Alabama football wasn’t all that much to write home about during the 90s and 00s when I was learning the college football landscape (vacating Don Shula’s son’s smattering of wins is but only so interesting) and Auburn, outside of the ridiculous 2004 season where 5 ½ teams finished the season undefeated, might have even been a little worse, only being bowl-eligible three times from 1991 to 1999. But since Saint Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007 it has been a decidedly different story, with Alabama going for double digit wins every year since and locking up three national championships and Auburn, after limping on from the Tommy Tuberville era in 2008, having a more uneven time, but one punctuated with two national championship game appearances, coming away with one win and one loss. Oh, and in 2013 this happened:
The annual meeting of Alabama and Auburn– the Iron Bowl– has been running off and on since since 1893, with Alabama currently ahead in the series 45-35-1. Like everything in the Deep South, the rivalry is class-based. During the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, the Feds forced the State of Alabama to create a new land grant college, to broaden higher education opportunities in the state. Land-grant colleges were primarily concerned with agriculture, science, and engineering– their establishment was the nineteenth century version of STEM advocacy today– practical areas of study that could be directly used toward work. Institutions of this kind were in contrast to the classics-oriented, finishing-school-for-the-upper-class universities that already existed throughout the South, such as UNC, Georgia, and, yes, Alabama.
The state legislature, lousy with Alabama alumni– hopefully with the 1860s version of this haircut (maybe with fluffy sideburns?)– pushed to have the new institution founded in conjunction with the existing university in Tuscaloosa. Political fighting continued for FOUR YEARS before the City of Auburn in eastern Alabama finally won the new school, which was to be called the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, in 1872. The legislature then proceeded to mismanage the College’s endowment and refuse to grant state appropriations to the school, hoping that the collapse of proto-Auburn would allow Alabama to benefit from the remaining land grant authority.
This situation continued for more than 30 years, with fully state-funded Alabama lowering its tuition costs, lowering graduation standards, and playing other “race to the bottom” tactics in an effort to push the Agricultural and Mechanical College into insolvency. It was during this period that Alabama and Auburn first met on the football field, with Auburn winning 32-22 in 1893. Renamed the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) in 1899, proto-Auburn finally received one third of what should have been its annual appropriation from the State in 1907, though the legislature continued to regularly cut the school off well into the 1940s.
During the 1945 session of the Alabama state legislature, the University of Alabama issued a report to the state attempting to finally choke out the API for good. Apparently still upset about Reconstruction and losing the Civil War, Alabama affirmed itself as the institution with the responsibility for higher education in the state and complained about the “illogic inherent in the evolution of a democratic government” that had resulted in the creation of the normal schools (teacher’s colleges), historically black colleges, and proto-Auburn under Reconstruction-era state governments that had– in their minds– foolishly, needlessly splintered educational resources in the state. (You should be able to read the racist subtext in the “educational resources” argument here– Alabama and Auburn would not integrate their student bodies until 1963 and 1964, respectively.)
Then-President of API Luther Duncan jumped to compare the Alabama report to “the doctrine of Hitler” (which may have not yet jumped the shark at the time, given that it was just 1945) and was prepared to engage in yet another battle in the legislature for the fate of proto-Auburn. But then World War II ended and the GI Bill doubled API’s enrollment between 1944 and 1948, erasing the school’s money woes. From then on the fight for ownership of higher learning in the state of Alabama would only continue symbolically– on the football field.
The Alabama / proto-Auburn football rivalry had been suspended since 1907, stopped over a disagreement the impartiality of referees and expenses. But in 1947, during API’s massive growth from returning GIs pursuing higher education, the incorrigible Alabama state legislature saw the reality that the land grant school would not be going away. To find an direction for their still simmering hatred of proto-Auburn (API would officially change its name to Auburn in 1960), the legislature passed a non-binding resolution calling on the schools to reconvene their annual football game. The schools refused and the legislature went nuclear, threatening to withhold the State’s annual appropriation to BOTH schools unless they played a football game. With both schools fully aware of the legislature’s voracious appetite to cut higher education funding to prove a point, they relented and the rivalry resumed in 1948, with Alabama winning 55-0.
Alabamians responded to the application of real world political tensions onto a football game and the rivalry became intense. The games were played in the largest stadium in the state, Birmingham’s 44,000 seat Legion Field, a location more or less central and neutral between the two schools (58 miles east of Tuscaloosa and 109 miles northwest of Auburn), and was first called the “Iron Bowl” by Auburn coach Shug Jordan in 1964 in response to a reporter’s question about Auburn not being invited to a bowl game (in fairness, there were only nine bowls at the time). Jordan said, “We’ve got our bowl game. We have it every year. It’s the Iron Bowl in Birmingham.”
The “Iron Bowl” reference plays off Birmingham’s reputation as a steel city– the Pittsburgh of the South. Birmingham itself was also a product of Reconstruction, created from a merger of three smaller towns in 1871 and growing into the primary industrial center of the South, where it look advantage of the South’s aversion to unions to populate its own blast furnaces and steel mills and railway yards with cheap labor to compete against the industrial giants of the Northeast and Midwest.
As the era of car travel moved expanded reasonable single day travel distances in the second half of the twentieth century, Birmingham began to morph from a neutral site into an Alabama home game, as more and more fans were able to make the drive from Tuscaloosa. In response, in the early 90s, Auburn proposed the location of the Iron Bowl be changed to alternate between home games at each school, with Alabama taking even years and Auburn odd. With this change, the modern Iron Bowl we experience today came into being.
But really, go watch that field goal return video again. That is unbelievable.