate this thighslapper last week, just a few hours after he and a large cast of supporting heroes led the Crimson Tide to a histrionic 17-13 victory over the Tigers on Birmingham's Legion Field. After all, if Alabama had lost, he knows that Auburn folks would be saying that when he goes swimming back home in Mobile he leaves a ring around the Gulf of Mexico.
As it is, when Todd does return home he expects the same treatment he got last year after the Crimson Tide won the annual Bad-Mouth Bowl, 35-0. "I didn't mind all the phone calls cussin' me out for going to Alabama," he says, "but it kinda hurt when some of my old high school teachers who are Auburn fans refused to talk to me."
Make no mistake, old school ties run so deep in the "heart of Dixie" that rubbing a rival's nose in the trough is deemed a God-given right, not to mention being good-natured fun. Razzing, in fact, is seen as a healthy substitute for the riots that, among other disputes, caused the rivalry to be broken off in 1907. Hostilities were not resumed until 1948 when, under pressure from the state legislature, the two schools buried a ceremonial hatchet in Birmingham's Woodrow Wilson Park. And ever since, any Alabamian can recount each game from an outrageously biased viewpoint.
Auburn supporters, for instance, still accuse Alabama of creating the cyclone that struck Birmingham in 1967, and somehow blew Tide Quarterback Kenny Stabler to a muddy 47-yard scoring romp that defeated the Tigers 10-3.
"If you live in Alabama," says Stabler, now the sunshine boy of the Oakland Raiders, "you have to live with Auburn people all year long. So you dish it out when you win because you're going to have to listen to it when you lose. And I don't mean just for the week after the game, I mean until the next one."
That prospect is enough to give Bear Bryant an advanced case of what he calls "stall walkin'." While most Americans were enjoying Thanksgiving last week, the Bear was scratching around in his office looking for mislaid keys, gazing enigmatically at some new plays chalked on the walls and intermittently giving forth with his famous mumble-rumble. "The one thing I'm thankful for on this day," he said, "is that I'm still alive. If someone could guarantee me a one-point victory over Auburn tomorrow, I'd be the happiest old man in the United States."
Rummaging around on a desk cluttered with papers, golf balls, Breakfast Squares, Chesterfield Kings and lotions for "sun-sensitive skin," Bryant confessed, "I'm worried about our kicking game, about injuries, about how well our cripples will do. So many things can happen to a team. Drownings, auto accidents, a kid could fall in love...." Then, without once mentioning that undefeated Alabama, No. 1 in the UPI coaches' poll, and No. 6 Auburn were playing for the national as well as the Southeastern Conference championships, he put the game into perspective. "The state championship of Alabama means everything. This game is for braggin' rights for the next 365 days."
Though Bryant's teams have lost to Auburn only five times since he began coaching at Alabama in 1958, the Bear knows all too well how raucous that braggin' can get. Like those years when he tried to seek refuge in his cabin on Lake Martin, only to be buzzed by an armada of boaters squawking, "War Eagle!" the old Auburn rallying cry.
Auburn's Shug Jordan winces to a different refrain. It happens more often than not when he pulls up to a stoplight and has to sit there while another motorist revs his engine in unison with cries of "Ro-o-oll Tide!"