Iron Bowl

College football is surely one of the defining aspects of southern culture, and few contests embody the social, cultural, and economic importance of the game more than the Iron Bowl, the annual meeting of Auburn University‘s Tigers and the University of Alabama‘s Crimson Tide. Since its initiation in the modern era, the Iron Bowl has served as a public outlet for the long-standing and complex rivalry between the two universities and their fans. As some observers have noted, the University of Alabama has tended to represent the state’s elites, graduating lawyers and future politicians, whereas Auburn University was founded as a land grant school, although it has evolved into a comprehensive research university.

Shug Jordan and Bear Bryant, 1975 Once a season, Alabama and Auburn meet on the gridiron. Alabama leads the overall rivalry with 49 wins to Auburn’s 37, with one tie, and the modern series, which began in 1948, 45 to 30. The teams tied once, in 1907. The term “Iron Bowl” was coined in the early 1950s by Auburn coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan, yet many observers, writers, sports announcers, and publications refer to the rivalry since 1893 as the “Iron Bowl.” In actuality, the term did not become popular until the mid-1960s. The game is typically played in late November, often with Southeastern Conference and national championship titles at stake. Since 1981, the game has been nationally televised except for 1993, when Auburn was on probation.

Many of the other great college rivalries, such as Michigan versus Ohio State, Oklahoma versus Texas, and Army versus Navy, cross state lines. The Auburn versus Alabama contest, however, is one of those intense intrastate rivalries—along with Texas A&M and Texas, and Florida and Florida State—that divides communities, families, and friendships. In a state where football attains the status of a religion, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers attract some of the most fanatical followers. The programs are most closely identified with coaches Paul “Bear” Bryant, who coached the Crimson Tide from 1958 to 1982, and “Shug” Jordan, who coached the Tigers from 1951 to 1975. Each man was chosen his school’s coach of the century.

Eugene Beaumont The Alabama-Auburn rivalry stretches back more than a century to February 22, 1893, when the teams first met at Lakeview Park in Birmingham, a game that Auburn won 32-22. Alabama regarded the match as its final game of the 1892 season, whereas Auburn considered it as the first game of its 1893 season, so the rivalry was marked by disagreement at the outset. Both schools fielded their first football teams in 1892, after Auburn history professor George Petrie promoted the sport he initially saw played while at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. W. G. Little of Livingston is considered the father of Alabama football. Little attended prep school in Massachusetts, where he discovered football and organized Alabama’s first squad and served as its captain. (The oldest rivalry in the Deep South exists between the Auburn Tigers and the University of Georgia Bulldogs, dating from February 20, 1892.)

Auburn and Alabama stopped playing each other after 1907. Over the years, a myth grew that a huge fight among players and fans had led to the severing of relations between Auburn and Alabama. The truth, however, was decidedly less dramatic. The schools’ officials simply could not agree on contractual details, such as per diem pay rates for the players, and thus there was no game in 1908. Another myth has persisted that the state legislature mandated resumption of the series, but a resolution approved by the legislature on August 15, 1947, merely officially requested that the schools resume the annual contest. In 1948, Auburn president Ralph Draughon and Alabama president John Galalee simply agreed that the schools should play, and the rivalry was renewed in the modern era.

Legion Field The term “Iron Bowl” was coined by Jordan in the early 1950s when he remarked that his Auburn football team should concentrate on the more immediate “Iron Bowl” against Alabama in Birmingham, instead of a possible berth in a bowl game after the regular season. The nickname, a reference to the city’s chief industry, stuck, and the game was played annually at Birmingham’s Legion Field from 1948 until 1989.

Alabama won the first game of the renewed series 55-0, played on December 4, when Ed Salem threw three touchdown passes, ran for another, and kicked seven extra points for the Crimson Tide. The following year, Auburn achieved one of the most noteworthy upsets in the series. Alabama brought a record of six wins, two losses, and one tie and a five-game winning streak to Birmingham, in stark contrast to Auburn’s dismal showing of 1-4-3. Alabama was favored to win by three touchdowns, but the Tigers shocked the Crimson Tide with a 14-13 win when Bill Tucker, who later would be stricken by polio, kicked the decisive extra point in the fourth period.

Since that second game in the modern era, the series has often been characterized by back-and-forth winning streaks. Alabama dominated the games from 1950 to 1953, but the Tigers won five straight games from 1954 through 1958. One game in the streak was a 40-0 Auburn rout that propelled the Tigers to the national title in 1957. Auburn’s run of victories was followed by Crimson Tide wins in nine of the next 10 games between 1959 and 1968, with the Tigers scoreless in five of those matches.

