The Iron Bowl. Just the name of this game immediately instills an often visceral reaction in many from the state of Alabama. However I came to know this rivalry in a different manner than many. I am not a native Alabamian. No one in my family attended either school or had any allegiances. We were Gators. We moved to a small town outside of Birmingham, AL from a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale, FL in 1992. I celebrated my 16th birthday in the new city and I was miserable. I didn’t want to move. My entire life, I’d had an unwavering faith that I would attend college at The University of Florida. By moving out of state, that dream was now seriously in doubt. In my 16 year old opinion, this move have ruined my life. My parents tried to make the best of it and I truly don’t think they realized how upset I was, because I had learned from an early age that you put your big girl panties on and deal. But inside? Inside I wanted to hate everything about Alabama. It had taken me away from my friends that I’d known since I was 2 years old. It had taken me away from school and all the hard work I’d put into leadership activities and honors I’d worked to achieve. The move had knocked me for a serious loop. I was disinclined to learn to like Alabama.
I was wrong.
Upon our move, my family immediately learned one thing. We had to pick a team. We got the question constantly. “Who you for?” While visiting our new home while it was under construction, I remember my Dad telling a soon to be neighbor that we were Gators and the man smiling and saying, “Thats nice, but in Alabama you’re either an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan.” Part of the reason we’d moved to Alabama was that my God Parents and their two sons had already relocated there. The boys were probably the closest thing to big brothers I had at the time. One of them was enrolled at Auburn. That was our only tie to the school. We didn’t know a soul who went to Alabama. We knew a lot of fans (and frankly hadn’t been all that impressed with what we’d seen in our short time in that small town). We told him we must be Auburn fans because my God Brother was a student there. A blip on the history radar, but a significant one. We’d just declared our allegiance. Little did we know how important that was. We were Gators. I’d grown up hating Florida State and Miami. They were in their prime when I was a child and pre teen. We knew what a rivalry was – or so we thought. I knew about the Cocktail party, but the University of Georgia was so far away it was insignificant to me. So we were now Auburn fans. Ok. They had the same colors as UF. Whatever.
Within a few months of moving to Alabama, Bama played for the National Championship against Miami. That made my allegiance to the SEC very easy. I’d grown up hating Miami (and still do!). I was an Alabama fan for a night. We watched the game and then when Bama won, my friend and I ran around her barn screaming “Roll Tide!” like idiots. I learned to like my new high school. No, it was never as good as my old school academically (not even close, sorry folks – I won’t pull punches on that, the academics were pitiful) or with activities, but I made some good friends and college was on the horizon. Going away to college was my beacon of hope. In this small town we moved to, my high school was in its first year as a separate entity. The prior year it had been a K-12. Yes. Kindergarten to 12th grade. I couldn’t fathom that. These kids had mainly grown up in Alabama. They constantly talked about Bama this and Bama that. But when I asked if they were going to go to school there, most of them had no plans to attend college. It puzzled me. How could you not go to college?? The Auburn fans were different. They were a much smaller group, but to a man they planned to attend school there. I definitely knew I was in the right group. In one class, a guy who had a particular habit of getting on my last nerve (this turned out to be Psycho Stalker Elvis for those of you who have been reading my blog for a long time!) would go on and on about The Bear. You had to be living under a rock to not know who the Bear was, but I couldn’t understand the obsession. The reverence. In my 16 year old brain, they should be revering the current coach. After a particularly annoying lecture about how awesome the Bear was, I turned to the guy and said, “The Bear is DEAD. Get over it!” The classroom came to a hushed, awkward silence. I had committed sacrilege. I had spoken against Bear Bryant. My fate was sealed.
After reviewing my options, I eventually settled on Auburn University as the place where I’d go to college, but I wasn’t particularly enthused about it until the summer before my freshman year. I’d grown up my entire life assuming I’d go to UF. My senior quote in the yearbook said it all, “Forever true to the Orange & Blue. Go Gators and War Eagle!” I wasn’t ready to let go of my inner Gator. That was all about to change. I attended the original Camp War Eagle at the 4H camp in Columbiana, AL. It was their experiment with the program. They wanted to change the way they did freshman orientation. A group of about 100 incoming freshmen and some very enthusiastic counselors and staff spent a weekend sharing their love of Auburn with each other. I don’t know if I can put my finger on a specific point it all clicked for me, but by the end of that weekend I bled only one shade of orange and blue – Burnt Orange and Navy Blue. I was an Auburn girl.
