The Iron Bowl

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This rivalry goes by the title of “The Iron Bowl.” The name conjures images of gritty blue-collar men working in blazing hot steel foundries. In fact, the name comes from the iron and steel industry located in Birmingham, the home of the rivalry for 44 straight games, and the intensity and heat associated with the rivalry make the name even more appropriate. The University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn University Tigers battle one another to the death each season in the Iron Bowl game. Auburn College Football Hall of Fame coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan came up with the moniker before the 1980 contest. The venom and disdain that the fans from one side have for the other do not just commence during the days leading up to the game, as in most rivalries, but rage on every day of the year. Alabama fans refer to Auburn people as “Barners,” in reference to Auburn’s early years as an agricultural school, while Auburn fans claim that Alabama’s most famous graduate is Forest Gump.

Justin Hokanson, in a 2008 article for “bleacherreport.com,” breaks down the rivalry within families.

Brothers and sisters watch the game in separate rooms, maybe even separate houses,

because they don’t want to kill each other in the process. Parents and children don’t

talk to each other. There are even parents that don’t allow their children to go to one

school or the other simply because they graduated from the rival school.

Alabama leads the series 45-35-1. Auburn won the first two games in 1893 in Birmingham, then Montgomery. Alabama picked up its first win in 1894 in Montgomery while Auburn took the next two in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery. The series took a brief hiatus from 1896 through 1899 before resuming in 1900. The schools then met every year through the 1907 game, after which the series ended for almost 40 years. At that time, Auburn led the series 7-4-1 and the games had been played in Birmingham the last four years. The University of Alabama is much closer to Birmingham than Auburn and Auburn officials demanded more per diem for the players. Auburn also wanted to allow more players to travel for the game and a different process for choosing the officials for the game. Alabama officials would not agree to any of Auburn’s demands and the series ended.

After pressure from the state legislature, the two school presidents agreed to re-start the series in 1948 in Birmingham because 44,000-seat Legion Field was the largest stadium in the state. Before the game, the presidents of the respective student government associations buried a hatchet in Woodrow Wilson Park to represent the end of the argument. Alabama proceeded to win the game 55-0, the most lopsided victory in the series.

The game remained in Birmingham through the 1988 contest, after which Auburn moved its home games to Auburn. Alabama continued to hold its home game in the series at Legion Field through 1998 but began hosting Auburn in Tuscaloosa in 2000 after the expansion of Bryant-Denny stadium to over 80,000 seats. The games have rotated between the two campuses since then. Alabama owns a 34-18-1 record in games played at Legion Field, while Auburn is 7-4 in Tuscaloosa and 8-5 in Auburn.

The winner of each game receives the Foy-ODK Sportsmanship trophy, named after James E. Foy, a former dean at both schools and the Faculty Secretary of  Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society at both schools. The trophy is presented at halftime of the winner’s home basketball game against the loser. After the presentation, the Student Government Association president from the losing school sings the winning school’s fight song. Granted, the singing sessions may have had many memorable moments over the years but probably will not top any of the memories from the gridiron battles.

The 1967 game at Legion Field became known as the “Run in the Mud.” With Auburn leading Alabama 3-0 in a torrential downpour in the fourth quarter, Tide quarterback Ken Stabler broke loose for a 53-yard touchdown that gave the Tide the lead and an eventual 7-3 victory.

The 1981 game, also at Legion Field, became the 315th career victory for Alabama Hall of Fame coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.  Alabama won 28-17.  Bryant passed Amos Alonzo Stagg for career wins for a Division IA coach.

Freshman Bo Jackson broke Auburn’s nine-game losing streak in the series in 1982. With the Tigers trailing 22-17 late in the fourth quarter, Jackson, on fourth-and-goal, took a handoff from quarterback Randy Campbell, then leaped on top of the Tide defense before stretching the ball over the goal line. Auburn broke the streak with a 23-22 victory.

