On the morning after Auburn beat Oregon 22--19 to win the national championship, I walked my dog down a quiet block in Birmingham. An ice storm had blown through the city, and the streets were empty. But as I turned a corner, I spotted two brothers, maybe 10 and 12 years old, arguing on a front lawn. The older one was wearing an Alabama cap, the younger had on an Auburn jacket.
"Talk to me when you have 13 national championships," the older kid said. "But I guess it must feel good to win one every, oh, 54 years!" In reply, his little brother plastered him in the face with a snowball, which really wasn't surprising. Because in the state that has unquestionably become the epicenter of college football, Auburn's national title has done one thing to the majority of Alabama fans: It's ticked them off. Royally. So much for state pride and conference allegiance.
"If you're born in Alabama, you have to decide as soon as you come out of the womb whether you're a 'Bama fan or a Tigers fan," says Auburn safety Zac Etheridge, a native of Troy who grew up worshiping the Tigers and was recruited by both Auburn and Alabama. "You could even say that our road to the championship began because we were so mad that Alabama had won it last year."
So where does the animosity between the schools come from? Why were hordes of 'Bama fans wearing T-shirts that read ROLL DUCKS ROLL in the days before and during the title game? Why in early January was Bama Fever, a college merchandise store in Fultondale, flooded with calls asking if it had any Oregon gear for sale? Allow Sean Kelley, a Birmingham-based writer and Alabama graduate whose father and two brothers are Auburn alums, to explain.
"Imagine you're an only child," Kelley says. "You have a perfect life. Then comes a second child. What Auburn did this year is like having a little brother usurp your birthright."
But is Auburn really Alabama's little brother? Consider: Since 1981 the Tigers have more SEC titles (six to five), more undefeated seasons (three to two), more Iron Bowl wins (17 to 13), more overall victories (254 to 226), and more Heisman Trophy winners (two to one) than the Crimson Tide. Little Brother, by nearly every measure, is standing taller than Big Brother.
This was made especially clear by two contrasting scenes last Friday. In downtown Auburn, as a cold wind fluttered the toilet paper still hanging from the oak trees at Toomer's Corner, a dozen fans stood at the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue periodically shouting "War Eagle!" to passing cars. Later that evening, 160 miles to the northwest, a few Alabama faithful stood next to a pool table in the Houndstooth Sports Bar in Tuscaloosa, still shaking their heads at the memory of the BCS game. "There are two teams that I root for: Alabama and whoever is playing Auburn," said David Harris, a senior economics major at Alabama. "I'd rather the trophy be in Oregon. A lot of people don't even know where Auburn is."
Perhaps, but this much is certain: Every Alabama fan sure does.