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Our Turf, Our Terms: The modern meaning of December 2, 1989

Legion Field. 1 p.m. Dec. 2, 1989.
Legion Field. 1 p.m. Dec. 2, 1989.

I wasn’t at the game Auburn people remember as “The First Time Ever.” I was an 11-year-old sitting in front of a television in Calera, Ala. But I remember how excited Auburn people were many months earlier when Steve Sloan and Bill Curry did the honorable thing and agreed to come to Jordan-Hare Stadium. I wasn’t old enough to have lived the history that made it so special. Rather, I looked on a tad bewildered, with a child’s sense of fair play: Auburn should play its home games wherever it pleases, no fuss. By kickoff, I was more stoked about the SEC title on the line with 8-2 Auburn playing 10-0 Alabama than about the location. Since then, I’ve had a little more seasoning in the Auburn family, and I retroactively retort: “Who the hell is Alabama to dictate where Auburn plays its home games?” They can’t. Or at least they couldn’t any more. That is the significance of December 2, 1989.

I’ve never cared much to debate whether Legion Field was really a split-ticket venue. I can’t compare the atmosphere to the campus games, either, because the only Tide-Tiger matchup I attended at Legion Field was the last: a less-than-memorable Alabama home game (and victory) in 1998. It’s a subjective comparison anyway. Birmingham has no Toomer’s Corner, Denny Chimes or tailgates on the quad; and the bands – both of them outstanding – warmed up in the parking lot rather than on campus lawns beneath generations-old oaks. Yet the campuses cannot boast shotgun houses selling mouthwatering barbecue plates; and neither Jordan-Hare nor Bryant-Denny evokes memories of Punt, Bama, Punt or Kenny Stabler’s run through the mud, the Van Tiffin kick or the Lawyer Tillman reverse.

What I do know: Legion Field was always more of a home to the University of Alabama than it ever was to Auburn University, even in a time when the Tigers regularly wore blue home jerseys at what was then the state’s largest stadium. This reality wasn’t even debatable by the peak of Pat Dye’s tenure. Jordan-Hare had grown to a capacity of 85,214 – more than Legion Field – and Auburn had long since stopped hosting Tennessee or anyone else in the Magic City. Alabama, meanwhile, still played several games annually on the west side, just paces from a Paul Bryant monument that remains today along Graymont Avenue. The Crimson Tide kept playing Auburn and Tennessee in Birmingham several years after the Tigers took their half of the rivalry to Lee County.

Coach Dye went over the top comparing the 1989 game to the Berlin Wall’s collapse just weeks before. But the sentiment was – and is – there. Auburn is the consummate underdog in the rivalry. More Red Sox-Yankees (pre-2004 World Series) or Dewey vs. Truman than David-and-Goliath. Big picture underdogs, you might say, occupying the driver’s seat at various points but never shedding the “little guy” status, always cognizant of the orange-and-blue chip on your shoulder, even in victory.

We’re reminded of it in many ways, both painful and comical. When media parrot Alabama’s claim to 12 national titles, with no context about the subjectivity, creativity and Cracker Jacks boxes involved. The “cow college” reference. The schoolchildren who, in their innocence (or perhaps their parents’ ignorance), reveal on “Alabama-Auburn Day” that they don’t even know Auburn is also located in their home state. The haughty assurances in 2004 that an undefeated “Alabama would never be left out” of a national championship game – no matter that USC and Oklahoma, that season’s wire-to-wire Nos. 1 and 2, sit alongside the Tide in the top tier of college football’s perception-driven pecking order. When Alabama faithful refer to “the university” or, if they’re from anywhere near Evergreen, “thuh YOO-nuh-VUH-suh-tee,” as if there is no other. When the Mobile Press-Register splashes anything named Nick or Julio on its front page several days a week because, the editor says, it sells papers. When the newspapers print ad nauseum that Alabama’s recruiting classes are “ranked No. 1,” again morphing a defensible but debatable Crimson claim into objective, indisputable fact. (Kudos to the few reporters, most of them Auburn beat writers, who attribute recruiting rankings while noting variation among the many sources.)