For Auburn fans, the second most memorable game in the series may have occurred in 1989. With the addition of the west upper deck in 1980 and the east upper deck in 1987, Jordan-Hare Stadium reached a capacity of over 85,000 seats, the largest stadium in Alabama at that time. Auburn fans always felt Legion Field was a home-field advantage for the Tide. Now that the school had a stadium bigger than Legion Field, the time was right to move their home games in the series to Auburn. After the 1987 game, Auburn athletics director and coach Pat Dye requested that all future Auburn home games in the series be moved to Jordan-Hare. The first game in Auburn took place on December 2, 1989. With over 85,000 rabid Tiger fans in attendance, Auburn beat Alabama, 30-20. After the game, a member of the media asked Dye what it felt like leading the team on to the field. Dye responded, “I’m sure that (the scene) must have resembled what went on the night the wall came down in Berlin. I mean, it was like (Auburn fans) had been freed, and let out of bondage, just having this game at Auburn.”

The 2009 game in Auburn was a different story. Undefeated Alabama trailed a 7-4 Auburn team into the fourth quarter, but the Tide went on a seven minute, 15-play, 80-yard drive to take the lead, 26-21. Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy hit receiver Julio Jones four times during the drive and finished it with a four yard pass to running back Roy Upchurch for the go ahead touchdown with 1:24 on the clock. The Tide defense turned away a last minute Auburn drive to secure the victory. Alabama then beat Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship (SEC) game before besting Texas for the national title.

Finally, the most memorable game for Auburn fans and arguably the most memorable game in series history is the game known as the “Kick Six.” With the 2013 contest tied 28 all at Jordan-Hare, Alabama lined up for a 57-yard field goal with one second on the clock. A Tide victory would send Alabama to the SEC Championship game and a possible chance for a fourth national title in five years. Alabama kicker Adam Griffith’s attempt fell short and Auburn corner back Chris Davis caught it. As Davis began to run up the field, Alabama’s defenders seemed to be caught off guard, unsure if the play was still live. Indeed it was. Davis outran the few defenders trying to stop him for a 109-yard touchdown with no time on the clock. Auburn won the game 34-28, shocking the Tide and the rest of the college football world.

Intensity, heat, bitterness, and pride are some of the words that describe the emotions of the Iron Bowl. This rivalry is more than just a game. It is a way of life for people in the state of Alabama. For the victors, a certain satisfaction and euphoria permeate their souls for the next 365 days. For the vanquished–bitterness, rancor, and a sense of doom live with them until the possibility of redemption associated with the next game. Of all the great Deep South rivalries, the Iron Bowl may be the greatest of all.

 

 

The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry

 

 

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The schools stand about 170 miles apart.  Men have played at one school and coached at the other.  The first meeting between the two schools took place in 1892 and spawned a legend.  The schools have played every year since 1898 except for the war years of 1917, 1918, and 1943.  The series stands at 57-55-8.  The oldest rivalry in the Deep South belongs to the Auburn University Tigers and the University of Georgia Bulldogs.  Pat Dye played at Georgia and coached at Auburn.  He says this about the rivalry, “It’s a unique thing.  It’s like playing against your brother.  I don’t think anybody who plays in that game can ever forget it.  It just doesn’t matter much where it’s played or what somebody’s record is.  It’s so intense and tough, but at the same time, it’s family.”  Will Muschamp also played at and graduated from Georgia.  He became a graduate assistant at Auburn and earned his master’s degree in education from there.  He had two stints as Auburn’s defensive coordinator before becoming the head coach at the University of South Carolina last year.  Muschamp has great respect for both Georgia and Auburn, “Both programs, in my opinion, have cut their teeth on the same values.  The leadership in this program (Auburn) and at Georgia has been very similar.”

Dye used the term family to describe the series.  Certainly, several famous people can claim ties to both schools.  Georgia’s College Football Hall of Fame coach Vince Dooley played and graduated from Auburn before his illustrious career on the sidelines at Georgia.  Hall of Fame Auburn coach and graduate Ralph “Shug” Jordan was an assistant coach at Georgia and head coach of the men’s basketball team before returning to Auburn.  Current Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner coached at Georgia for 15 years while former Georgia defensive line coach Tracy Rocker was a two-time All-American at Auburn.  So maybe the rivalry can be compared to two very competitive brothers trying to one up the other.

