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The upshot is, as detestable as Crimson Tide fans find Tigers backers (and vice versa), they need each other. Auburn is the yin to Alabama's yang. They complete each other. Without the Iron Bowl, college football in Alabama is no different from college football in Nebraska or Georgia or anywhere else where one school is king. But with the Iron Bowl, that boast on the facade of the upper deck at Legion Field--FOOTBALL CAPITAL OF THE SOUTH--becomes an unnecessarily modest statement. Alabama is the college football capital of the world.
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," Gillis Cammack, the Auburn student-body president in '48, told me three years ago. "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. The war of words has never let up. 'Bama fans have been calling it Aubarn since the school on the Plains, originally a private college, was given to the state in 1872 for use as a land-grant institution. 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.
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 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.
Since then the series has provided a host of memorable moments. Ken Stabler's Run in the Mud in 1967. Bear Bryant's record 315th win in 1981--his last of 19 Iron Bowl triumphs. Van Tiffin's 52-yard field goal in the dying seconds in '85. Sam Shade and Tommy Johnson's fourth-down tackle in 1994, preserving a 'Bama win. Not all of the memories are so fond for Tide fans, though. 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 Auburn's Bill Newton blocked two punts, and David Langner returned both for touchdowns, as the Tigers rallied for a 17-16 win. The Tide's national title hopes were shot, and Auburn had fodder for a sticker that can still be seen on some of its 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 level of passion has never varied, but the rivalry itself has undergone some changes. Sick of going to Birmingham every year, Auburn insisted on playing every other game 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," Curry said. "The intensity never relented because half the stadium had something to cheer for all the time."
When I talked to Cammack 55 years after he dug that hole in Woodrow Wilson Park, there was an Alabama-Auburn game fast approaching. He was 79, but he vowed he'd be watching the game from his home in Selma. Then I asked about the hatchet. He had no idea what had become of it. Woodrow Wilson Park has undergone several renovations--it is now called Linn Park--and there is nothing to mark the burial site, which probably doesn't matter anyway. Said Cammack, "I doubt if that hatchet stayed buried very long."