Yet those burdens and annoyances aside, there’s something missing from the list. Wearing the home blue at Legion Field? Making the trip up U.S. 280 every year to play your arch-rival? Never again. In fact, Legion Field isn’t in the equation at all. Barely a decade passed after Auburn’s move before the mercantile class in Tuscaloosa – aided by the city of Birmingham’s neglect of its venerable stadium – convinced the UA administration that an expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium was the proper venue for all Alabama home games. The Tide in 2000 made the series a true home-and-home.

A University of Alabama System trustee – also a mover in state politics – told me once that he refused to come to the game when it’s played in Auburn. He is “a purist,” you see. The game belongs in the “Football Capitol of the South,” that moniker that once graced the facing of the Legion Field upper deck, a seating section that no longer stands at all. He said Auburn “had to take the game to campus” to sell more season tickets in that gargantuan stadium. Auburn couldn’t survive any other way, he said.

My Tuscaloosa friend and I found common ground when he told me he could no longer call the game “The Iron Bowl.” I’m not sure what he calls it. I refer to “the Alabama game,” just as I talk of “the Georgia game” or “the LSU game.” Now, of course it’s not just another game when there’s Crimson on the other sideline and the Million Dollar Band plays in the background. The point is that they come to our house every two years, with the next occasion just days away, and there’s no need to dress it up in garb from a bygone era whose end Auburn people marked almost as emancipation.

Smart money says the 2009 Tigers will not derail an undefeated Alabama team as Reggie, Quentin and the gang did 20 years ago. There’s no shared SEC crown if somehow they do. But that’s not the only measure of our little get-together on Nov. 27. Even if Alabama is victorious, they will have won a game played on our terms, on our turf. They’ll have gotten on their buses, in their cars and pointed them toward Auburn. They will shop from Auburn merchants, eat in Auburn restaurants and tailgate in the shadows of Auburn edifices. They will hear the bells of Samford tower. And they will watch War Eagle VII take flight. More importantly, we will do the same for a game against them.

Their power brokers, their deepest pockets won’t be in skyboxes or club seats unless at our invitation. They’ll be tucked instead in the northeast end zone or the upper reaches of those additions we were so “desperate” to fill, the visitors section of a stadium named for Ralph Jordan and Cliff Hare, our standard bearers, names from our history books. No monument to their rightfully revered coach. Nary a seat controlled by the Birmingham Parks & Recreation Board, whose sizable block never counted as part of the alleged split. No bus ride home for our players when it’s done. And, if he’s stayed true to his defiant word, I know a former Alabama trustee who won’t be there at all. Of course, if he really wants to display his “purist” bona fides, he can’t attend the game at their place either. Ever.

It’ll happen all for the 10th time, perhaps still new enough to feel strange to them, plenty established to be right, even customary for us. We’ve gone from “the way it should be” to “the way it is.” That’s the significance of December 2, 1989. Call it “the Auburn game.” Call it “the Alabama game.” Call it “The Iron Bowl” if you must. I call it equality. I call it respect. When I see the University of Alabama on Pat Dye Field, I call it victory. It won’t be long, probably sooner than most Crimson loyalists can contemplate, before the scoreboard will again read the same way.

Bill Barrow graduated from Auburn University in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He resides in New Orleans, where he writes for The Times-Picayune.

Photo by Mike Goodson, from the book A Tiger Walk to Victory.

For more content celebrating the 20th anniversary of Bama’s first visit to the Plains, visit The War Eagle Reader’s 20 Years collection.

More Iron Bowl:

* Auburn fan who ran onto the field during the 1969 Iron Bowl tells all!
* More like the BUST Bama pep rally…
* The Snorg Tees Girl in a 1987 Auburn Iron Bowl victory T-shirt
* This song about the 1969 Iron Bowl is awesome
* A rap about the 1989 Iron Bowl
* Aubie romances early 80s coed on Bear skin rug
* David Housel’s radio address before the 2002 Iron Bowl

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