Originally created 11/19/02

Iron Bowl captures state, if not nation



MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Terry Bowden surveyed crimson-coated Legion Field with his daughters, soaking up the waves of excitement in a stadium packed mostly with Alabama fans.

It was before the 1994 Iron Bowl, his first as Auburn's coach in his hometown of Birmingham.

"That was the chill bumps of all chill bumps," says Bowden, now an ABC-TV college football analyst.

And, in the eyes of folks around here, Alabama-Auburn - or Auburn-Alabama - is the rivalry of all rivalries, an annual rite of passage for coaches, fans and players. They play it again Saturday in Tuscaloosa, perhaps the only thing that can stop fans in this football-crazy state from talking about last year's game.

"It isn't just a game people talk about one week then it's over and they move on," said Tyler Watts, a senior quarterback for the ninth-ranked Crimson Tide. "It's something that's carried over and talked about 365 days every year.

"In two months, they'll be looking forward to next year's game. It's amazing how much people look forward to this and how it affects their lives."

The passion hasn't subsided even if the series has lacked the national significance carried by, say, Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-Florida State in recent years.

The Iron Bowl hasn't matched two ranked teams since 1995, when Auburn was No. 21 and Alabama No. 17.

Auburn (7-4, 4-3 SEC) dropped from the rankings with a 24-21 loss to No. 6 Georgia last weekend and must win to stay in contention for the West Division title. Alabama (9-2, 6-1) has already sealed the West's best record - on the strength of a five-game winning streak and the nation's top defense - but is ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.

Both teams were highly ranked for the '94 game that Bowden recalled, when No. 4 Alabama snapped the sixth-ranked Tigers' 21-game unbeaten streak, 31-27.

Bowden still is trying to convince his New York colleagues that the Iron Bowl is tops four years after leaving Auburn.

"There's not anything like the Auburn-Alabama game," he said. "You can discuss the Apple Cup, Washington and Washington State. You can discuss Texas-Oklahoma. But you've got to go to a state that's as unique as Alabama with as unique a relationship to college football and as unique a relationship between two colleges.

"It never ends. You can't describe it to someone who doesn't understand it."

That's partly because fans of the other marquee rivalries can divide their attentions with the state's pro sports teams. With apologies to UAB and Troy State, Alabama just has the Tide and Tigers.

"You'd have to take Nebraska and put Nebraska in the same state as Oklahoma" to create a similar effect, Bowden said.

Alabama leads the series 38-27-1, and won last year 31-7.

Buddy Davidson, assistant athletic director at Auburn, will attend his 46th consecutive Iron Bowl on Saturday.

A book on the rivalry, entitled "Blood Feud," tops a stack of game programs and magazines on an end table in his office. Book title aside, he said, only the fans are involved in a true Hatfields-vs.-McCoys type feud.

"It's always been a clean rivalry on the field," said Davidson, who attended his 500th straight Auburn game against Georgia. "Sometimes I think the fans blow it out of proportion and it becomes personal. That's really not good for the rivalry."

Losing the Iron Bowl isn't good for a coach's tenure in the state, or a player's peace of mind.

"If you make one mistake, that game lives with you the rest of your life, no matter which team you play for," Davidson said.

Ask Bill Curry. He won 26 games from 1987-89 at Alabama, but was 0-3 against Auburn and abruptly left for Kentucky, never having shed his outsider status in the eyes of Tide fans.

On the flip side, Dennis Franchione - a native Kansan - topped his first season at Alabama with a 31-7 victory over the Tigers and was instantly part of the family. Before his second season, Tide officials offered him a 10-year contract reportedly worth a guaranteed $15 million.

Franchione grew up in Big 8 country, watching Oklahoma-Nebraska and Oklahoma-Texas games. He's quickly come to believe the Iron Bowl would be hard to top among college football's rivalry games.

"If it's not, I'd be very interested in seeing what could be any more No. 1 than this one," Franchione said.

Last year's defeat still grates on Auburn. The Tigers have spent a year staring at a crimson jersey hanging on the wall of their weight room reminding them of the loss. As if they needed help.

"It lingered for 365 days," guard Monreko Crittenden said, "and now it's coming up again."