The Streak: Chapter in new Auburn book ‘Orange Is Our Color’ examines Tommy Tuberville’s lasting Iron Bowl legacy

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Orange was his color…

“When the smoke cleared, the team was greeted with a sea of orange as they ran onto the field.” These words could’ve been written about Auburn’s 2013 “All Auburn, All Orange” game against Georgia. But they weren’t. They’re from an Opelika-Auburn News story on Auburn’s 2000 season opener vs. Wyoming. That was the first time Tommy Tuberville asked Auburn fans to wear orange in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The immediate, overwhelmingly positive response from Auburn fans to Tuberville’s request seemed odd to then recent graduate Josh Dowdy. At the time, Tuberville had been on the Plains just one season, and won only five games as the Tigers’ head coach. Dowdy saw the response as indicative of Tuberville having already transcended his official title. David Housel saw it that way, too.

“The head football coach at Auburn is not just the football coach—he’s the leader of the people,” Housel told the Birmingham News after the game. “I think that’s why you saw Auburn people respond to Tommy’s request to wear orange.”

The perseverance of Tuberville Orange throughout the coach’s ten years at Auburn, and even now, five years after his departure, caused Dowdy to wonder about the relationship between Tuberville and the Auburn Family. What made the connection between Tuberville and the Auburn people so strong? How does that connection still function in the life of the Auburn Family today? Dowdy’s search for answers turned into a book: Orange Is Our Color: The Tuberville Years through Navy-tinted Glasses.

The subtitle refers to Dowdy’s background. He came of Auburn fan age during the Pat Dye era. Dye’s was a different style, both in terms of coaching and in leading the Auburn Family, and it permanently colors Dowdy’s perception of Auburn football.

From his navy-tinted look at the Tuberville decade Dowdy concludes that the impact of the Tuberville years upon the Auburn Family today is primarily due to three major events: the Jetgate scandal; the 2004 undefeated season; and, the Streak of six consecutive wins over Alabama.

With the 2013 Iron Bowl now upon us, Auburn fans are hoping Gus Malzahn’s Tigers will establish their own winning streak over the Crimson Tide. So as Nov. 30, 2013 approaches, let’s look back at what started on Nov 23, 2002.

Here’s the chapter in Orange Is Our Color (excerpted with Josh’s generous permission) simply titled “The Streak”.*

Beating Alabama

Why does beating Alabama matter? When I think about this question, I’m reminded of Judges’ description of the partial conquest, e.g. “But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day. (Judg 1:21, ESV)” Beating Alabama matters because we live with them; that is, many Auburn fans work, attend church or school, or even share a home with Alabama fans. We see them every day. We hear them every day—their incessant liturgy of self-worship and indulgent delusion. That is why beating Alabama matters—beating them sharpens the ineptitude of their rhetoric, making it more amusing, and thus more tolerable—that, and because they are a divisional opponent. The subject of this chapter, of course, is a question beyond just why beating Alabama matters.

Why does beating Alabama six consecutive seasons matter? The answers to this question are the same ones presented above. One might argue, however, that beating Alabama from 2002–2007 does not really matter, because the team we needed to beat the most in that stretch was LSU. But, again, most of us do not live in Louisiana. The Streak did matter—and still does. Anyone who lived through it understands this reality. Why was the impact so significant? Let us step back a few years further.

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The Power Struggle

On November 27, 1982 Bo went over the top, and Auburn beat Alabama for the first time since the incredible Punt Bama Punt victory of 1972. Ending a nine-year drought against our in-state rival is reason enough to assign great importance to Pat Dye’s first win over Alabama. If we look at the entire history of the rivalry, the significance is even greater.

Between the first year the two teams played (1893) and the last year prior to the 41-year cessation (1907), Auburn holds a 7–4 advantage (there was one tie). The stretch from the renewal of the rivalry up to 1982 looks much different. Of the games played from 1948 through 1981, Alabama won 24, and Auburn only 10. If we further narrow the range, and look at the seasons between Auburn’s five-game winning streak (1954–1958) and 1982, Alabama’s advantage is 19 games to Auburn’s four. In other words, over the 23 years leading up to 1982, Auburn beat Alabama only four times. Fortunately, in 1981 Auburn hired a man who had the vision, know-how and determination to make the Tigers competitive again. The field at Jordan-Hare Stadium now bears his name—Pat Dye. A year later, that vision became reality. Bo Over the Top is not just about breaking Alabama’s nine-year string of Iron Bowl wins. Its larger significance is that it created the fulcrum on which the balance of power tilted. If we look at the rivalry starting in 1982, Auburn leads the series 17–14. Seven of those wins are Tuberville’s; and six of them comprise a Streak, without which we would not hold the series lead in the modern era.

The Foundation

The Streak begins in 2002—the game known by some as Skullduggery, in which true freshman Tre Smith rushed for 126 yards, and Jason Campbell looked like the Jason Campbell of 2004. We did not know then that a Streak had begun; but, maybe we should have known something was going on. Beating Alabama is always most fun when they think there is no chance they can lose. In 2002, they came into the Iron Bowl 9–2, having won their last five games, and ranked 9th in the AP poll. They were 11-point favorites and believed 2002 would be the year they spoiled Auburn’s perfect record in Tuscaloosa. When the Tigers came out on top, perhaps we should have known the game possessed more awesomeness than can be contained in one win—perhaps we should have known it was the beginning of something bigger. In reality, Tuberville would beat Alabama two more times before we could really see what was happening.

