The House That Bear Built Birmingham's Legion Field is, sadly, no longer a football mecca

November 29, 1999

Nothing captures the fall from grace of the self-proclaimed
Football capital of the South better than this: As 85,214 fans
were preparing last Saturday to go to Auburn's Jordan-Hare
Stadium, where Alabama would defeat Auburn 28-17, only about
5,000 people, many of them mommies and daddies, were gathered at
83,000-seat Legion Field in Birmingham to watch 12 of the city's
youth football teams play six games in the 32nd annual Shug-Bear
Bowl. For much of the 20th century it was the games played at
Legion Field that allowed Birmingham to adopt the aforementioned
billing, which stretches in large, painted letters across the
facade of sections 33 through 37 of the 72-year-old stadium. The
slogan was particularly true on those Saturdays when the Crimson
Tide and the Tigers engaged in the blood rivalry that brought
all other activity in the state to a halt. But when Alabama made
it official in February that beginning in 2000, as part of a new
contract, it would host its renewals of the season-ending civil
war on campus rather than at Legion--a change Auburn had made 10
years ago--big-time football at the House That Bear Built
effectively came to an end.

Out of necessity the folks at Alabama-Birmingham still sing
Legion's praises. "Legion has been a godsend for us," says UAB
athletic director Gene Bartow, whose school, lacking an
on-campus facility, has played almost all its home games there
since fielding its first varsity team in 1991. This season the
Blazers attracted a total of 102,244 fans for five home games,
about 19,000 more than 'Bama and Auburn drew at Legion for their
game last year. Alabama, which is contracted to play two home
games per season at Legion through 2001, drew 80,110 for its
Legion game against Houston on Sept. 11 and 80,312 against
Louisiana Tech on Sept. 18. That's not bad, but it can no longer
be said that a big-time football atmosphere breathes at "proud,
majestic Legion Field," as the state's newspapers used to call it.

Ah, but it breathed once. It was at Legion in 1970, after Sam
Cunningham led Southern Cal to a 42-21 rout of the Crimson Tide,
that Bear Bryant finally became convinced that 'Bama needed a
new kind of player--one with a black face. No doubt you've heard
the line that emerged from that game: Sam Cunningham did more
for integration in Alabama in three hours than Martin Luther
King Jr. did in a decade. It was at Legion in '81 that Bryant
passed Amos Alonzo Stagg's career victory mark of 314 with a
28-17 win over Auburn.

So whither Legion Field? Around Birmingham there seems to be
little of the warm and fuzzy feeling attached to Legion that
there is to Rickwood Field, the city's historic minor league
baseball park, which is being lovingly restored. Art Clarkson, a
Birminghamite who once owned the minor league Barons, has a plan
for Legion: "Let's get 30,000 people lined up around the
stadium, sing a few songs, make a few speeches and--wham!--blow
the thing up." That idea would get support in some quarters, but
not at UAB. After a home game a few seasons ago, Blazers coach
Watson Brown walked back onto the Legion gridiron and saw the
opposing coach standing, hands in pocket, scanning the empty
bleachers. "What are you doing?" Brown asked, putting a hand on
his shoulder.

"Well, Watson," he said, "for a little while longer I just wanted
to stand where Bear Bryant stood."

--Jack McCallum

COLOR PHOTO: KARIM SHAMSI-BASHA The storied stadium now hosts peewee games instead of Auburn-Alabama showdowns.
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