By John Brightman Brock
After the War Between the States and post-Reconstruction years, the nation looked expectantly toward the dignity and propriety of a new century with its “Gilded Age.” In the Heart of Dixie, however, an in-state college football rivalry had begun burning so hot that everyone – from coaches and players to college presidents and the state Legislature – had to wait four decades for it to cool. Well, that’s what some say…
A dapper-dressed crowd arrived by horse and buggy at Birmingham’s Lakeview Park for that very first contest between two Alabama colleges on Feb. 22, 1893. It was the result of hard work by scholars at each school to launch football programs. Despite having relatively small attendance and intensity, that game was won by a team from Auburn against a team from Tuscaloosa by a score of 32-22.
It steadily grew to become a clash of talent and pride until a tough game in 1907 ended in a tie. Long after the end zone mud had settled that year, school officials weren’t grappling with controversies on the field. Instead, they were squaring off over players’ expense money and the choice of game officials. Ultimately, both schools walked away in a decision that sidelined the game for 41 years.
So, the Tigers from Auburn and the Crimson Tide from Tuscaloosa put off playing each other until after two world wars and the Great Depression – the types of earth-shattering events, some surmise, that had to happen before Alabamians would tackle their own pressing pigskin problem.
These days, each year’s Iron Bowl pits players from both schools who hate losing to former high school teammates. Families put aside their avowed affections as game day “mixed-marriages” divide hearts, living rooms, church pews, bar rooms and river sand bars, as the nation’s greatest in-state college football game is played.
But through those silent no-play years, whether a display of our history-proven strength of character, or stubborn Scot-Irish heritage, neither school gave up one inch of political turf in negotiations. Providence managed to shine through the gloom, however. Administrations at Alabama and Auburn (then called Alabama Polytechnic Institute, or API) finally chose to allow the history-making kickoff whistle to blow again in 1948 as the Iron Bowl returned to its roots of rivalry. In 1989 the game was moved from its “neutral” location at Legion Field in Birmingham to a yearly rotation of Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn and Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
A look back at those years of dogged determination not to play the game is revealing.
‘It was stupid’
David Housel, long-time athletics director and Sports Information director at Auburn University, says the history of the impasse was telling. “By today’s standards, it was stupid.”
In 1908, the University of Alabama received a game contract proposal from Alabama Polytechnic Institute calling for a two-night player expense pay for 22 men per team at $3.50 a day, for a total of $154. Alabama countered with a proposal for 20 players at $3 per day, a difference of two men and $34, according to David Rosenblatt, recently retired director of the Jonathon Bell Lovelace Museum at Auburn University. “And Auburn would not agree to any change.” The Tigers’ athletic commissioners also wanted game officials to be chosen from outside of the state, while Alabama wanted the opposite. But while most folks thought the controversy was being settled amicably, they were proved wrong. “On Oct. 30, 1908, the series went into limbo and not to be reopened until 1948,” Rosenblatt says.
While the two schools nearly compromised in 1908, they could not agree on an actual date of play. The process stopped cold. Efforts again in 1911 and 1923 also were unsuccessful.
The history of this disagreement unearths the collegiate character of the times, as both school faculties agreed the game’s fervor was disrupting students’ focus on their higher education. After all, football seasons then were short, and this game was not meant to be a “big thing.” At one point, the Auburn athletic commission decided it should not be resumed, but Alabama attempted to bring it back – only to be stymied by Auburn again, according to Rosenblatt.
The issue was passed to the Alabama Capitol, and the Legislature approved a unanimous non-binding resolution on Aug. 15, 1947, calling for the schools to play. The joint resolution, (HJR 77 - Stone) passed the Alabama House, and then gained Senate approval with the added stipulation that the schools play no later than May 1949. (See resolution.)
After that, University of Alabama President John M. Gallalee and Alabama Polytechnic Institute President Ralph Brown Draughon were meeting in April 1948 at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham when Gallalee asked,” Why don’t we just play?” And Draughon replied, “Let’s do it,” Rosenblatt says.
The Crimson Tide won that return football match 55-0 in Birmingham on Dec. 4, 1948. But the folks putting on the event doubled the price of a ticket and made it a souvenir item, says Kenny Howard, assistant trainer with the API team in 1948, and later assistant Auburn University athletics director until 1980.
“It was a highly sought after ticket,” Howard remembers. “Mostly, it was just to say ‘I was there when.’ But it was not a big deal for the rivalry because there was not a rivalry then,” he adds.
Both sides were stirred up
But people were definitely stirred up – on both sides. Tickets sold out to Legion Field’s stadium seating, he says. “They had ladders trying to get over the wall at Legion Field. One guy got him a ladder and jumped off to get in, and broke his leg.” And many guys at the main gate “had buddies to get in,” Howard says, estimating the crowd at about 40,000-plus. “It was more than an overflow crowd,” because of people sneaking in wherever they could.
Contrary to the last wet and muddy meeting in 1907, it was a nice winter’s day, Howard says, as he referred occasionally to Housel’s well-known book, “The Auburn University Football Vault.” According to Howard: “The kids were anxious to play. The stadium was filled up an hour before the ball game, and there was lots of yelling there. Alabama jumped out ahead and got ahead of us, and beat the hell out of us early, 55 to 0.”
Clem Gryska, former assistant coach at Alabama and recent retiree from the Paul W. Bryant Museum staff, recalled the fervor of that 1948 game, and the night before. In the game, he was a blocking back in the Crimson Tide backfield.
