To tell you the truth, Alabama is envious of us," Jim Jenkins, a dentist and Auburn fan—not necessarily in that order—was saying at a restaurant in Auburn before the two teams met last weekend.
Excuse me? That's Alabama, the No. 1 team in the nation? The team that is currently riding Division I's longest (20 games) unbeaten streak? The team that at that moment was the object of two bowl committees' lust? The team that Auburn has not beaten since 1972?
"Sure, they're envious because of the enjoyment we get out of a win. We get six or seven years' worth out of one." At that point drinks were ordered and a record of the highlights of Auburn's 1972 win over the Tide got another play. But it was left to another War Eagle devotee, Bill Stewart, to sum up Auburn's feelings about 'Bama. "Our hate of Alabama is not so deep that winning wouldn't cure it," he proclaimed.
As it turned out, Auburn seemed to have found the right prescription last Saturday before the Tide rose up and slammed the medicine-cabinet door shut for another year. But what made this 25-18 loss particularly bitter for the War Eagles—understand that every loss to 'Bama is bitter—is that the No. 1-ranked and 16-point favorite Tide did everything possible to give the game away. In the third quarter, Alabama had four fumbles, each of which was recovered by Auburn. There were more crises for 'Bama than on a week of Days of Our Lives.
In fact, with only 11:44 to play in the game, the War Eagles had clawed to an 18-17 advantage. But if 'Bama didn't play like a No. 1 team most of the afternoon, it did when it counted, which is how it came to pass that Quarterback Steadman Shealy was able to lead the Tide on an 82-yard game-winning march. "I had a good feeling during that drive," said Shealy. "I felt like we could do it if we stuck to our knittin'."
It was important that the Tide not drop a stitch if it wanted to remain in tenuous command of the race for the national championship, which would be 'Bama's sixth. And if it wanted to win its 17th SEC championship, which would crush the hopes of the Fiesta Bowl and put the Tide into the Sugar Bowl for a New Year's date against No. 8-ranked Arkansas.
"Our defense was spectacular and the offense played well enough to win," said Bear Bryant. Ah, yes, the Alabama defense, led by Linebacker Thomas Boyd, who had 12 unassisted tackles, and Defensive End E. J. Junior, with four unassisted tackles in the Auburn backfield, again had proved itself to be perhaps the best in the nation. While the Tide offense was losing dribbles all over the artificial turf of Birmingham's Legion Field, the defense had remained staunch, holding the War Eagles—the fifth-ranked rushing team in the nation with an average of 315 yards per game—to only 161 yards and 11 first downs.
The victory was an eye opener for a 'Bama fan named A. W. (Snap) Welborn. Ol' Snap lost his right eye in a hunting accident. He paid $100 for an artificial one inscribed "Roll Tide," which he inserts after every victory.
Auburn is not amused, especially since it is serving a two-year NCAA probation (no TV, no bowl) for recruiting violations, and the feeling is rampant among War Eagles that it was Alabama that turned them in. Still, Doug Barfield coached his team to an 8-3 record this year, which was fortunate, since anything less might have prompted his firing.
But of more significance is the fact that bruised feelings run deep at Auburn. An Alabama official says, "All you need to understand is that if you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, you go to Alabama. If you want to be a farmer or a county agent, you go to Auburn." Which is, of course, unfair. A sign in Tuscaloosa last week said AUBURN SHUCKS. When Fob James, a former Auburn running back who is now governor, announced his intention to improve education in the state, calling it a War on Illiteracy, it inspired one of those snooty Tuscaloosa types to sneer, "The war was canceled because Auburn surrendered."
Unquestionably, it's the jokes that offend War Eagles even more than the scores. And it's the wisecracks by Bryant that offend the most. This year Bryant outdid himself, observing that if his team couldn't beat Auburn, he'd just as soon stay home and plow as go to a bowl. That incensed the War Eagles, who took it as another slur on their agricultural heritage. Said Bear in extenuation, "Plowing's not too bad. There's a lot of old folks plowing. There's more plowing than coaching. When you plow, you work hard, then come in for a cool lemonade. There's not much worrying involved. All you need is a good mule." Auburn was not mollified.
