Heard the latest Auburn football joke? Seems that two Tiger players, fresh from a class in Fundamentals of Hawg Sloppin' II, were sent to check out Auburn's new deluxe team bus—a pickup truck. While one player stood behind the vehicle, the other flipped on the directional signals and then shouted, ' "Are they workin'?" "No, they ain't," cried his companion. "Er, yes, they is...no...yes...no...yes...."
Richard Todd, the Alabama quarterback, felt called upon to relate this thighslapper last week, just a few hours after he and a large cast of supporting heroes led the Crimson Tide to a histrionic 17-13 victory over the Tigers on Birmingham's Legion Field. After all, if Alabama had lost, he knows that Auburn folks would be saying that when he goes swimming back home in Mobile he leaves a ring around the Gulf of Mexico.
As it is, when Todd does return home he expects the same treatment he got last year after the Crimson Tide won the annual Bad-Mouth Bowl, 35-0. "I didn't mind all the phone calls cussin' me out for going to Alabama," he says, "but it kinda hurt when some of my old high school teachers who are Auburn fans refused to talk to me."
Make no mistake, old school ties run so deep in the "heart of Dixie" that rubbing a rival's nose in the trough is deemed a God-given right, not to mention being good-natured fun. Razzing, in fact, is seen as a healthy substitute for the riots that, among other disputes, caused the rivalry to be broken off in 1907. Hostilities were not resumed until 1948 when, under pressure from the state legislature, the two schools buried a ceremonial hatchet in Birmingham's Woodrow Wilson Park. And ever since, any Alabamian can recount each game from an outrageously biased viewpoint.
Auburn supporters, for instance, still accuse Alabama of creating the cyclone that struck Birmingham in 1967, and somehow blew Tide Quarterback Kenny Stabler to a muddy 47-yard scoring romp that defeated the Tigers 10-3.
"If you live in Alabama," says Stabler, now the sunshine boy of the Oakland Raiders, "you have to live with Auburn people all year long. So you dish it out when you win because you're going to have to listen to it when you lose. And I don't mean just for the week after the game, I mean until the next one."
That prospect is enough to give Bear Bryant an advanced case of what he calls "stall walkin'." While most Americans were enjoying Thanksgiving last week, the Bear was scratching around in his office looking for mislaid keys, gazing enigmatically at some new plays chalked on the walls and intermittently giving forth with his famous mumble-rumble. "The one thing I'm thankful for on this day," he said, "is that I'm still alive. If someone could guarantee me a one-point victory over Auburn tomorrow, I'd be the happiest old man in the United States."
Rummaging around on a desk cluttered with papers, golf balls, Breakfast Squares, Chesterfield Kings and lotions for "sun-sensitive skin," Bryant confessed, "I'm worried about our kicking game, about injuries, about how well our cripples will do. So many things can happen to a team. Drownings, auto accidents, a kid could fall in love...." Then, without once mentioning that undefeated Alabama, No. 1 in the UPI coaches' poll, and No. 6 Auburn were playing for the national as well as the Southeastern Conference championships, he put the game into perspective. "The state championship of Alabama means everything. This game is for braggin' rights for the next 365 days."
Though Bryant's teams have lost to Auburn only five times since he began coaching at Alabama in 1958, the Bear knows all too well how raucous that braggin' can get. Like those years when he tried to seek refuge in his cabin on Lake Martin, only to be buzzed by an armada of boaters squawking, "War Eagle!" the old Auburn rallying cry.
Auburn's Shug Jordan winces to a different refrain. It happens more often than not when he pulls up to a stoplight and has to sit there while another motorist revs his engine in unison with cries of "Ro-o-oll Tide!"
More important than the hyperbolic boasts that both coaches have had made on their behalf—Jordan, a retiring Southern gentleman, is the only active coach to have a stadium named after him, while Bryant is billed in the ads for a personally autographed full-color portrait as OUR OWN NATIONALLY RESPECTED LIVING LEGEND—is what the two old warriors had in common this season. Going into last week's encounter, each coach had brought his team through a crisis period to emerge as a contender for the national title.
In Alabama's case, says Bryant, it was the "worst rash of injuries I've ever seen a team suffer." First there was the preseason shoulder separation that sidelined Quarterback Gary Rutledge and then the leg bruise that benched Todd, his replacement, for three games at midseason. Never able to start the same offensive unit twice in succession, at one point the crippled Crimsons found themselves scrambling to salvage an 8-7 win and their self-respect from Florida State, losers of 16 in a row. "Our kids kept thinking that those other boys would fold directly," says Bryant, "and when they didn't, everyone had to dig down deep to where their pride lives."
After a week's layoff, the Tide came to Birmingham fitter than it had been all season. Especially Todd, a strapping 6'2", 209-pound specimen to begin with, who was again running the option with the muscular authority that befits a former state shotput champion. "If I was as big and as strong as Richard," says backup 'Bama Quarterback Robert Fraley, "I'd just tell the coaches I was going over in the corner and work on my pro game."