“We stayed at the big hotel in town that night. We woke up for the pre-game and I looked out of the window. There were people everywhere. There was a big parade. They had flags and were honking horns. It was a beautiful sunny day, the weather was mild and a pretty good crowd,” recalls Gryska, who recently turned 83. He notes that Alabama had a well-known program and was awfully good. “We really didn’t like them or want to play them,” he quips about the Tigers.
“But the next year, Alabama fans chanted ‘56... ’56’ meaning they wanted to win 56-0. But Auburn beat the hell out of them 14-13,” Howard says. Alabama Polytechnic Institute players showered, got dressed and came back out, as none of the API fans had left the field. But Legion Field would never be the same again, Howard says. Many of the feather-filled stadium seat cushions were split open and tossed in the air. “They went out of business that day... the stands and field were covered with feathers (in celebration).”
Howard surprisingly also was connected, by relation, to the series’ precursor game in 1907, where the aunt of his late wife, Jeanne, had a buggy seat in inclement weather. “It was a nasty, terrible day. Aunt Mim Barnhart sat in a buggy with her boyfriend and watched them play. She didn’t remember any controversy that come up at the ball game,” Howard says.
That game, known for its muddy field, was pivotal in the naming of the Crimson Tide, according to the Alabama Crimson Tide, University of Alabama official athletic website. It lists the “Crimson White” as the first team name used, and the first nickname of “Thin Red Line” used until 1906.
According to the website: “The name ‘Crimson Tide’ is supposed to have been used by Hugh Roberts, former sports editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald. He used ‘Crimson Tide’ in describing an Alabama-Auburn game played in Birmingham in 1907... The game was played in a sea of mud and Auburn was a heavy favorite to win. But, evidently, the ‘Thin Red Line’ played a great game in the red mud and held Auburn to a 6-6 tie, thus gaining the name ‘Crimson Tide.’ Zipp Newman, former sports editor of the Birmingham News, probably popularized the name more than any other writer.”
Game site rotates now
From 1948 to 1988, the games were played at Legion Field in Birmingham. After that, the game site rotated between each school’s campus, with Auburn hosting the first game on Dec. 2, 1989. API changed its name to Auburn University in 1960.
Those 41 no-play years for the Orange and Blue and the Crimson and White brought both schools back on a collision course with school rivalry, and on track with national trends, says Tom Land, institution records analyst/archivist with University of Alabama Archives. He refers to “Braggin’ Rights,” an acclaimed book about those years by Bill Cromartie. During that time, Alabama won several national titles and was known as a powerhouse.
“During the years they had not played, Alabama started getting better,” Land says. “Auburn was basically average. Alabama saw that as nothing to gain – and it could only help Auburn, not us. Then came Auburn in the 1950s, and they started getting good, while Alabama had started slowly dropping back.”
Different coaches at the universities added to team reputations, coaches like as Auburn’s Ralph “Shug” Jordan and Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Post-war lifestyle changes spiked attendance and team loyalty for both sides. Residents of the state had more time for leisure and a rivalry geared more and more for the fans.
“Realize that World War II came along and there were a lot of folks that went into the military, and they came back,” Land says. “There was more interest in people going to college with the GI bill. There was more leisure time, to get away from the tough times of the war rationing. So, you get these boom years after the war, and it changes things – America’s perception. That goes for the South, too.”
So the game became an annual mainstay of Alabamians’ leisure plans, and became an outlet for their tensions. That translated, and still translates, into the Iron Bowl, Land says.
Historians like Dr. Ed Bridges, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, focus on the significance of two men who developed these football programs.
“The football program at Auburn was started by the great historian George Petrie,” Bridges says. “And Eugene Allen Smith, for whom Smith Hall is named, is also one of the great figures of Alabama history.”
Petrie, the first Alabamian to earn a Ph.D, was an American scholar and educator who is considered the founder of Auburn’s history department and graduate school, as well as the school’s athletic program. Smith was state geologist from 1873 to 1913 and president of the American Geological Society in 1913. He is remembered for helping to develop the state’s mineral wealth.
“Smith was a heroic figure in Alabama,” Bridges says. “It’s hard to overstate how important he was to the state. He was one of the great men of Alabama. Smith Hall, where the Alabama Museum of Natural History is, is named for him,” Bridges says.
“And Petrie was a giant of a man. They said he was one of the greatest teachers they had heard speak. People from town would come to hear him. For those two remarkable men, who were such scholastic leaders, to have been instrumental in establishing a football program is noteworthy.”
These roots of rivalry will soon rekindle and resound with cries of “Roll, Tide, Roll!” and “War Eagle!” at this year’s Iron Bowl, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Nov. 26 in Tuscaloosa. More than 100,000 stadium seats will be filled in a colorful and screaming display of fan loyalty far removed from the first meeting in 1893. But the game will be played and cheered with the same collegiate pride.
And this year, no one’s talking expense money for players, or worrying about officials. Next year they’ll play in Auburn. Guaranteed.
Resolution HJR 77
Aug. 15, 1947
Whereas, for many years there has been a lapse in athletic relations between the University of Alabama and Alabama Polytechnic Institute; and Whereas, in the opinion of the majority of the members of the Alabama Legislature it is to the best interest of the two schools and of the people of Alabama that such athletic relations be resumed.
Now Therefore, be it resolved by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring, that the respective Boards of Trustees of the University of Alabama and Alabama Polytechnic Institute are hereby respectfully requested to make possible the inauguration of a full athletic program between the two schools, and
Be It Further Resolved that such action be taken by the said Boards of Trustees at the earliest practicable date. And not later than May 1949.d
Source: Alabama State House, Legislative Reference