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PERHAPS the most striking thing one notices upon spending one's first Iron Bowl Day in the state of Alabama is how there's no one on the streets. This works out very well, as my mom discovered, if you want to go grocery shopping or hit the mall. With everyone huddled up in front of a TV, decked out in crimson or orange and blue--or, if they're lucky, at the game, decked out in crimson or orange and blue--the good parking spots are yours, and you're not going to be jostling with anyone over the freshest tomatoes.
When we moved to Huntsville six weeks before the 1980 Iron Bowl, we weren't strangers to the idea of people being insane about football. We moved from Cleveland, which--even in the days before fans wore dog masks to games and threw Milk Bones at opposing players--had its share of folks who got a little too worked up on Sunday afternoons. (My parents were Browns season-ticket holders for years.) Sure, we'd heard the stories about how big college football was in Alabama. But nothing really prepares you for what you see: the ubiquitous T-shirts, the bumper stickers, the flags flying outside homes and the oil paintings on living room walls inside them.
It's a clich� to say that football is a way of life in Alabama, but that's why someone went to the trouble of inventing clich�s. At no time is the import placed on the sport more evident than in late November. 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 Iron Bowl, so forgive him if he waxes hyperbolic. "In a way they wage war 365 days a year," he told me a few years ago. "It never stops, no matter who tries to intervene or referee."
No, there's no third party in the mix. There are two clearly defined sides, which was a departure from what I was used to in Cleveland, where everyone is a Browns fan. You live in Cleveland, you hate the Steelers. And if you want to take that up with a Steelers fan, you've got to drive to Pennsylvania. In Alabama, though, if you want to meet the enemy, you've only got to walk outside. It's a sensitive environment, as I learned shortly after moving. (I was nine at the time.) Someone--an Auburn fan, no doubt--told me a joke involving Bear Bryant, a pig and a punch line that disparaged the coach's appearance. I told it to a 'Bama fan. It didn't go over well.
I should have learned a lesson from the glares I received (thankfully, that's all I received), namely that you can't play both sides of the fence. But that didn't stop me from having dalliances with both schools, the approximate equivalent of showing up at the Battle of Bull Run in gray pants and a blue coat. Shortly after we moved, my parents got me a 'Bama cowboy hat, for reasons known only to them, which presumably marked me as a Crimson Tide fan. Not long after the pig joke incident, I was decked out in an Auburn jersey. That didn't last either.
What I was slowly learning with all of these not-so-bitter breakups was that allegiances in Alabama are ingrained. 'Bama fans are hardwired to be 'Bama fans. (Ditto for Auburn fans.) There is no choice, and no "learning to love" a team. I recall an instance in sixth grade in which we had to bring in our most cherished possession and talk about it in front of the class; one kid, who had never before taken an assignment seriously, gave a remarkably touching account of his affection for a copy of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED with Bear Bryant on the cover. I knew I'd never be able to do that--and that I'd never fully fit in.
I wasn't the only outsider to whom this dedication was a foreign concept. 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," Curry told me. "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.'" Here Curry paused. "I did not have a clue."
In time he realized that the sport is so important because it 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," said 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."
But there's more to it than whipping a bunch of Yankees. It's much more fun to whip the guy down the street, to see the hurt on his face after the game--and every day for the next 364. That's what makes the Alabama-Auburn game what it is. It defines a season. In 1987 Curry's team lost to Auburn 10-0. In '88 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 recalled. "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 '89 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.