I went off to Auburn for 6 years. They were the happiest of my life. I earned two degrees from the university. I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had because of the school. I did everything I possibly could in every official capacity to represent Auburn and what we stood for. I could recite the Auburn Creed from memory. And I learned just how intense the Auburn vs. Alabama rivalry was. My junior year, I was the Director of Better Relations for Student Government. One of the schools we had to have “better relations” with? The reason the day existed? Yes, The University of Alabama. The game had gone on hiatus for 40 years early in the 1900′s and in order for the teams to resume playing every year, an agreement had to be signed detailing such minute items like the number of people in the band and the length of the half time show. I’m not kidding. Technically, if that little piece of paper wasn’t signed every year – the Iron Bowl couldn’t be played. No one really took the threat of the schools not playing seriously anymore, but the history was still there and very respected. We signed the damn paper. Delegates from each school would go to the home team’s campus every year to officially sign the agreement. We’d then share our traditions with each other and show the delegates around. I will never forget that when it was Alabama’s turn to host us, they put us up in some old dorms that weren’t even used for students anymore. It showed a blatant lack of respect for us. We’d housed them in the AU Conference Center and treated them with dignity. They put us in a soon to be condemned dormitory. Y’all think that “Little Brother” attitude is just an Auburn thing? Think again. I experienced that arrogance from Alabama fans, students, and alums first hand. I do separate the three groups (as any college football fan should) because I think each level of fandom has its own level of sanity and perspective. But thats a topic for a whole different blog. The Auburn vs. Alabama rivalry didn’t just apply to football either. Any other school in any other sport was just a game, or if that team was particularly good at that sport (like say Kentucky for basketball) you’d expect the arena to be sold out. ANY game against Alabama sold out. Women’s volleyball. Lacrosse. Soccer. Club team rugby. SOLD OUT. I remember playing Alabama in baseball and friends had pulled their huge truck up behind the back fence of right field and engineered a scaffold like structure to elevate the platform above the wall. We then installed kegs in the truck and put couches on top. Voila. Best seats in the house. The entire back wall was lined with fans like us with various creative ways to watch the sold out games. We were on ESPN. We wanted to beat everyone, but you HAD to beat Alabama.
But everyone knew, in the grand scheme of things this rivalry was really about football. Yes, I knew about Finebaum and his trash show but I didn’t listen. I thought his hate mongering was disgusting. We went through the new turn of the century with Tuberville and he beat Alabama 6 times in a row. I still remember “Fear the Thumb!” and the absolute joy it instilled in Auburn fans. The playing field was being leveled between the two schools. As much as Alabama hated to admit it, “Little Brother” Auburn had grown up, gotten bigger, and had kicked his big brothers ass a few times to prove his point. Auburn was here and here to stay. The dynamics in the state shifted. Even my own blog reflected this. We joyfully embraced the rivalry and the smack talk. Auburn was denied the right to play for the National Championship in 2004 – which gave Alabama fans no small amount of joy. We were kept “in our place”. This was actually said to me by a particularly arrogant Alabama fan. And for the record, no, he didn’t go to school there.
It started to get ugly.
When Nick Saban became the coach at Alabama, it signaled a new era for Alabama and their football program. Within a few years, Saban had turned their program around, Tuberville was fired, and Alabama was back on top. Many Alabama fans viewed this as their God given right. All was well in the world now that that temporary period of Auburn winning was over. It had all just been a bad dream. In 2009, they got their first Heisman trophy. They won the National Championship. As I’d cluelessly done back in 1992, I once again cheered for them to win – this time knowing full well what the win would mean for the state of Alabama. Better the SEC than another school in my opinion (yes, I’d also cheered for LSU and Florida – I’m an unapologetic SEC homer). But to many, this was the moment; Alabama was BACK. Friends that live in Alabama said that it was pretty intolerable that year. I was insulated from it, living in Atlanta. I have to endure Georgia fans. We all have our burdens to bear.
While Alabama was still reveling in the glory of their championship, Auburn began to be the little engine that could. We’d win, no matter what the circumstance. Cam Newton was a beast. Nick Fairley was a ball of hate. Our team was packed with seniors with talent to spare. We kept winning. Alabama fans (and most other fans, for that matter) gleefully embraced the Cam Newton controversy. They kept waiting for the NCAA hammer to drop. The Finebaum show became toxic. At any point, Auburn’s momentum was going to be crushed by a fatal blow from the NCAA. But that blow never came. Auburn won. And won. And won. The Iron Bowl came around. The biggest comeback in college football that I know of. Alabama was convinced they’d dealt us a death blow. Auburn never gave up. The 2nd half was an entirely different game. 28-27. Auburn won. Alabama was stunned. Someone duct taped a Cam Newton jersey to the statue of Bear Bryant on Alabama’s campus. The picture went viral. Band wagon Alabama fans lost their minds over the desecration of the sacred Bear’s statue.
