Each year, after the Iron Bowl, no matter which team wins, fans from both sides try to rationalize what has become mythic. In conversations all over the state of Alabama, including on social media, the losing side points to referees’ errors, injured players’ absences, and lucky breaks, while the winning side clings to big plays, key first downs, hard hits, and statistics. However, when dealing in myth, facts are less important than understood truths.
Despite the fact that Auburn and Alabama have strong football programs with rich histories, some mythic aspects of the tradition have left the earthly realm and moved into territory occupied predominantly by giants, angels, and unicorns. Without the legacy of the titan Bear Bryant to build upon, it is less likely that his latter-day successor Nick Saban would be called “the greatest coach in college football” today. Because of those two coaches’ accomplishments, at this point in sports history, the Crimson Tide’s status as a top-ranked team is also among the understood truths. In another example, University of Alabama football teams may have fifteen national championships, which Bammers love to cite and even flaunt, but I’d bet most fans couldn’t name the years of those championships. Because myths trump facts— those two names and that one impressive number constitute the understood truths of the football program. That’s what I mean by mythic: once the celebrated stature of something or someone is so often-repeated that it is no longer dependent on the facts that may (or may not) underlie it, that greatness becomes unquestioned— and to confront it with a counter-narrative, to attempt to tarnish the perfection of it . . . those affronts can be easily shrugged off.
For us Auburn fans, our football program has its myths, too. Auburn’s national championship years are easier to remember – 1957 and 2010 – but of course there is Auburn’s transcendent runningback Bo Jackson, the Heisman winner and baseball player of “Bo Knows” fame. We also have our pre-game flying eagle— whose backstory many fans seem not to know for certain. Since 2010’s national championship and undefeated season, Cam Newton is generally regarded as one of the best football players of all time, and we can’t forget our other Heisman winning quarterback Pat Sullivan. These and other features of the narrative have come together form our “Auburn family,” a feeling of belonging that allows us not to question why a team called the Tigers has “War Eagle!” as a battle cry.
Over in Tuscaloosa, Bama’s mythic history has roots before most fans today were born, with early football championships in 1925, 1926, and 1930. Then more championships came to the Crimson Tide in 1961, 1964, and 1965, and more in 1973, 1978, and 1979, before the big season in 1992, though it has been the most recent run in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015 that has secured Nick Saban’s honorific among sportscasters and led to those red-and-white bumper stickers that simply read “15.” Now, here’s what I mean about myths and facts: both the Wikipedia page on Alabama football and the Bear Bryant Museum website list championships in 1934 and 1941 as well, though the NCAA’s list has Minnesota as champ both of those years. Furthermore, Alabama fans like to remind Auburn fans that our 1957 title was shared (with Ohio State), though the NCAA has Alabama as sharing the championship seven times, some of those during Bear Bryant’s tenure. A few people who know these stories better than I do might be able to argue down my points, but for the majority of fans, this will be news to them.
Perhaps even more complicated than the matter of championships is the history of the rivalry. While Alabama fans like to point to past glory to answer for current losses, Auburn has its own historic bragging rights that are seldom discussed. According to Alabama: History of a Deep South State, Auburn won seven of the first eleven meetings with the Crimson Tide, and al.com clarifies that by adding more detail: in those eleven meetings between 1893 and 1906, Auburn also outscored Alabama 248 to 124. After a 6–6 tie in 1907, Alabama stopped playing Auburn completely until the state legislature forced UA to start playing the Tigers again in 1944. That’s why Auburn-Georgia is the Deep South’s oldest rivalry; Alabama refused to play Auburn for nearly four decades. And five of those fifteen national championships came during that period.
This Auburn-Alabama rivalry is complicated—much more complicated than the modern two-name/one-number Bama myth allows. Though Auburn won the game this season by a score of 26–14, it had been a five years since Auburn’s last victory, which came in the literal last second with the now-infamous Kick Six in 2013. While these recent Bama-dominated years have included a 48–0 routing of Auburn in 2012, one often-cited fact this season was that Nick Saban, the greatest coach in college football, has never beaten an Auburn team with nine or more wins. We also can’t forget the six consecutive Auburn wins from 2002 until 2007, a streak that was ended when Bama shut out Auburn 36–0 in 2008. In the 21st century, though Bama has won four national titles to Auburn’s one, Auburn is leading the Iron Bowl series ten wins to eight. And, although Bama leads the overall series by a handful, in the last thirty Alabama-Auburn games, from 1988 to 2017, they’re tied at fifteen wins apiece. Hardly what I’d call domination.
This rivalry and its myths bring out something odd and inexplicable in our state. Some writers have described college football as our religion, and that description fits our obsession with this myth. Fandom in the state of Alabama involves a great deal of faith, immeasurable irrationality, wild fervor, strong connections to family, and a massive yielding to tradition. Otherwise-sensible people have been led to do crazy things over this rivalry: people have ended friendships and marriages, a few have even committed murder during heated arguments about the two teams and their annual meeting. Personally, I enjoy the friendlier side of the competition, including the razzing, and I haven’t ever been able to understand some of the meanness and belittlement that some fans – on both sides – seem to regard as appropriate. Most fans involved in this statewide rivalry never played any sport for either team, so when the hateful and demeaning use of “we” versus “y’all” replaces good-natured and playful kidding, it takes all of the fun out of it for me.
Beyond the fans who have that unseemly tendency toward ugliness, the other people who aggravate me are the ones who bash our college football tradition as misguided or inane. If this were only about the game itself, that would be one thing, but a short-sighted perspective that this is “just a game” does not assess its cultural significance. Taking college football away from the state of Alabama would be like removing Macy’s Day Parade from New York City. Saying that the Iron Bowl is “just a game” would be like saying that the Grand Canyon is just erosion. Furthermore, sometimes those naysayers bring out the argument that the money “could be better spent” on some of the state’s many problems, but that ignores college football’s role as an economic engine and as a mechanism for social advancement. College football not only doesn’t lose money, it generates a tremendous profit, which then allows for scholarships, drives a whole sector of retail sales, creates jobs both on and off the field, and enhances non-sports fundraising. If college football were eliminated, as some people grouchily propose, it would not achieve what they might prefer, and it would be devastating to Alabama’s culture and economy.
Though I’m not a sports talk-radio listener and don’t follow the who’s who and goings-on, I do love college football in the state of Alabama. Where I differ from some of the more rabid fans is: for me, the rivalry is about the excitement of the struggle, not about establishing ultimate truths. I have earned two degrees from Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM), I married an Auburn grad, and have taught through Auburn and at AUM, so when we watch Auburn play, we are pulling for our school. And I fully expect that others do the same thing. I’ve got friends who are Bama fans, some who attended UA and who teach there, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for having pride in that wonderful institution, its stellar football program, or its winning coaches. For me, though, the Iron Bowl is an annual athletic contest with important effects in our state, not a measure of either side’s absolute superiority. I prefer to stay more grounded about the whole thing, because that mythic narrative not only offers too many opportunities for hateful behavior, it leaves out too much of a really intriguing story.
“Alabama still claims most national titles (with some sketchy counting)” from CBS Sports, 2016