Make no mistake though this rivalry is intense and as closely contested as the series record indicates.  Currently, Georgia leads the series and the margin of victory is as close as the series record.

The Bulldogs have scored an average of 16.6 points to Auburn’s 15.4.  The battles have been fought in Atlanta, Macon, Savannah, Columbus (from 1920 to 1928 and again from 1930 to 1958), and Montgomery.  The series began its campus to campus rotation between Athens and Auburn starting in 1959.  Auburn has a winning record in Athens, 18-13, while Georgia is 16-11-2 in Auburn.  Georgia has won 11 out of the last 15 games.  As one might imagine the rivalry has witnessed its share of magical moments.

The first game in the rivalry took place at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park where Auburn won 10-0.  It was that game that spawned the legend of the War Eagle.  As the legend goes, a former Confederate soldier and Auburn faculty member at the time, attended the game with his pet eagle that he found on a Civil War battlefield.  As the Auburn team was driving for the clinching score, the eagle escaped the hold of its owner and began to fly around the field.  The excited Auburn fans began yelling “War Eagle” as the team secured the victory.  As the game ended the exhausted eagle crashed to his death.  If nothing else, it makes for a great story!

Georgia won the national championship in 1942 behind its two legendary Hall of Fame running backs, Frank Sinkwich and Charlie Trippi.  The Bulldogs incurred one blemish on its record, a 27-13 loss to Auburn.  The Tigers came to Columbus with a 4-4-1 record and as heavy underdogs to the powerful Georgia team, but Auburn coach Jack Meagher developed an offensive and defensive plan that befuddled the Bulldogs.  For the first time all season, Auburn ran from the T-formation and amassed large chunks of yardage.  On defense, Auburn dropped its tackles while its ends rushed, thereby keeping Sinkwich and Trippi bottled up most of the day.

Georgia gained a measure of revenge in the 1959 game in Athens.  Bulldog quarterback Fran Tarkenton scored the winning touchdown after an Auburn fumble recovered by Pat Dye.  The 14-13 Georgia victory denied Auburn the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship. Instead, the Bulldogs claimed the title at season’s end.

Georgia entered the 1986 game in Auburn as 10 and 1/2 point underdogs and was forced to use its backup quarterback, Wayne Johnson.  Two more victories and Auburn would win the SEC championship.  Behind Johnson, Georgia forged a 20-16 upset and again denied the Tigers a chance at a conference title.  If the game itself wasn’t memorable enough, certainly the aftermath on the field will never be forgotten.  Georgia fans stormed the field after the contest and some began to rip apart the turf.  After refusing to leave the field at the request of Auburn officials, fans were drenched with water from the field sprinkler system and fire hoses.

The first SEC game to go into overtime occurred in 1996 in Auburn.  Down 28-7 at the half, Georgia quarterback Mike Bobo rallied the Bulldogs to a 28-28 tie at the end of regulation.  Georgia won the game in four overtimes, 56-49.  Georgia fans refer to the game as the “Miracle on the Plains” and also remember the game for UGA V’s lunge at Auburn wide receiver Robert Baker as he was going out of bounds after a reception.

Finally, Jordan-Hare Stadium became the venue for another miracle in 2013.  After 50 minutes in the game, the Tigers had amassed 29 first downs and led 31-17, but Georgia rallied behind quarterback Aaron Murray to take a 38-37 lead with 1:49 left.  With 36 seconds remaining, Auburn faced fourth and 18 from its 26-yard line.  Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall threw the ball as far as he could downfield.  Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was in perfect position to intercept the pass but it bounced off his hands into the hands of Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis, who took the ball all the way to the end zone for a 43-38 lead.   With the seconds ticking away Murray led Georgia on a furious drive down the field, but to no avail, as the clock struck 00:00 for the Auburn win known to Auburn fans as the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare.”