Each of the next two wins over Alabama was overshadowed in its own way. The 2003 victory was quickly absorbed into the Jetgate scandal. In 2004, beating Alabama was a foregone conclusion, a subplot in the bigger stories of an undefeated season and the BCS controversy. These off-the-field matters diverted attention from the consecutive wins. In 2005, however, the spotlight shone directly on a new phenomenon.

It’s Alive

The 2005 win over Alabama is when the Streak actually comes into existence; when four consecutive victories undergo a synergistic transformation into something with a life of its own. The catalyst for this genesis was largely Tuberville infusing his personality into the rivalry. In a previous chapter we noted Tuberville’s emphasis on beating Alabama. It bears repeating here. “For us there are three seasons: non-conference, conference, and then there’s Alabama. We work hard on them, and if there is a game we put a personal touch on, it’s that last one every year.” When we beat Alabama for a fourth consecutive year, Tuberville wanted to celebrate the payoff of all that work, and he made a gesture that demonstrated his personal touch—he held four fingers up in the air. It was a simple thing, and, in retrospect it seems an obvious thing to do. It did not seem as much so at the time—especially not to Alabama fans. Consider this reaction by Tom Miller of Vestavia Hills, printed in the Sound Off section of the Birmingham News.

First, I have to congratulate the Auburn Tigers on their convincing victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide. But as the game was winding down, Coach Tuberville held up his hand, extended four fingers and began waving at the fans, signifying four wins in a row. Never have I seen an SEC coach show so little class.

I never saw Coach Jordan, Coach Bryant, Coach Vaught or Coach McLendon do that in their eras. I never saw Coach Dye, Coach Bowden, Coach Perkins, Coach Curry, Coach Stallings, Coach DuBose, Coach Saban, Coach Holtz or, heck, even Coach Fulmer or Spurrier do it. And I’ve certainly never seen Coach Shula do it. Hey, Tommy, do yourself a big favor and just go out to midfield, shake hands like a good sport should and then go celebrate with your players in the locker room. Save the classlessness on TV for the pro leagues.

Mr. Miller correctly identifies the genius of Tuberville’s gesture. He broke from conventional coach behavior, doing something no other head coach had, and thereby got under his opponents’ skin in a way no one else had. Or, at least, that was the effect; even if not Tuberville’s intent. He held up four fingers not for Alabama fans, but for Auburn fans. “So we’re pretty proud that we’ve won four in a row. That’s not pointing anything at their team. It’s a pretty good accomplishment for us knowing where we started in 1999.” As for the keyword in Mr. Miller’s critique, class is an idea that is only important to Alabama fans when they are losing. They claim to know how to lose with class and they expect others to win with class, but when they are winning, it is suddenly unimportant. As Ken Tucker of Birmingham pointed out in a response to Tuberville’s critics, “So, holding up four fingers is taunting the losing team and showing no class? Then what is singing ‘we just beat the hell out of you’ at a team you just defeated?”

When Tuberville stepped off of Pat Dye Field on the day when he matched Dye’s longest run of consecutive wins over Alabama, he was not yet done celebrating. He was later photographed in Orlando—prior to the Capital One Bowl—wearing a Fear the Thumb t-shirt. He casually explained himself: “I understand it’s created some talk back at home. Hey, that’s what rivalries are all about.” Tuberville’s confidence to inject his own personality and his own ideas about what a rivalry should be into the Auburn/Alabama dynamic shaped the Streak’s impact on the Auburn Family. In 2005, we were not celebrating beating Alabama, but celebrating beating them again, and again, and again; and our braggin’-rights head-cheerleader was our head coach. The influence of his cheerleading carried over to the next season.

Infiltration

Tommy Tuberville had something in common with Mike Shula in 2006—he was in Alabama’s locker room. There were posters of him holding up four fingers, and others displaying his “Fear the Thumb” fashion statement. His infiltration went even deeper than that. Tuberville, or at least his success against the Tide, was in the Alabama players’ heads. Alabama receiver D. J. Hall put it this way: “You say ‘Thumb,’ and everyone’s attitude changes.” One thing that did not change in 2006 was Tuberville’s record at Tuscaloosa. In fact, by beating Alabama again in 2006, Tuberville became the first coach from any visiting school to win four consecutive times at Tuberville-Denny Stadium. Regarding this distinction, Kevin Scarbinsky made an interesting point:

“Tom Thumb just may be the greatest Iron Bowl coach in history. Paul Bryant won nine of these games in a row with Alabama, but the Bear never had to set foot in the Loveliest Village for a single one of them.”

The following season, Tuberville captured another Iron Bowl superlative.

A Fan’s Game

Before 2006, the only Auburn coach to beat Alabama in five consecutive games was Ralph Jordan. In 2007, Tuberville moved one spot ahead of even “Shug,” but appropriately shared the credit:

“To do this six times in a row is an accomplishment for the players, and the coaches have a little something do with it. This is truly a player’s game and, in turn, a fan’s game—they really get into it and get the players motivated.”

Indeed, the Alabama game is a fan’s game. As mentioned above, while the players and coaches may prepare for it all year long, we are the ones who live with it—good or bad—all year long. For six fun years, the livin’ was easy.

From 2002 through 2007, the culture of the State of Alabama was altered. What happened during the streak was that the bammers’ rhetoric of superiority, which has rung hollow ever since the day Pat Dye was hired, finally lost its last hint of meaningfulness, even to those spewing it. Yes, they kept reciting it—their religion requires as much; but, for a moment, they didn’t believe it. Their eyes revealed that they, themselves could finally hear “we have Paul Bryant as our father” echoing without substance inside their heads.

* Each game from the Streak is covered in detail in the chapters on their respective seasons.

You can order Orange Is Our Color: The Tuberville Years through Navy-tinted Glasses here. Visit the book’s website here.

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

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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