"It's ridiculous to get so hipped up over a football game," Bryant said last week. But, at 66, Bryant certainly hasn't lost his zest for the game. And definitely not for winning, which is why he is only 19 games short of tying Amos Alonzo Stagg's record total of 314. Bryant almost quit coaching a couple of years ago, but when Assistant Athletic Director Charley Thornton started talking to him about the Stagg record, Bryant got interested. "As long as somebody has to be the winningest coach, it might as well be me," said the Bear. Meanwhile, Auburn gets mad as hell about being cramped in the same state with a legend.
The point is that Auburn, and a lot of other folks who keep getting plowed under by Bryant, question his sincerity. They all see his aging—no, aged—face, which looks like it has been ridden hard and put away wet, and they are mystified as to how he's still so good after 35 years as a head coach. "If we don't win, then I'll fire myself," he says. Not to worry, Bear. Over the last eight seasons, Alabama has averaged 10.6 victories a year.
But when you play 11 games a year, there are bound to be narrow escapes. Witness last Saturday.
The first half was humdrum, Auburn scoring first on a 47-yard field goal by Jorge Portela. Then after blowing two scoring opportunities, including getting down to the Auburn 6 and coming up dry, the Tide finally succeeded. Shealy passed to Keith Pugh—a play that beat Auburn all afternoon—for 28 yards and a touchdown. Later Shealy dived over from the one after a long drive, highlighted by another Shealy-Pugh connection, for 13 yards. The halftime score was 14-3 with 'Bama clearly in charge. "We've got to execute perfectly," Shealy had said before the game, "and we can't have any breakdowns." Added Running Back Major Ogilvie, "If we fumble, we can't win." Then the Tide ran out for the third quarter and executed miserably while fumbling as if it was part of the game plan. On the first play from scrimmage, Shealy mishandled the ball, and Auburn's Zac Hardy recovered it on the 'Bama 21. But the War Eagles could do nothing. 'Bama got the ball back, and Ogilvie immediately fumbled. Auburn's Freddie Smith fell on it at the Tide 28. This time the War Eagles got a 39-yard field goal from Portela. Score: 14-6. Fully in the spirit of things by now, Shealy fumbled on the Auburn 16; Auburn's Harris Rabren made the recovery.
Here the Tide giveaway program was interrupted when Auburn's Joe Cribbs fumbled two plays later and E. J. Junior recovered for 'Bama. Shortly thereafter Alan McElroy kicked a 23-yard field goal, putting Alabama up 17-6.
But the Tide's fumbling continued, the next one coming on a punt to Tommy Wilcox, who dropped it on his 37. Auburn's Dan Dickerson got this one. With 21 seconds to play in the third quarter and in the face of a blitzing 'Bama defense, Auburn Quarterback Charlie Trotman coolly dumped a pass over the middle to Cribbs, who rambled in for the 36-yard touchdown. Then on the next series for the War Eagles, Trotman whipped a 55-yarder to Byron Franklin to get down to the 'Bama 14. Three plays later he threw an 11-yarder to Mark Robbins for a touchdown. The scoreboard blinked—Auburn 18, Alabama 17.
That was enough to cure 'Bama's jitters as Shealy took the team on a masterful, winning drive. Naturally, Shealy passed to Pugh, this one for nine yards. And on the seventh play he took the ball on the option, turned it upfield and scored from eight yards out. "It was the greatest drive of my life," said Shealy, "because it meant so much to our team." Asked about the fumbleitis, he said, "I don't believe the word is fumble. We got the ball knocked loose a lot today."
And out in the parking lot, the record of the 1972 War Eagle win was being played again.