Auburn man handled South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game. Cam Newton won the Heisman, joining the ranks of Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan as Auburn recipients of the award. Auburn had 2 undefeated seasons in 2 decades, yet as long as they weren’t able to play for a national title, this wasn’t a threat to Alabama. National Championships were THEIR territory. Yet this time, we were not going to be denied. We went on to Glendale. A lot of Alabama fans became Oregon fans. Yes, we see this with all rivalries, but Alabama fans were actually buying Yellow and Green Alabama gear that said, “Roll Ducks Roll.” They were branding the game. Even Oregon fans knew of the hatred between the schools. Auburn fans were frequently greeted with chants of “Roll Tide!” from Oregon fans trying to get under our skin. What they didn’t realize was that just demeaned them in our eyes. They were emphatically NOT Alabama. We’d beaten Alabama. If they couldn’t beat us with their own swagger and smack talk, that was just sad.
Auburn won the National Championship. For the first time since 1957, we had a national championship. Yet even then, we were not given the courtesy of being allowed to enjoy it. Spiteful, hateful things were said. “Enjoy it while it lasts.” “Auburn and Southern Cal, both cheaters!” It went on and on – even, surprisingly, from very bitter and jealous Georgia fans. Auburn had managed to do what they hadn’t since 1980. But between Auburn and Alabama, the level of spite, of vitriol, of absolute hatred was unparalleled. I’d never seen anything like it. Things were spiraling out of control, getting more toxic by the day. Our “little brother” attitude was getting the best of even some of the Auburn people I truly admired and respected. I’d never viewed Auburn as a little brother to Alabama because I wasn’t from Alabama. I saw them as rivals. But to many, the rivalry was now out of control.
Then the rivalry reached an epic level – one documented quite well by ESPN in “Roll Tide / War Eagle” if you only look at the last 2 years – the Toomer’s Oaks were poisoned. To us, the Toomer’s Oaks were more than just an Auburn tradition. They were directly attacked by someone who wanted to deal a death blow to the heart of the Auburn faithful. Over a football rivalry. For a short period, the two schools rallied together. Tide for Toomer’s donated thousands to save the trees in respect for tradition. The incident completely changed my perspective on this rivalry. We needed to rise above it. We needed to recognize it for what it was, competition and nothing more. If not, Updyke would be just the beginning. He would “win”.
When the tornados spread through the state of Alabama, Georgia, and up into South Carolina and Tennesee – we all watched in stunned silence as news footage showed that Tuscaloosa had been directly hit by a massive storm. The damage was devastating. Many lives were lost. Some (true assholes) made comments about this being karma or somehow related to God’s view of the University of Alabama. But most didn’t. The sane, the rational, the good people of Alabama rallied. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa became one of the largest support groups for tornado relief. Support from Auburn alumni and fans poured in from across the nation, even around the world. I participated in tornado relief fund raisers in Atlanta and Denver. The largest group at both events after Alabama fans? Auburn fans. We had received a reality check from Mother Nature that made our petty grievances seem childish. Nothing was more sacred than human lives.
So what does this rivalry mean to me? For me it isn’t 24/7 anymore. This past year has taught me that I cannot view this game as anything but a game. I still want to beat Alabama, but there is far more to life than football. I still cheer for the Gators when they aren’t playing Auburn. I now also cheer for Georgia because my brother and cousins are UGA grads and students. I learned to love Alabama, for all its crazy. I learned that not all Alabama fans feel the way that the most vocal and hateful do. I became a proud Southern Belle. I learned to like sweet tea, wear sun dresses and cowboy boots or flip flops to football games, and to say “Y’all” with pride. I am proud I hold a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Auburn University. I will tease my friends who are Alabama alums. Yet I will not teach hate to my future children, nor will I condone hate in any form. As we’ve seen this past year, hatred only leads to more hate. Auburn and Alabama fans came together in the best ways possible as a result of these terrible events this year. Its time to put aside the year long insanity and appreciate the game one day a year.
I’ll be cheering for my Tigers from New York City this year. Last year it was from the deck of a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Next year? Who knows. I gave up my 50 yard line ticket and my suite in a B&B in Auburn to be with my family. I will cheer for my Tigers with 2 Florida Gators and a Georgia Bulldog by my side. BEAT ALABAMA. “WAR EAGLE, FOREVER.”