Brotherly love takes on a whole different meaning when Auburn and Georgia wage war in Athens or Auburn every year in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Legends and miracles have been part of a series that offers further evidence as to why college football is unparalleled in the world of sports.

Is Atlanta a Bad Sports Town?

              Courtesy of Daniel Mayer

For years, members of the national media have accused Atlanta of being a bad sports town.  Their definition seems strictly based on professional sports (the four major sports: football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) and the lack of sell outs or near sell outs for Falcons, Braves and Hawks games.  These media naysayers also love to point out that Atlanta has lost two National Hockey League franchises.  Their definition of a sports town does not include college sports, sports participation per capita, or hosting sports events.  However, my definition does.  This article will attempt to define Atlanta as a sports town.  I will use facts as much as possible to support my statements but sometimes my points will be based on observations developed as a 45+ year Atlanta resident and sports fan.  Let’s examine Atlanta as a sports town using the variables of sports participation, hosting sports events, college sports, and professional sports.

City sports participation per capita must be one variable to consider.  Actual numbers are unavailable, but in Atlanta, people play and watch sports from the earliest days they can walk until well into their twilight years.  Soccer, baseball, softball, karate, football, basketball, wrestling, swimming, running, tennis, golf, lacrosse, ice hockey and horseback riding are all examples of sports offered in the Atlanta metro area at six years of age or younger. This is by no means an exhaustive list. The point is Atlantans become involved in sports at an early age, especially outdoor sports because of the temperate weather.  Atlanta boys and girls continue to participate in sports well into adulthood.  For example, the Atlanta area, according to golfadviser.com, lists well over 100 golf courses that offer year-round golf to players of all skill levels.  For tennis lovers, the United States Tennis Association Atlanta Chapter has the largest number of adult and junior team tennis programs in the country.  The Atlanta Track Club has a membership of over 27,000 and hosts more than 30 events a year.

You can drive or walk anywhere in the metro area and see people of all ages participating in a sport they love. While sports per capita participation must be one variable of a sports town’s measure, others must be considered.

Hosting sporting events has long been a point of pride for Atlantans.  The city hosted the 1996 summer Olympic Games.  Only Los Angeles and St. Louis can make that distinction among American cities.  Atlanta has also hosted two Super Bowls (one more in 2019), four National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Final Fours (another in 2020), 23 Southeastern Conference football championship games (current contract runs through 2026), 49 Peach Bowls (next year’s Peach Bowl will host the College Football Playoff title game), 47 Peachtree Road Races (considered the largest 10-kilometer race in the world), and 16 Tour Championships (the Professional Golf Association’s end of season tournament).  Additionally, the city has hosted two Major League Baseball All-Star games, one National Hockey League All-Star game, and two National Basketball Association All-Star games.  Furthermore, the city has hosted numerous other professional and amateur golf events, professional car races, international soccer matches, professional tennis tournaments, and national/international amateur Olympic sports tournaments.  Few cities in the world can match Atlanta’s resume when it comes to hosting sports events.

As for college sports, this has always been a passion for Atlantans, especially college football.  Until the mid-1960s, the city had no professional sports, only college sports.  Atlanta residents flock to games all over the Southeast on autumn Saturdays:  to Athens for University of Georgia games, Auburn for Auburn University games, Knoxville for University of Tennessee games, Columbia for University of South Carolina games, Clemson for Clemson University games, Tuscaloosa for University of Alabama games and so on. Sell outs are the norm.

Fans often pay thousands of dollars just for the right to buy season tickets, and weddings are rarely scheduled in the fall for fear that no one would attend.  College football is a religion in the South and Atlanta is in the thick of it all.  Chick-fil-A sponsors at least one game per year in Atlanta to kick off the season, the city hosts the aforementioned SEC Championship games, and the Peach Bowl is part of the College Football Playoff rotation.  Furthermore, the College Football Hall of Fame resides in Atlanta.  Arguably, no city in the United States has the passion for college football that Atlanta does.

