Alabama’s Iron Bowl victory gives rivalry change of pace
By Andy Bitter
AUBURN, Ala. — Only a handful of the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd of 92,138 left early on a hazy November night in Tuscaloosa last fall, most likely the faction wearing orange and blue.
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The boisterous crimson-clad crowd eagerly awaited to erupt as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Alabama’s rousing 36-0 Iron Bowl victory. They bellowed out the lyrics to the “Rammer Jammer Cheer” so enthusiastically that it probably could have been heard 150 miles away in Auburn.
“Hey Auburn. … Hey Auburn. … We … just … beat … the … hell outta you!
“Rammer Jammer, Yellowhammer, give ’em hell, Alabama!”
And on and on it went, five times in all, increasing in volume with every verse, six years worth of frustration and embarrassment collectively exhaled in one cathartic chant.
The tide officially turned in the state’s football rivalry that night, with Alabama ending Auburn’s six-year winning streak in the Iron Bowl, beating the Tigers in Tuscaloosa for the first time ever. But in reality the shift had been in the works for quite some time.
In only a little over two years as head coach, Nick Saban has resurrected Alabama football, erasing a decade of general irrelevance by changing the culture of the Crimson Tide locker room and replenishing the roster with a pair of top-ranked recruiting classes. The result was a perfect regular season in 2008, a No. 1 ranking in the national polls and trips to the SEC championship game, the school’s first since 1999, and Sugar Bowl.
“I’d like to say that when I came here, change was probably inevitable,” Saban said. “But the growth that everybody has had was optional. Everybody had to buy into it.”
Auburn, meanwhile, suffered its worst season since the Terry Bowden era came to a crashing halt over a decade ago. The Tigers stumbled to a 5-7 record, missed a bowl game for the first time since 1999 and overhauled their entire coaching staff, bidding farewell to Tommy Tuberville, the fourth-winningest coach in school history, and moving forward with the controversial hire of Gene Chizik.
So how did things change so drastically? The answer involves a variety of factors, first and foremost being Saban.
Auburn’s sustained periods of success in the rivalry have always coincided with coaching instability on Alabama’s side.
The Tigers won five straight games in the series from 1954-58, the last coming in Paul “Bear” Bryant’s first season in Tuscaloosa. Pat Dye’s run of six Iron Bowl wins in eight years from 1982-89 came during the first few years of the post-Bryant era, with Ray Perkins and Bill Curry struggling to fill the coach’s legendary shoes.
And Tuberville’s seven Iron Bowl victories in eight years occurred while Alabama faced a coaching crisis, through Mike DuBose’s collapse, Dennis Franchione’s short stay, Mike Price’s strip-club saga and Mike Shula’s disappointing tenure.
Saban, however, brings a coaching pedigree befitting his $4 million a year paycheck, with a 105-50-1 record in the college game. The 57-year-old coach cut his teeth under one of the NFL’s best, Bill Belichick. He revived Michigan State’s dormant program before heading to LSU, where he won the BCS National Championship in 2003.
Although criticized for the way he left the Miami Dolphins in the lurch after only two years, he hasn’t disappointed on the sidelines at Alabama, taking a team that went 6-7 in the year prior to his arrival to 12-2 in just two seasons.
One of the biggest by-products of Saban’s arrival has been a shift in the recruiting battle. The Tigers routinely beat out the Crimson Tide in recruiting rankings at the height of the Tuberville era. While Alabama dealt with NCAA sanctions tied to violations on DuBose’s watch, Auburn took advantage, pulling in a higher national recruiting ranking every year but one from 2002-2007, according to Rivals.com.
Auburn went 59-18 during that stretch, finishing the 2004 season with a perfect 13-0 record. Alabama, which had two sub-.500 seasons during that time, went 43-33.
But the recruiting rankings weren’t that lopsided. The Tigers’ average national rank during that period was 11.3; the Crimson Tide’s was 22.1, suggesting Tuberville may not have capitalized as well as he could have from his on-field success.
Since Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, the recruiting pendulum has swung completely in Alabama’s favor. His first two full recruiting classes were ranked No. 1 in the nation. Auburn, meanwhile, has regressed, finishing 19th in 2007 and 20th last year. In the wake of the coaching change, the Tigers will operate with 78 scholarship players this year, seven below the NCAA maximum.
Making matters worse is the gulf between the two schools within Alabama’s borders. The Crimson Tide has always been an attractive in-state option for recruits — in fact, Auburn hasn’t gotten a commitment from the state’s top recruit since Ben Obomanu came out of Selma in 2002 — but Saban has monopolized the Yellowhammer State’s top talent in his brief time on the job.
In 2008, Saban’s first full recruiting class, Alabama grabbed 13 of the state’s top 17 recruits, including five-star wide receiver Julio Jones. Last year, Saban snagged the top seven players in the state, including five-star talents in offensive lineman D.J. Fluker, defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Nico Johnson.
Not surprisingly, one of Chizik’s primary goals was to put Auburn back on the map with state recruits. Chizik and recruiting coordinator Curtis Luper divvied Alabama into seven regions, with all but one assistant coach assigned a chunk of the state.
“We’ve got to protect our border,” Luper said.
In April, Auburn infamously organized the “Tiger Prowl,” a weeklong tour of the state during the spring evaluation period, in which the team’s assistants and coordinators traveled to recruiting hotbeds in a stretch Hummer limo. The move drew plenty of criticism but achieved its goal nonetheless, popping up in headlines across the state and even nationally during what is usually a mundane part of the recruiting calendar.
“It’s real simple,” Chizik said. “You start in this state first and then you work your way out. We’ve got to saturate this state and we’ve got to do a great job of recruiting in this state. That’s the No. 1 priority.”
Making inroads on that front will be tough. Despite Chizik’s push to raise the Tigers’ recruiting profile, the Crimson Tide has already received commitments from six of the state’s top 11 players for 2010. Most notable on that list are defensive backs DeMarcus Milliner and Jarrick Williams and Corey Grant, an Opelika running back plucked from Auburn’s backyard.
Ending Alabama’s current edge in the rivalry might be even harder. The Crimson Tide enters the year ranked fifth in the Coaches’ Poll, while the Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the highly-competitive SEC West.
If history proves anything, it’s that a shift in the series won’t occur overnight. All three of Auburn’s most successful post-World War II coaches — Ralph “Shug” Jordan, Dye and Tuberville — lost their first Iron Bowl.
And while Auburn has given Chizik carte blanche since he came to the Plains, with $2.5 million to assemble a top-notch assistant staff, there is an understanding that turning things around will take time.
The question that remains is: how long?