With an unlit cigar dangling from his lips, Mike Slive sat in his spacious second-floor office in the SEC headquarters in downtown Birmingham, Ala., last summer and recalled the moment when he realized that college football fans in the South were unlike fans anywhere else in the nation. A few weeks before he agreed to become the SEC commissioner in July 2002, Slive, a native of Utica, N.Y., who was then the commissioner of Conference USA, phoned another conference commissioner who had roots in the South and asked him about the job. "The difference between being the commissioner of the SEC and what the rest of us do is that in the SEC it's a 24/7, 365-day a year job," the commissioner told Slive. "The rest of us can take a break at times. You can't."
Just how engrossed are the fans of Alabama and Auburn -- and the rest of the teams in the SEC -- in the religion of college football? For 12 consecutive years, Birmingham has been ESPN's No. 1 market for college football broadcasts. For 10 straight years, the Crimson Tide have led the SEC in average attendance (101,722 in 2012). For 15 consecutive years the SEC has been the top-drawing conference in the nation (last year an average of 75,538 fans attended each SEC game). In 2012, the conference's stadiums were filled, on average, to 96 percent of capacity. And fans in the Yellowhammer State put their money where their allegiance is: Alabama is second only to Nevada in the amount of money its residents bet on sports (college football being the most popular), despite the fact that, unlike in Nevada, gambling on sports in Alabama is illegal.
"Early in my tenure I was walking on a concourse at a stadium," said Slive, sitting in front of a coffee table topped with a biography of Winston Churchill and the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. "I saw a mom, dad, and two children. I knew that in 20 years, after those children had their own children, the same parade would continue. It's generational and so woven into the fabric of southern culture."
Which brings us to Saturday's Iron Bowl, in which the No. 1 Crimson Tide will take on the fourth-ranked Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. I've lived in Birmingham for a decade and am still continually amazed at the intensity of this rivalry. (Even my mother-in-law -- a proper, elegant Southern woman, and a diehard Alabama fan -- gets positively giddy when Auburn loses.) On the Paul Finebaum radio show, the venom and bile spewed by Crimson Tide and Tigers fans at one another rarely stops, even in the lazy, quiet days of early summer. One of the more amusing lines in recent memory was delivered a few days before the 2010 Iron Bowl by an Alabama fan who identified himself as "Legend." "It's frigging war!" he yelled. "I ain't got no love for those West Georgia coon dog buzzards, inbred toenail lickers!"
The Iron Bowl is a 365-days-a-year obsession in Alabama. There are other major rivalries in college football: Oklahoma-Texas; Ohio State-Michigan; and Yale-Harvard, to name a few. But those schools don't co-exist within the same state. And because there are no big-league professional sports teams in Alabama, every fan in the state has one major decision: Do I support the Tide or the Tigers? Usually the decision is made for children when they are infants, because that is when parents dress their new babies in either Alabama or Auburn attire.
How consumed are Alabamians with college football? A decade ago a poll in the Mobile Register revealed that 90 percent of the state's citizens described themselves as college football fans. What's more, 86 percent of them rooted for either Alabama or Auburn while four percent said they supported a team outside the state. This meant that there were more atheists in the Bible Belt state of Alabama than there were college football fans who did not back either the Crimson Tide or the Tigers.
What makes the annual Alabama-Auburn game so unique is that fans of the two teams grow up with each other, go to high school with each other, work with each other, socialize with each other, go to church with each other, go hunting with each other, an -- in many cases -- marry each other. And whenever a conversation stalls at the office cooler or at the local barbecue pit, there is always one fallback topic that can be discussed: Who is better, the Crimson Tide or the Tigers? There's little question that college football has some of the most intense fans in all of American sports, and that the most zealous of these fans are in Alabama. It's often said that the state's most recognizable figures are, in order, the Alabama coach, the Auburn coach, the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback and the governor.
The first Iron Bowl was played on Feb. 22, 1893. That morning special steam-engine trains from Tuscaloosa and Auburn clickety-clacked into a station near Lakeview Park, in Birmingham. Once the wheels of the iron horses screeched to a halt, fans stepped out of the rail cars into the afternoon chill to watch Alabama play Auburn (then called the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama). Other fans arrived in horse-drawn-carriages, and still others were conveyed to the park in horseless contraptions called automobiles. By 3 p.m., thirty minutes before kickoff, hundreds of fans filled the grandstand and surrounded the field, in some places five deep.
The Crimson Tide players ran onto the field wearing red stockings and white sweaters with the red letters UA emblazoned across their chests. Then the Tigers appeared, outfitted in white pants, blue stockings and blue sweaters that had a bright orange A on the front. The crowd was entranced by the action and the violence of the game, the way the two teams smashed into each other, rugby-style, like tribes in ancient warfare. At one point an A&M back took a direct snap and ran 65 yards down the field. After he was tackled at the Alabama 35-yard line, Tigers fans stormed the field in exuberance. Time was called by the two referees—both were alumni of Yale—and police rushed onto the field to help push the fans back to the sidelines.
The Tigers won the game 32-22. Afterward, they gathered in front of a festively decorated carriage, where Miss Delma Wilson was sitting. She had been selected to present a silver cup to the victorious club. When the A&M captain, Thomas Daniels, and the rest of the Tigers surrounded her, Wilson rose to her feet and exclaimed: "Gallant and victorious captain, in the name of the city of Birmingham, I present this cup. Drink from it and remember the victory that you have won this day. May you and your team live to see many more victories." Daniels accepted the Cup. The Tigers fans cheered, the Alabama fans sulked, and so began a rivalry like no other in sports.