This week the Wishbone continues its look at the best games (“best” for a variety of reasons) Auburn played at home—in the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium—between 1981 and 2000. [Numbers 6-10 are here, numbers 2-5 are here.]
We feel that for this week’s installment, there can be little argument. This is the number one greatest game played at Jordan-Hare not only during the particular time frame of this series, but EVER.
You know the game of which we speak. Unveiling it here is but a formality. Still, there is much to be said about it.
So, without further ado:
The Greatest Game in Jordan-Hare Stadium History
1. Alabama, 1989 season.
For so many reasons, reasons most Auburn fans will immediately and implicitly understand, this game towers above all the others played in Jordan-Hare. It is without question the single greatest—and most important—game ever played in Auburn’s home stadium. Here are some of those reasons:
It was an Iron Bowl—though of course not just any Iron Bowl.
Auburn had won the previous three clashes with Alabama. An entire graduating class of Crimson Tide players faced the very real and nearly unthinkable prospect of having spent their entire college careers never having beaten Auburn.
The SEC Championship was on the line; Alabama was undefeated while Auburn had suffered one conference loss, at Tennessee. A win by Auburn would force a three-way tie for the title, and give the Tigers their third straight SEC crown.
It was a game against the second-ranked team in the country, and so there were national championship implications, as well.
Most importantly of all, though, it was the game that has come to be known simply as “First Time Ever.” It marked the first time in history that the University of Alabama played a football game against Auburn University in the confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. As Pat Dye said beforehand, the fact that the game was being played at all in Auburn was a bigger story than whatever the outcome might turn out to be.
The game had been played in a variety of locations prior to 1989, settling finally and seemingly permanently in Birmingham’s Legion Field. The teams alternated “home” years in that same stadium, and the crowd was always (allegedly) divided 50/50 between the two schools. Even so, Alabama clearly enjoyed a tremendous advantage by playing the game there every year, for a variety of reasons including the playing surface of the field, the overwhelmingly pro-Alabama nature of Birmingham, the fact that the Tide played several other home games each season in that stadium, and the statue of their coach right outside the gates. Bear Bryant knew full well that his teams enjoyed an advantage playing there every year and he took steps to prevent any changes from happening. He worked out a contract with Auburn, prior to Pat Dye’s arrival, that would see the game played in Birmingham at least through the end of the decade—and well beyond, if things remained the way they always had been.
Things would not remain the way they always had been. Patrick Fain Dye intended to see to that.
When discussion between the two universities turned to a heretofore-perfunctory renewal of the Legion Field contract, Dye informed the powers at the Capstone that Auburn intended to move the game in Auburn’s home years to Jordan-Hare Stadium. By Auburn’s reading of the contract, that meant 1989 would be the year it moved to the Plains.
Alabama begged to differ. According to their reading of the contract, the game was set to be played at Legion Field at least through the 1991 season.
When informed that Auburn intended to bring the game home to Jordan-Hare, then-Alabama head coach Ray Perkins infamously replied, “It won’t happen.” (That Perkins quote graced a huge sheet on the roof of the Auburn gymnastics building across from the stadium on the morning of the game, followed by the line, “It happened.”)
Perhaps the conflict was already worked out; perhaps it would have been under any circumstances. But it didn’t hurt that the intransigent Perkins left Tuscaloosa for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the 1986 season, replaced by new head coach Bill Curry and new Athletic Director Steve Sloan. Sloan in particular had a different view on the situation, stating publicly that home-and-home arrangements didn’t harm other big traditional rivalries such as Ohio State-Michigan or Southern Cal-Notre Dame. In any case, soon after Curry and Sloan arrived at Alabama, the Tide’s position changed in principle and they agreed that the games in odd-numbered years would be played in Auburn.
One sticking point remained, however. Auburn had to play the 1989 game in Birmingham instead of Auburn, Sloan and company stated, as per their interpretation of the contract. In response to this, Pat Dye simply dug in his heels and said no, the 1989 game would be played in Auburn. Finally, to break the impasse, Dye agreed to play the 1991 Iron Bowl in Legion Field—a “bone thrown to Alabama,” as he later described it, to reach a peaceful agreement.
(As it turned out, the 1991 team was one of Pat Dye’s weakest squads, finishing with a 5-6 record and losing that bizarre Auburn “home game” in Legion Field, with its “AU” logo painted on the cheap Astroturf. Had the game been played in Auburn, it is entirely possible the Tigers’ lock on beating the Tide in Jordan-Hare would have lasted only one game rather than an entire decade. Maybe things worked out for the best, after all.)
