The Birmingham news provided a public service for the fans of Alabama last week: a map to Auburn. Since this vicious rivalry began in 1893, Tide boosters had never needed to learn their way to the Tigers' home turf, and some had probably suspected the route would take them through haystacks and chicken coops. But last Saturday 'Bama diehards found that the roads to Auburn are indeed paved, even though their trip did not go smoothly. For by whipping the previously unbeaten Tide 30-20 before 85,319 delirious fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers dashed 'Bama's hopes of a national championship, earned a one-third share of the SEC title and served notice that they, and by extension their fans, were no longer a second-class act in their own state.
Two days before the kickoff, Auburn coach Pat Dye had railed in his office about a story in Bama, a Crimson Tide fan newsletter, suggesting that a win by the Tide would swing the pendulum of football might in the state back to its "normal place." The persecution complex that bedevils the Tigers was evident. No matter that after nearly a century of frustration Auburn had finally brought its series with Alabama to Jordan-Hare Stadium. No matter that the Tigers had beaten the Tide the last three years. No matter that Auburn had won the SEC crown in 1987 and '88. "Alabama fans don't want you to walk on the same side of the street as them," said Dye. "They want you in slavery. They want you in bondage."
After a week of name-calling and three hours and 22 minutes of football, Auburn had acquired 365 days of bragging rights. Reggie Slack, the Tigers' senior quarterback, who was booed at home in a 10-7 victory over Florida on Nov. 4, was buoyed by chants of "Reggie! Reggie!" In a shocking departure from Auburn's customary grind-it-out attack, he threw 26 passes—and completed 14 of them, for 274 yards. He threw for no touchdowns, but three exquisite long passes set up the Tigers' first 17 points. Fleet wideout Alexander Wright hauled in seven of Slack's throws for 141 yards. "We came into the game loose, with the attitude we'd come out and be freewheeling," said Slack afterward. "Big plays were the key. They put us in a position to stick it to them."
Auburn's defense was as formidable as Slack. It held Tide runners to only 87 yards, forced three turnovers and put a fire-breathing four-man rush on quarterback Gary Hollingsworth on nearly all his 49 throws. "We let him feel our presence on every play," said outside linebacker Craig Ogletree, who had one of the Tigers' three sacks. Asked what was most meaningful about the win, Ogletree couldn't help but gloat before lighting a victory cigar. "I'm kind of used to winning conference championships," he said, "so I guess it's beating Alabama four in a row."
December 11, 1989
For the Tide, such utterances underscored the cruel arithmetic of the defeat. "From 10-0 to 0-10," Auburn fans taunted after the game, a reference to Alabama's unblemished record on entering the game and to coach Bill Curry's winless record versus the Tigers—he was 0-7 against them at Georgia Tech before arriving at Alabama three years ago. The Crimson Tide will still represent the SEC against Miami in the Sugar Bowl—Auburn finished 9-2, and though Tennessee was 10-1, its loss was to 'Bama—but that was of small consolation to Alabama, even though it will be making its first trip to the Sugar Bowl in 10 years. "In this state you have to beat your intrastate rivals to be a great team," said Curry, "and we didn't do it."
No rivalry means so much to so many people in one state as Alabama-Auburn. With Ohio State-Michigan and Oklahoma-Texas, a state line separates the victors from the vanquished. With USC-Notre Dame and Army-Navy, rooting interests are scattered across the country. But the Tide and the Tigers share the same borders and the same fan base. The schools battle each other for state funding, for recruits, for sidewalk alumni, for a sense of superiority. Some four million clannish people, many of them adults, define themselves by which set of colors they wear. Says Tide nosetackle Willie Wyatt, who grew up in Gardendale, 70 miles from the Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, "When I started watching football, I realized the hate—well not hate—but really the, yeah, hate between Alabama and Auburn."
Feelings ran especially deep last week in Auburn, where the series moved for the first time since it began in 1893. Of the first 53 meetings, 47 were played in supposedly neutral Birmingham (four games were in Montgomery and two in Tuscaloosa).
But Birmingham is a stronghold of influential 'Bama alums, and the Tide even plays two or three other games a year there. As a school with an agricultural heritage and one with neither the political clout of Alabama nor an icon of the magnitude of former Tide coach Bear Bryant (who was wont to call Auburn "that cow college"), Auburn had bristled but accepted its lot.
All the while, though, it worked toward the day when the Tide could no longer refuse to play at the Tigers' place. Over the years, Auburn floated bond issues and dangled ticket packages in front of alumni to finance the expansion of what is now Jordan-Hare Stadium from its original 7,500 seats 50 years ago to today's capacity of 85,214. The entire population of surrounding Lee County is only 80,000.
At a meeting between the two schools last year, Alabama finally agreed to visit Auburn. The next three games will be in Birmingham, but after that they will be played on a home-and-home basis. Last Saturday's game pumped an estimated $8 million into the economy of the town of Auburn, but the thought of having stands awash in blue and orange is what made Tiger fans giddy.
