On the first Saturday morning in December 1948, the student-body
presidents of Alabama and Auburn dug a hole in Woodrow Wilson
Park in downtown Birmingham. Then they dropped a hatchet into the
hole and covered it with dirt. With the hatchet symbolically
buried--and safely out of the hands of their schools' sometimes
crazed fans--they went off to watch their football teams square
off for the first time in four decades. "There were a lot of hard
feelings between the students," recalls Gillis Cammack, the
Auburn student-body president in '48. "We were trying to get
everyone to settle down and not be so vicious."
Though the football teams hadn't met since a 1907 dispute between
Auburn and Alabama over petty matters that included how many
players could travel to the game and where the officials would
come from, the fierceness of the rivalry had not diminished--and
it still hasn't. Auburn, originally a private college, was given
to the state in 1872 for use as a land-grant institution, a fact
Crimson Tide fans don't let Tigers supporters forget. Aubarn is a
common pejorative, and legendary 'Bama coach Bear Bryant referred
to his archrival simply as "that cow college." Dennis Franchione,
who coached the Tide in 2001 and '02, seldom uttered the name of
the university 165 miles southeast of Tuscaloosa. "That school
down the road," he called it. In turn, folks on the Plains view
Alabama fans as unmitigated snobs.
Fearing that fans might brawl when the football series resumed in
'48, Bull Connor, the Birmingham police chief who 15 years later
would gain national infamy for attacking peaceful Civil Rights
protesters in his city with police dogs and fire hoses, called
Cammack and a few other students into his office the week before
the game and warned them that he would not tolerate any trouble.
He got none, as 43,954 fans packed into Legion Field--which would
serve as the game's neutral site for the next 40 years--and
politely watched the Crimson Tide destroy the Tigers 55-0. The
next year Auburn exacted revenge, winning 14-13. Cammack, who
graduated in the spring of '49, had moved to Detroit, but he
caught the game on a Windsor, Ont., radio station.
Indeed, it is almost unthinkable for natives of the most
college-football-mad state in the Union to miss the Iron Bowl (so
named because of the large iron-ore deposits around Birmingham).
This Saturday the eyes of virtually every Alabamian will be on
Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the teams will face off for
the 68th time. ('Bama leads the series 38-28-1.) As host of the
state's most-listened-to sports radio show, Paul Finebaum has
spent much of the last decade moderating talks on the series, so
forgive him if he waxes hyperbolic. "It's like the relationship
between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he says. "They
essentially live on the same piece of land, and in a way they
wage war 365 days a year. It never stops, no matter who tries to
intervene or referee."
To fully appreciate how seriously the rivalry is taken, you have
to witness it firsthand. Bill Curry grew up in Atlanta, played
and later coached at Georgia Tech and had a 10-year career as an
NFL center. In 1987 he was hired to coach the Crimson Tide. "I
played in three Super Bowls--heated national, international
stories--so I felt like I was a man of the world," says Curry.
"When I got to Alabama, people said, 'You don't understand how
this is going to be with Alabama and Auburn.' I said, 'Don't
worry. I understand intense football.'" Curry pauses. "I did not
have a clue."
In 1987 Curry's team lost to Auburn 10-0. In 1988 his club won
nine games but lost to Auburn 15-10. The next summer he was
stopped by an elderly woman on campus. "She was pained in her
expression and had tears in her eyes," he recalls. "She reached
up and took my arms in her hands, and all she said was, 'Coach,
do you think we can win this year?' And I knew exactly what she
meant." In 1989 Curry took a 10-0 team that was ranked No. 2 in
the country down to Auburn and lost 30-20.
In 1990 Curry was coaching at Kentucky.
What Curry failed to realize when he took the job is that the
cliche about football being a way of life isn't a cliche in
Alabama. The sport has long been a source of state pride,
something that was not easy to come by in the 1950s and '60s.
"You had Bull Connor, church bombings, the hoses, the dogs, the
nightmare of all that," says Curry. "Southerners were
embarrassed--as well we should have been. The one thing that
wasn't embarrassing was when Bear and his little old skinny boys
whipped up on other football teams, especially the Yankee
The Bear's wins didn't, of course, make the Auburn fans in the
state happy. They got their thrills from beating Bryant. In 1972
Bear's boys were undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country. They
held a 16-3 lead over the Tigers in the fourth quarter, but Bill
Newton blocked two punts and David Langner returned both for
touchdowns as Auburn rallied for a 17-16 win. The Tide's national
title hopes were shot, and the Tigers had fodder for a sticker
that can still be seen on some of their fans' bumpers: PUNT,
BAMA, PUNT. Shortly after moving to the state, Finebaum spent
Thanksgiving with a family whose postfeast tradition was to
retire to the parlor to listen to a phonograph recording of that
The rivalry has undergone changes of late. Sick of going to
Birmingham every year, Auburn insisted on playing every other
year in Jordan-Hare Stadium, starting in 1989. In 2000 Alabama
moved its home games in the series to Tuscaloosa, so now the
crowds are partisan. "It was really something special when it was
played in Birmingham and the fans were split 50-50," says Curry.
"The intensity never relented, because half the stadium had
something to cheer for all the time."
Since the advent of the SEC championship game, a decade ago, the
teams can no longer schedule an off week before the Iron Bowl, so
what was once a Super Bowl-like fortnight of anticipation has
been halved. "In the first week there was a lot of
back-and-forth," says Finebaum. "By Sunday you could just sense
it everywhere in the state. As you got closer to the game it was
like your wedding day approaching."
The lead-up might be shorter now, but the Iron Bowl is still the
Iron Bowl. Many couples in what is known throughout the state as
"mixed marriages" won't speak on game day, because one spouse is
an Auburn fan and the other roots for Alabama. Office workers
will wear their colors to work the day before the game. And the
media will provide saturation coverage. In 2000 the game was
played on the same day that the results of the presidential
recount were announced. That Friday's Birmingham News ran a story
reassuring readers that the local CBS affiliate wouldn't let
something like the identity of the leader of the free world get
in the way of its broadcast. The headline: WIAT WON'T INTERRUPT
IRON BOWL FOR ELECTION.
In Selma, Gillis Cammack, now 79, will be watching just as
intently this Saturday as he did 55 years ago. As for the hatchet
he helped bury, no one knows what became of it. Woodrow Wilson
Park has undergone several renovations--it is now called Linn
Park--and there is nothing to mark the burial site, which
probably doesn't matter anyway. Says Cammack, "I doubt if that
hatchet stayed buried very long."
For more about sports in Alabama and the other 49 states, go to
In what are called "mixed marriages," many spouses won't speak on
game day because one is an Auburn fan and the other roots for