Wiedmer: An Iron Bowl to match 1972?

Wiedmer: An Iron Bowl to match 1972?

November 28th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

"Are you for Alabama or Auburn?"

That's the first question you're asked when you move to Alabama. Not your name. Not where you're from. Not what you do.

Only one thing matters. Do you root for the Crimson Tide or the Tigers. Does your blood run crimson or orange and blue.

I know because I moved there at the dawn of the 1970s when my father was transferred to Birmingham. When we went to the church the Sunday after Thanksgiving that year, Auburn having beaten Bama the day before, the Tide fans sat on one side of the church and the Tiger fans on the other. There wasn't much conversation afterward.

And it's probably that way this week as Thanksgiving will once more take a backseat to the Iron Bowl in the Heart of Dixie, even though the game is no longer played at Birmingham's Legion Field in the shadow of the steel mills, which is how it got to be named the Iron Bowl in the first place.

But it remains the most emotional, contentious, disturbing, delicious football rivalry out there. Or as former Bama coach Gene Stallings once observed, "It's the only rivalry where they hate each other 365 days a year."

Three-hundred and sixty five days ago was one of the low points for this rivalry from an Auburn perspective. Alabama won 49-0 on home soil and it could have been twice that much, so awful had Gene Chizik's Tigers become just two years after Cam Newton guided them to their first national championship since 1957.

The thought throughout the Southeastern Conference and beyond was that it might take years for the Tigers to ever again become competitive with Bama.

Instead, they welcome the two-time defending national champs to the Loveliest Village on the Plains having won 10 of 11 games under first-year coach Guz Malzahn. Let AU shock the Tide and Auburn, not Bama, could possibly wind up playing for the BCS championship if the Tigers could win the SEC title game on Dec. 7, and at least one of the remaining unbeatens between Ohio State and Florida State suffered a loss.

Yet regardless of what Auburn can't control going forward, the fact that they've controlled 10 of 11 opponents thus far has this one looking and feeling a whole lot like the two biggest Tiger triumphs in this series -- the Punt, Bama, Punt game of 1972 and Auburn's 2010 win, when Newton rallied AU from a 24-0 hole in Tuscaloosa to win 28-27.

But it's the 1972 game that most feels like this one. No one who lived in Alabama in 1972 will ever forget Punt, Bama, Punt. The Tide looked headed to a second straight unbeaten season running the Wishbone. Auburn had already been dubbed, "The Amazins'" for a series of improbable wins earlier in the year.

Then it happened. Up 16-3 in the fourth quarter, Bama watched the Tigers block consecutive punts, scoring on both to win 17-16.

Look close enough in old junkyards throughout the state and you might still spy a handful of "Punt, Bama, Punt" stickers on rusted bumpers.

A personal memory: As a member of the Vestavia Hills High B-team basketball squad, we had a game scheduled that night at Gardendale. Our coach was a Bama grad and former student assistant under Bear Bryant. Stuck in Iron Bowl traffic, he reached our visitors locker room about 15 minutes before our game began. He was wearing crimson polyester slacks with a white belt, white shoes, a crimson and white striped shirt and a crimson tie, but his face was more red than the pants or tie.

"If you [blankety-blanks] play like Alabama did in the fourth quarter," he screamed, "I'll run you on Monday until you die."

Having won one game all season the year before as ninth graders, we went 14-6 that winter and tied for the county B-team championship. Never underestimate the power of fear.

But what most separated the Iron Bowl in those days from these days was the ticket distribution. There were approximately 35,000 fans clad in orange and blue screaming "War Eagle" and the exact same number blanketed in crimson yelling "Roll Tide." It was as good an atmosphere as has ever existed in college football and a goodly number of us older folks still miss it.

Regardless, it won't be at Legion Field this Saturday. It will be Jordan-Hare Stadium. It will be a near-solid sea of orange and blue, all of them hoping for a repeat of 1972 or 2010 or 1989, which was the first time the Legion Field contract was broken, the Tide visiting the Plains, where the crowd was all Auburn.

The Tide returned to Legion Field the following year, but the damage was done. Now it's home-and-home and not near as much fun, though perhaps a tad bit safer, since the arguments could get pretty intense in those days.

But can Auburn duplicate 1972 in 2013? Does the fact that the Tigers' lone loss that season came at LSU and this year's AU team also lost at Baton Rouge -- giving up 35 points in each game -- bode well for another Auburn upset?

My head tells me no. That Vegas making Bama a 10-point favorite is about right.

But my gut tells me something else. It says the Tigers are due for another of those magical efforts that prompt bumper stickers and billboards. It says Auburn 31, Alabama 28. It says church services throughout the Heart of Dixie could be quite interesting the morning after.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com