Iron Bowl Program, 1954 In 1971, both teams entered the big game undefeated for the first time, with Alabama ranked number two in the nation and Auburn ranked number five. In that contest, the Tide’s Johnny Musso ran for 167 yards in a 31-7 rout. The most bizarre Auburn-Alabama match occurred the next year, with the 10-0 Crimson Tide heavily favored. Trailing Alabama 16-3 with less than 10 minutes left in the game, Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked an Alabama punt that Tiger David Langner scooped up and ran in for a touchdown. With a minute and a half remaining, Auburn again forced an Alabama punt, which was again blocked by Newton and picked out of the air by Langner, who returned the ball for a touchdown, leading the underdog Tigers to a 17-16 victory. The contest became known as the “Punt Bama Punt” game. For years afterward, the chant was popular with Tiger fans, and 35 years later it is still possible to see the occasional “Punt Bama Punt” bumper sticker in Auburn.

Bo Jackson and Pat Dye From 1973 to 1981, Alabama thoroughly dominated the series, winning nine straight games under Bryant and gaining national titles in 1973 and 1978. He recorded his 315th victory in 1981, beating Auburn 28-17 and thereby becoming the winningest coach in college football before he retired in 1982. One of Alabama’s most exciting wins came when former Tide star Ray Perkins’s squad beat Auburn coach Pat Dye and the seventh-ranked Tigers 25-23 in 1985. In that game, Auburn great Vincent “Bo” Jackson, playing with two broken ribs, rushed for 142 yards. During the fourth quarter, the lead changed hands four times. With Auburn ahead 23-22 and only 57 seconds remaining, Alabama moved from its own 12-yard line to the Auburn 35 in just a handful of plays, stopping the clock with just six seconds to play. Van Tiffin then kicked perhaps the most dramatic field goal in Crimson Tide history, a 52-yard game winner.

In 1986, the Tigers went on a four-game streak, beginning with their own avenging last-second 21-17 victory, followed by a three-game streak by the Tide. Between 1993 and 2001, the teams traded victories and defeats, except for 1998 and 1999, when Alabama won back-to-back games. Adding fuel to the rivalry, the Crimson Tide and coach Gene Stallings ended the Tigers’ 20-game unbeaten streak under coach Terry Bowden in 1994 with a 21-14 win. Auburn then moved its 1989 game with Alabama to Jordan-Hare Stadium after the schools agreed to alternate sites. In 1998, the final game at Legion Field, Auburn quickly racked up 17 points, but Alabama came back to win 31-17. Beginning in 2000, Alabama moved its home game from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa. Auburn’s 28-18 victory in 2005 was notable for the 11 sacks inflicted on Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle.

Auburn’s streak of six Iron Bowl victories ended in 2008 with a 36-0 loss to Alabama. Auburn regained the title in 2010 with a 28-27 victory over Alabama but lost the next two match-ups 42-14 in 2011 and 49-0 in 2012. In 2009, 2011, and 2012, Alabama went on to win the national championship after winning the Iron Bowl; Auburn went on to win the championship after winning the 2010 Iron Bowl. The 2013 Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium, though, was the most important in recent memory because of the teams’ high national rankings. The 2013 Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium, though, was significant because of the teams’ high national rankings. Fourth-ranked Auburn’s 100-yard touchdown return of a missed Alabama field goal attempt with no time remaining gave the Tigers a 34-28 victory and drew significant media attention for knocking off the undefeated Tide. Alabama dominated two of the next three contests, holding on in the 2014 back-and-forth 55-44 thriller that saw several lead changes and the most points scored in the series. In 2017, sixth-ranked Auburn prevailed over the top-ranked Crimson Tide 26-14 in another highly anticipated matchup, but the loss did not derail Alabama in its quest for the national title. Two years later, Auburn bested Alabama in a thrilling 48-45 shootout that knocked fifth-ranked Alabama out of the running for the College Football Playoff, but Alabama redeemed itself 42-13 in 2020 on its way to another national championship. The 2021 contest was the most closely fought in series history, decided finally in a fourth overtime period. Auburn’s defense held the heavily favored Crimson Tide at bay until the final two minutes, when eventual 2021 Heisman Trophy winner quarterback Bryce Young took the Tide 97 yards to tie the game at 10-10. Alabama finally prevailed 24-22, in the fourth overtime period, making its two-point conversion after watching Auburn fail at its attempt. The following season, Alabama returned to its recent form, winning 49-27.

The Omicron Delta Kappa Cup, otherwise known as the Iron Bowl trophy, was first sponsored in 1948 by the Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society, which has a chapter at both schools. In 1978, it was dedicated to James E. Foy V, an Alabama graduate and former dean of student affairs at both institutions. The trophy is presented at halftime at the schools’ yearly basketball game that occurs at the winner’s coliseum. After the trophy presentation, the student government association president of the losing school must sing the winner’s fight song.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Scott, and Will Collier. The Uncivil War: Alabama vs. Auburn, 1981-1994. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995.
  • Griffin, John Chandler. Alabama vs. Auburn: Gridiron Grudge Since 1893. Athens, Ga.: Hill Street Press, 2001.
  • Hester, Wayne. Century of Champions: The Centennial History of Alabama Football. Birmingham: Seacoast Publishing/The Birmingham News, 1991.
  • Thomas, Landon. The SEC Team of the ’80s: Auburn Football 1980-1989. Woodstock, Ga.: Tigers Publishing, 2004.

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