While college football reigns supreme over other college sports, Atlantans support basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, lacrosse, track and field, gymnastics and just about any sport associated with their alma mater.  Going back to their college for a sports event has been a staple of Atlantans since the early 20th century, which leads to the final variable associated with the definition of a sports town—professional sports.

Professional sports came to Atlanta with the Falcons and the Braves in 1966, the Hawks in 1968, the Flames in 1972 and the Thrashers in 1999.  The combined seasons for the five teams amount to around 170.  At this point (the Falcons may bring home a title with a win in Super LI), the teams have won one championship—the 1995 Braves.  A lack of championships will not endear fans to a team, in my humble opinion.  Professional sports in cities in the Northeast and Midwest have fans that live and die with their teams.  These teams have been around much longer than Atlanta teams and have won championships.  Again, championships produce diehard fans.  The major exception to that would be the Chicago Cubs.  Their fans supported them even though the Cubs had not won a title in over a hundred years.  Of course, the Cubs finally won a title this past season.  However, the general rule is that championships create a loyal fan base.

The national media chastises Atlanta fans for not supporting the local teams.  They point to a lack of sell outs for the Falcons, Hawks and Braves, even when the teams are having winning seasons.  Atlanta fans are fickle when it comes to the pro teams.  I argue that when the teams are winning the fans turn out to support them.  The 2016 Falcons averaged about 70,000 per game, around 98% capacity.  Yet, when the Falcons are having losing seasons, attendance drops off.  That is the same for the Hawks and the Braves.  When the teams are having winning seasons and they look like they will make the playoffs, fans will come to the games.  If not, the fans will choose to spend their entertainment money elsewhere.

Braves fans, in particular, have been skewered in the media.  The Braves won 14 division titles but only one World Series, the last World Series appearance came in 1999.  Fans came out to the ballpark in droves during the 1990s but would not sell out playoff games in the Wild Card or Division rounds as the seasons progressed.  The fans were waiting to see if the Braves reached the league championship series.  Frankly, Braves fans were spoiled.  They reached the playoffs every year baseball was played from 1991 to 2005.  This same phenomenon happened in New York with Yankees fans in the 1950s.  Even though the playoffs consisted of just the World Series back then, Yankee Stadium did not sellout for every game.  The Yankees participated in seven World Series in the 1950s.  So boredom with winning does exist.

The Braves have not won a playoff series since 2001, and the fans have not bought every ticket to every playoff game since then.  My guess though is that with the new stadium, SunTrust Park, opening in a few months and a team that will compete for a playoff spot, the fans will return.

To be honest, Atlanta sports fans do not support the pro teams as in other cities.  Part of that may be the transient nature of the city.  People move to Atlanta from all over the country and bring their allegiances to other teams with them.  Many will move on from Atlanta and the process will start over again.  It also cannot be overstated that winning titles enhances the loyalty of the fan base and Atlanta has but one.

As for the Flames and Thrashers, the Flames probably came to Atlanta a bit early.  The 1970s did not witness the great influx of people from other areas of the country that the 1990s did.  Ice hockey was not a sport southerners understood or participated in with significant numbers as they did with sports such as football and baseball. With the economic woes of the time, Flames owner Tom Cousins had little choice but to sell the team.

However, the Thrashers came to Atlanta when the city had residents originally from hockey towns and youth hockey was thriving.  The problem was the ownership group.  The Atlanta Spirit group bought the Hawks and Thrashers as a package deal from Ted Turner.  The group had very little interest in hockey and refused to put a competitive team on the ice.  Atlanta hockey fans became disinterested with a perpetually losing team and would not support it.  The Spirit group finally sold it to a consortium from Winnipeg.  I firmly believe that if the Thrashers had owners who cared about hockey, the team would still be here today.

When you take into consideration the aforementioned variables, Atlanta is a great sports town.  Atlanta excels in sports participation, hosting sports events and college sports.  The city does not score as high on the professional sports variable, but a few championships would enhance the marks.

Frankly, who cares what the national media think?  Cheers Atlanta!