Auburn's malaise was a lingering thing that began in 1972 after a heady 17-16 victory over Alabama, by virtue of two blocked kicks in the fourth quarter that were turned into instant touchdowns. "We were wined and dined and banqueted, and everybody became a public speaker," says Jordan. "Unfortunately, some of the boys forgot that they were also supposed to be football players." The result was a 6-6 record last season that was frankly embarrassing. But out of that disaster came a strong resolve that 1974 was the year to get the show back on the road.
The Tigers, little more than hopeful extras in the preseason rankings, showed how deserving they were of star billing last week when they shared and almost stole center stage from the Crimson Tide. In a fierce, fitful contest, it seemed as though it was the Alabama sophisticates, blowing one opportunity after another, who were saying, Yes...no...yes...no....
The Tide began on a negative note when, after striking deep into Auburn territory with a lob pass to Ozzie Newsome that was good for 35 yards, Todd fumbled the ball away on the Auburn three. Stalled on its 22, Auburn gave hint of further misadventures when Clyde Baumgartner, barely snaring a high snap, was lucky to get off his punt. Alabama, with Calvin Culliver supplying the punch and Willie Shelby the footwork, was again moving in for the kill when it was stung with a clipping penalty. Then Todd, dropping back and seeing that one Auburn defender had Newsome, his primary receiver, in something akin to a half nelson, threw a swing pass to Shelby, who caught it on the run and did not stop until he crossed the goal line some 45 yards later.
The Tide, which has had to endure taunting shouts of "punt, 'Bama, punt" ever since that one-point loss to the Tigers two years ago, soon had good reasons for turning the chant around. Early in the second period Baumgartner bobbled another errant snap deep in Auburn territory and his kick, partially blocked by End Dick Turpin, was recovered by a red horde for a net loss of 12 yards. Five plays later, Bucky Berrey added a 36-yard field goal to widen Alabama's lead to 10 points.
On their very first play after the kickoff the Tigers showed some true grit when Secdrick McIntyre bolted over right tackle for 21 rejuvenating yards. Hitting the same hole with pistonlike precision for seven of the next 11 plays, Auburn drove 50 more yards and sent McIntyre, the game's top rusher with 99 yards, in to score on a plunge. That made it Alabama 10, Auburn 7. The Tigers threatened to tie it up at the half but Leroy Cook, an end who, as one 'Bama assistant says, "specializes in throwing his face into someone's boot," blocked Chris Wilson's 21-yard field-goal attempt.
Flaunting its depth, Alabama called on Halfback Randy Billingsley in the third quarter, and he responded by spearheading a long drive with 39 yards in two flashy carries. It remained, however, for the workhorse Culliver to deliver the touchdown with a 13-yard burst up the middle.
Then, rising bright and full above the stadium, what is known locally as a possum-huntin' moon seemed to signal a strange happening. It came when Auburn sophomore Phil Gargis threw a long pass that Tom Gossom hauled in and ran into the end zone for what appeared to be a 41-yard score. The pandemonium quickly abated when the officials ruled the pass incomplete because Gossom, hit with a pro-like bump coming off the line, had stepped out of bounds before the ball was in the air. In the press box George Smith of The Anniston (Ala.) Star exclaimed, "I been to two goat ropin's and a county fair and I ain't ever seen anything like that."
Alabama now wishes it had not seen the conclusion of its next long trek when Todd, trying a keeper on fourth and goal, was all but belted back to Mobile. Midway through the final period, spurred by Baumgartner's 12-yard pass on a fake field-goal attempt. Auburn went 72 yards to score on a dive by Gargis. Failing on a two-point conversion try, the Tigers got the ball one last time with the score 17-13 and barely a minute remaining. But Gargis, pivoting to hand off for an end reverse, found instead the clawing paws of Defensive End Mike Dubose, who slapped the ball loose and then fell on it to clinch an unprecedented fourth straight SEC title for Alabama.
Jordan, whose Tigers will meet Texas in the Gator Bowl, said disconsolately, "We played good enough to win. We just didn't. And I'll tell you this. If Alabama is No. 1, then Auburn is No. 1½."
Bryant, exercising his braggin' rights, allowed that now that the Crimson Tide had won the state championship he was, in a kind of patriotic gesture, out to add the other 49 in one fell swoop. "I'm taking what might be my greatest team ever to the Orange Bowl," he said, "to play Notre Dame, the greatest prestige team."
Bryant's exuberant evaluation of the New Year's night clash of the "greats" proved to be a bit premature (see page 30). Still, by his count Alabama has lost "a jillion bowl games in a row" (six and a tie, to be exact), the most recent being its bitter 24-23 defeat last Dec. 31 by Notre Dame, and the law of averages, if nothing else, figures to be on Alabama's side this time. If it is, will the old Bear, at 60, elect to retire and go out like a champion?
"Heck, no," he says in astonishment at the thought. Indeed, late of a night at Joe Namath's local restaurant, insiders whispered that what Bryant is shooting for is the really big No. 1—the most wins ever by a college coach. A mark that has been owned for decades by Amos Alonzo Stagg, it stands at an Olympian 314. But Bryant, who now has 242 victories to show for his 30 years in the trade, could climb right to the summit if he is ready to endure another decade or so of stall walkin'.
If The Bear is harboring any such epic designs under that checkered hat of his, he isn't letting on. All he will say is that if he wins the national title this year, his next goal will be "to win another."