As the big day approached, the hyperbole surrounding the rivalry stretched the boundaries of sense, not to mention taste. Many Tiger fanatics likened the arrival of the series in Auburn to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Others hoped that the Malta summit would produce no news that might interrupt the game telecast. Two Alabama players—running back Siran Stacy and tackle Charlie Dare, reportedly—received death threats, prompting Curry to call in the FBI.
Dye pooh-poohed Curry's concern. "One of my players got a death threat, too—from his daddy," was his callous reply before the game. However, Dye does know well the emotional power of the rivalry. After the Tigers lost 25-23 in 1985, he broke out in hives for a week and vowed never again to get so worked up about a game against 'Bama.
While most of the capacity crowd would be screaming for the Tigers, fate seemed to favor the Crimson Tide. Hollingsworth, who would break Scott Hunter's single-season school record for passing yardage (2,188) by throwing for 340 on Saturday, grew up an Auburn fan in Hamilton. But Dye did not show much interest in him, and the Tiger offense was not to Hollingsworth's liking. Hollingsworth's family remained so orange-and-blue that only his younger brother and his mother pulled for him to win. A first cousin had a compromise T-shirt printed up: WAR EAGLE MAN/HOLLINGSWORTH FAN. It would be just like Aladamnbama, the persecuted thinking went, to come kicking and screaming into Auburn and then whip the Tigers with a player who got away.
On Saturday morning Alabama boosters, dressed in crimson-and-white, lined interstate overpasses to cheer their team as it traveled the 60 miles on buses from its hotel in Montgomery to Auburn, much as Alabama faithful had lined the highways in 1983, when Bryant's body was taken from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham for burial. After making his way through a frenzied group of Tiger fans on his way into Jordan-Hare, Auburn running back James Joseph became so excited that he hyperventilated during warmups. He recovered in time to score on a one-yard dive in the game's first series.
Both Alabama and the officials failed to notice that the Tigers had 12 men on the field for Joseph's TD run. Had a flag been thrown, Auburn would have been penalized 15 yards. Instead of a 7-0 lead, the Tigers would have found themselves facing third-and-goal from the 16 and may well have had to settle for a field goal attempt.
Twice in the first quarter Alabama marched inside the Auburn 10, but on neither occasion did it score a touchdown. The first time, the Tide got a 24-yard field goal by Philip Doyle. On the second occasion, Curry tried a pass play off a fake field goal from the five-yard line, but the throw by holder Jeff Wall was broken up in the end zone. "There's a term coaches use—war daddies," says Curry. "They get after you and smash you. A good team has one or two. Auburn has 11."
Stacy, a junior-college transfer who came into the game with 1,025 yards on the season, gained only 54 yards on 14 carries. "He's a great all-purpose back," said Tiger linebacker Quentin Riggins of Stacy. "But he'd never played in an Alabama-Auburn game."
With 1:49 remaining in the first half, Hollingsworth threw an 18-yard touchdown strike to wideout Marco Battle to give the Tide a 10-7 lead at intermission. In the locker room Dye reminded his players of a four-page handwritten letter he had tearfully read to them after last Thursday's practice. It had come from a 73-year-old Auburn loyalist and World War II veteran. The writer described how he was taken prisoner after he and 300 others had held off 3,500 German soldiers for 72 hours. He said the captured Americans had been so valiant that they were later saluted by an SS officer. "It got to all of us," said Slack. "It said something to us about life and what we needed to do."
On its first drive of the second half, Alabama neutralized the crowd's roar with hand signals and a no-huddle offense. Hollingsworth drove the Tide to the Auburn 30, where, on third-and-one, he misfired on a short pass to fullback Kevin Turner. On fourth down Curry had Doyle try a 48-yard field goal into a a 10-mph wind. The kick fell short. "With everything riding on the game, the national championship implications, I thought they'd have gone for it on fourth down," said Riggins.
Curry's decision was the turning point of the game. Two plays later Slack completed a 58-yard pass to wide receiver Shayne Wasden, who was run down at the Auburn 11-yard line by Keith McCants, Alabama's spectacular 256-pound linebacker who would finish with a game-high 18 tackles. A two-yard plunge by Joseph put the Tigers ahead for good, 14-10.
On Auburn's next possession Wright hauled in a 60-yarder from Slack, despite having been knocked out of bounds by Tide cornerback Efrum Thomas while running the route. The play set up the first of Win Lyle's three field goals. In high school Wright was a track star who played only one year of football, but Auburn offered him a football scholarship because of his 4.3 speed in the 40. Wright needed some time to hone his hands and to tame his feet, but now, as a senior, he says, "I'm an Auburn receiver. I hope I proved that today."
Behind the blasts of tailback Stacy Danley, who gained 130 yards on 28 carries, the Tigers increased their lead to 27-10 in the fourth quarter before Hollingsworth guided the Tide to two quick scores to cut the deficit to 27-20 with 1:49 to play. Though Alabama's rally fell short, those scores probably preserved its trip to New Orleans. Had Auburn won by two touchdowns or more, the Sugar Bowl committee might have taken Tennessee instead. As it is, the Volunteers will play Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, and Auburn will take on Ohio State in the Hall of Fame.
However, what may or may not happen on Jan. 1 was of no concern to anyone in Alabama last Saturday, because for the first time ever, the state championship resided not only with Auburn but at Auburn as well.