There is a fine Gothic gloom to rainy November days in Birmingham. Clouds hang low on the earth and make a clammy, gray shroud, which nearly obscures the fiery furnaces in the city's vast landscape of steel mills and ironworks. It is easier, however, to dim the flames of Birmingham than to dull its passion, which, on any November day, is football. And so it was last Saturday. Though the city lay dark and brooding, it really remained quite as it should be on this day of days—all gussied up and bright and cheerful.
For it was on this day that Birmingham was going to lay lasting claim to being The Football Capital of the South. It was the day to satisfy the appetite of even the most gluttonous Alabama fan, with a Siamese extravaganza that first matched Birmingham's beloved Alabama against LSU, then followed after dark with a game between nearby Auburn and undefeated Tennessee.
The Southeastern Conference title might be won or lost right there on Birmingham's Legion Field, a big, green, oval pit that city fathers hope to fill soon with Birmingham's own professional football team. Bowl bids hung in the more immediate balance, and there were scouts from no fewer than seven bowls on hand. Even the losers might get some invitations.
People were coming from all around to see the spectacle. There wasn't a hotel room vacant for 80 miles in any direction, and there were local rooters so enthusiastic about the doubleheader that they predicted its panoramic appeal would surpass the Super Bowl, the Olympics and perhaps even several major campaigns of World War II. Even more to the point, a band of go-getters called the Downtown Action Committee (also known as "your trade and traffic boys") had used the doubleheader as a kickoff to a citywide, hard-sell retail merchants' campaign that would last until New Year's Day. "Get off your duff...get goin'...lick your chops...parade the merchandise," urged the Downtown Action pamphlets. Their best chop-licking guess was that some $4.2 million would be spent in Birmingham during the doubleheader weekend. The word "fabulous" was used to merciless excess. At a luncheon the day before the games a local preacher asked the Lord to bless the "progress and profits" resulting from the weekend, and when Governor Albert Brewer welcomed visitors he added earnestly, "We want you to spend a LOT of money while you're here."
November 18, 1968
Well, of course, then it dawned dark on Saturday, with the rain falling steadily and that bone-aching dampness all around. Most places, people would be content to stay home and let The Football Capital of the South go by default to Baton Rouge. Ah, but not in Birmingham. No, football is a staple of life, a sociological necessity, an emotional outlet in what they call the land of LBJ—meaning the Little Bitty Judge, the one named George Wallace. Beyond that, there is an abiding and unchanging, almost reflexive, attitude of optimism around Birmingham, which simply will not see that it is raining.
Thus it was that high-spirited crowds streamed through the pelting rain into Legion Field last Saturday. Shivering in the chill beneath thousands of dripping umbrellas that sprouted through the stadium, they apparently never even considered the possibility that the day was not fit for dogs. At high noon it was so dusky that the lights were turned on. Bear Bryant came clad in a stunning full-length crimson rainsuit. The Alabama marching band stayed crouched in the stands during halftime, because it was feared that the band would chew up the soggy surface if it performed. Still, incredibly, there were 67,292 sodden fans there for the afternoon game and that night another 68,821 turned out to see Tennessee-Auburn. It was, as the Downtown Action boys would say, fabulously fabulous.
The football was less impressive—especially in the first game. This year is not one of Coach Bryant's typically marvelous ones. Alabama had lost two games—to Ole Miss and Tennessee—and before Saturday it was considered possible that after nine straight years in a bowl a Bryant team would at last go uninvited. Alabama's main problem had been to find a quarterback. Any quarterback. Bryant had finally settled on sophomore Scott Hunter, who was sufficient but by no means miraculous. LSU, on the other hand, went into the game without its top quarterback, Freddie Haynes, who dislocated a bone in his wrist last week. It was the fifth time in his six years at LSU that Coach Charlie McClendon had lost his top quarterback before the season was over.
Thus it was on Saturday, with rain still spitting down, that Alabama's Hunter got his team off to a 6-0 lead, with barely three minutes gone, by tossing an 11-yard pass to Fullback Pete Jilleba. Then, with fair ease—if not much color—he jockeyed the Tide into position in the second half for a field goal and another touchdown to clip LSU 16-7. Drab though the offense was at times, Alabama's defense was excellent and, though the halcyon days of Namath-Stabler are no more, no one is willing to bet that Alabama will not get a bowl shot this year, too. Indeed, even LSU, which is now 5-3, could wind up 7-3 on the season—and many a bowl game has featured teams with marks like that.
The intermission between games was a sturdy four hours, and by special Birmingham law the stadium had to be completely emptied in the interim. Although total attendance for the spectacular was 136,113, there were plenty of people who saw both ends of the bill. Most of the recidivists just stayed in the neighborhood. Some picked up a plate of fried chicken cooked up in a nearby armory by ladies of the Charity League; others went into a large tent erected across from the stadium. No, it was not a revival meeting. A local bank, apparently stimulated by the Downtown Action ideas, had set it up to serve cocktails and a buffet, along with dance music.
By the time the Tennessee-Auburn finale was under way, the rain had all but stopped, and the field, covered between games, was in reasonably good condition—although the green coloring used to dye the patches of bare dirt in the center had mixed into the soil so much that the camouflage no longer worked. Both teams are blessed with better-than-average quarterbacks—Tennessee's Bubba Wyche is a fine passer, and Auburn's Loran Carter led the SEC in total offense last year. Indeed, they were fairly equally matched, but Tennessee was unequally smitten with a stunning series of bad breaks early in the game—not the least of which was the loss of Richmond Flowers after he sprained an ankle on the opening kickoff. Flowers is the team's fastest halfback, and his departure on any occasion immediately reduces the range of Tennessee's offensive potential. The only other time this year that Tennessee failed to win was in the opening tie with Georgia, and Flowers missed that game, too. His departure, plus two fumbles, a pass interception and a couple of penalties gave Auburn a considerable advantage.
Even though Carter's passing was erratic much of the time, he did a good job of using the breaks Tennessee gave him, handing off once to Tailback Mike Currier for a touchdown and hitting him twice with passes in the end zone. With less than three minutes gone in the second quarter, Auburn led 21-0, and Tennessee must have felt as if it had played both ends of the doubleheader. Before the half ended, though, Wyche rallied the Vols with one touchdown pass, then threw for another halfway into the third quarter. Now it was 21-14—a brand-new nightcap. Auburn's offense had turned remarkably sour (indeed, the Tigers got just one first down in all of the second half). Carter's passes were going awry again and again—except for one. On the first play of the fourth quarter he flipped a gorgeous pass to Split End Tim Christian who sprinted into the end zone, a 49-yard play that made it 28-14 for Auburn—too much for the weary Wyche to overcome.
The Auburn defense, led brilliantly by Linebackers Mike Kolen and Bobby Strickland and a savage tackle named Dave Campbell, was superb all night long, putting constant pressure on Wyche and, in general, making a shambles of Tennessee's offense—and of its undefeated record and of its No. 5 national ranking. Conversely, Auburn just might have a chance now to win the SEC title—assuming it can pull off an upset over Georgia and then whip Alabama back on Legion Field.
Well, of course, come rain or chill or darkness at noon, the Birmingham doubleheader was an unqualified success, particularly for Alabamians who could scarcely contain themselves over seeing both of their home-state teams come out on top. "Hell," shouted one delirious rooter as he left, "we so damn happy we jes' rootin' aroun' in hawg heaven." Then he looked up in the sky and saw that, for the first time all that gloomy weekend, the moon was out—shining fabulously for all it was worth on The Football Capital of the South.