So the 1989 Iron Bowl was coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Tigers fans rejoiced. Quickly, however, thoughts turned to the game itself: What if, after all the acrimony and threats and bombast, we actually lost the game? Surely that wasn’t likely though—right? After all, Auburn was on a three-game winning streak over Alabama coming into 1989, and the previous year’s Tigers team had been one of the best in school history. Just how good could the Tide be, to actually threaten to defeat Auburn in the First Time Ever?
The answer, almost horrifyingly for Auburn fans, turned out to be “very, very good.” As the 1989 season rolled around and the weeks and games flew by, Alabama looked more and more like a powerhouse. The ’89 Auburn team, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling to find itself. Yes, we would get Alabama in our stadium at last—and it looked increasingly as if they would beat us there. Only two of the state’s 24 sportswriters with a vote in the Associated Press poll picked us to win. A sort of dull, sinking feeling set in among many of the Tiger faithful. We didn’t give up hope—none of us did. But we worried. Each in our own quiet, introspective way, we worried.
Part of the reason for concern was that the Tigers still hadn’t quite come together as a solid team most of the way through the ’89 season. In previous years, Dye’s teams had a way of suddenly clicking on offense and defense in one game—usually one early-season game—and then rolling along into the tough season-ending stretch of “Amen Corner” contests at top gear. But the ’89 squad sputtered and stumbled, never quite seeming in synch, dropping road games (to quality opponents) at Knoxville and Tallahassee. Alabama, meanwhile, rolled up the yards and points against Tennessee; their offense, under the command of Homer Smith, appeared unstoppable. Yes, we’d finally gotten what we wanted—Alabama in Jordan-Hare—and it looked very much as if we were going to live to regret it.
So it was with a strange blending of anticipation, excitement, concern, and stomach-churning nervousness that we awoke on the morning of December 2, 1989, to head out for the stadium. En route, we were treated to the then-almost unthinkable sight of actual, crimson-clad Alabama fans in the hundreds roaming around our campus. This was something, remember, that we had never ever witnessed before, in all the years of Auburn football history. In a way it was gratifying—“You’re here! We made you come, whether you liked it or not!”—but in another way it was almost…dare we say, disgusting? “Take your beating,” we collectively, almost psychically yelled at them, “and then get out of here!”
We could only hope that a beating would indeed be administered later that afternoon, and that the guys in blue and white would be doing the beating.
For one of your intrepid Wishbone columnists, the previous twenty-four hours had been quite literally gut-churning. Early on December 1, then-AU junior Van drank a half-gallon of fruit juice that, unbeknownst to him, one of his roommates had left out of the refrigerator all day. The resulting hours of utter misery almost convinced him he could not under any circumstances attend the game—he would be too busy attending his own funeral. Fortunately, by the time every drop of juice (and everything else) had evacuated his stomach several hours later, he realized with gratitude that he just might be able to attend after all—even if it meant crawling to the stadium with a barf bag in tow. (It would be seventeen years before he could again taste Dole’s Pine-Orange-Banana juice without gagging.)
Before the game, rumors swirled that Tide fans planned to roll Toomer’s Corner with red toilet paper if the unthinkable happened and Alabama won. In a strange foreshadowing of much darker and more recent events, Tigers fans quickly drew up contingency plans to rendezvous post-game at the Corner and protect the Oaks at all costs.
Auburn students began gathering outside the gates to the stadium before dawn, though kickoff on CBS was not until 1 pm. We made our way past RVs that had been parked in vast numbers all over campus as early as Monday of game week; in all the time John and Van attended Auburn prior to that game, neither had seen more than few campers arriving on campus earlier than Thursdays of game weeks.
The atmosphere outside the stadium was electric. Some people had brought cards or games and attempted to play while waiting for the gates to open, but no one could really focus on anything other than what was to come later in the day. Nearly everyone seemed to float on air. “Body Getta” and “Two Bits” and other Auburn cheers were shouted and echoed back over and over, with scarcely a break in between, for hours. “War Eagle” tumbled easily and often from every pair of lips.
“From the cradle to the grave,” intoned CBS’s Jim Nantz from atop Haley Center in the broadcast lead-in, “football borders on religion in the state of Alabama.” Truer words were never spoken, as the national viewing audience was about to find out.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, the gates opened and students dashed for their “first come-first served” seats. The game itself could have been almost anticlimactic, except that Alabama had come to play and had every intention of ruining the day for the better part of the 85,314 attendees.*
In brief, the contest played out thusly:
After the first of what would be several long bombs to Alexander Wright, Auburn went up 7-0 on a James Joseph one-yard plunge. Alabama struck back with a field goal and touchdown of their own—and would have added more, but a fake field goal attempt was snuffed out by the Tigers defense. Even so, at the half, terrifyingly, Alabama led, 10-7.
The second half would be nearly all Auburn. Two long passes from Reggie Slack—one to Shane Wasden, the other to Alexander Wright—set up another touchdown and a Win Lyle field goal. Suddenly Auburn was back in front, 17-10. A Darrell “Lectron” Williams touchdown run put the Tigers ahead by fourteen, and another Lyle kick appeared to have pushed the game out of reach at 27-10. Auburn players celebrated on the sidelines with as much glee as most of the fans in the stands at that point. Alas, the scoring was not done yet. Alabama came back to ring up ten more points in the final eight minutes, pulling within only seven of Auburn, but an onsides kick failed. Lyle knocked home one last field goal for the Tigers to make the final score 30-20.
The crowd was delirious. For the first time ever, Alabama had come to Auburn to play the Iron Bowl—an undefeated, second-ranked Alabama, no less—and Auburn had won. A literal “purple haze” floated over the stands, a result of the 60,000-plus orange and blue paper shakers that had been distributed before kickoff. (The Auburn Student Government Association had been setting aside shakers all year so that almost everyone in the stadium could have one for this game.) Fans were coughing and sneezing “shaker dust” for hours afterward; many joked that we would probably come down with some strange orange-and-blue variety of lung cancer later in life—but it had been for a worthy cause!
For years afterward, Alabama fans, notorious in their tendency to seek any available excuse for a loss, countered any mention of this game with, “There was no way Alabama could have been expected to win in that environment.” Auburn fans didn’t care what excuse the Tide fans wanted to console themselves with, though. The good guys had won. That was all that mattered.
The playing of the game in Jordan-Hare instead of Legion Field was compared by some, at the time, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had happened only a few weeks earlier. Then-Sports Information Director David Housel evoked images of “the children of Israel” coming out of bondage and into the Promised Land. Some in the national media, not fully understanding the depth of passion and cultural history involved, made light of these remarks. Only Auburn people truly understood just how apt such comparisons were, however, at least in the social and emotional realms. After years of Alabama dominating the rivalry to the point of even controlling the parameters of where the game would be staged, the playing (and winning) of the game in Auburn was a milestone of epic proportions for the entire state and its history, not just for a university or for the world of sports. Pat Dye called it “the last brick in our house,” meaning that with the successful relocation of the game to our own stadium, we had become a complete program, fully in control of our own destiny, no longer at the mercy of anyone else. Our house was at last complete.**
The 1989 Iron Bowl was the last football game Auburn University played during the 1980s*** and it was a perfect conclusion to what had been the greatest decade in Auburn football history. So much was accomplished on that December day in Jordan-Hare, so many old demons laid to rest. Walls came down; bricks were forged; Israelites found the Promised Land. Mainly, though, a group of young men in orange and blue stepped up and did what they had to do—what thousands and thousands of Auburn men and women and children who looked on with nervousness and trepidation but also with hope and brimming confidence wanted them to do, depended on them to do, and virtually willed them to do:
They faced the mighty Tide in their own house for the First Time Ever.
And they won.
* The stated maximum capacity of Jordan-Hare during the 1989 season, and for several years afterward, was 85,214. For this game, however, an additional one hundred attendees were somehow allowed inside, thus causing this game to hold the record for the largest attendance at a football game in the history of the state of Alabama for quite some time. Some accounts claim attendance was only 85,214 for this game as well, but that is simply not accurate.
**It says a great deal about both programs that there was a “brick” associated with each program during the Dye/Curry era. The Auburn brick is the one Pat Dye had engraved with the score of this game, to keep on his desk, after referring to the game as “the last brick in our house.” The brick associated with Alabama, of course, is the one a disgruntled fan threw through Coach Bill Curry’s window after the Tide lost a game to Ole Miss.
***Depending on how one calculates decades, of course; it was the last game played while the calendar read “198_.” Auburn’s bowl game that season was the Hall of Fame Bowl, played on Jan. 1, 1990.
Related: “20 Years,” TWER’s collection of 2009 posts celebrating the 20th anniversary of the First Time Ever, includes the best Auburn suit you’ve ever seen, Aubie dancing to Janet Jackson, Stacy Danley’s daily itinerary, a book written about the 1989 Iron Nowl by a 5th grader, a rap about the game, and an interpretation of the modern meaning of the game.
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.
Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.
Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.
* Erin Andrews’ Auburn boyfriend
* Erotic Auburn Beer Stein
* Pat Dye buying sunglasses
* Muhammad Al on the Haley Center concourse
* Playboy in Auburn, 1989
* The War Eagle Jeep in Vietnam
* 78 never-before-seen photos of the Kopper Kettle explosion of 1978
* Rare candids of Pat Sullivan at the 1971 Heisman banquet
* G.I. Joe’s Auburn’s connection