The car carrying Auburn football coach Pat Dye and sports information director David Housel paused at an intersection in town before Dye went noticeably quiet.
It was 1988, not long after it was announced that Alabama had reluctantly agreed to play a game in Auburn after insisting for years that the Iron Bowl take place in Birmingham, a neutral site in name only. The game was months away, but Dye couldn’t get it out of his mind.
“You know what it’s going to be, don’t you?” Dye asked, finally breaking the silence.
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Housel had no idea what he was talking about.
“It’s going to be the most emotional day in Auburn history,” Dye said.
He was right. Dec. 2, 1989 — the day Alabama came to Auburn for the first time — has drawn its share of historical comparisons over the years. Dye likened it to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Housel to the Israelites returning to the Promised Land. Few Auburn fans who attended the game consider that hyperbole.
The result, a 30-20 Auburn victory against the No. 2 Crimson Tide before the largest crowd the state had ever seen, took a backseat to the fact that the game was even played in the first place. For years Auburn lobbied to host the Iron Bowl on its campus. For years Alabama had the same answer: no.
Twenty years later the debate seems comical. The game alternates between Tuscaloosa and Auburn with no fuss, drawing huge crowds at both on-campus sites, an event each school’s fan base eagerly looks forward to hosting every other year.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“It is difficult, even impossible, for Auburn people in this generation to understand what Dec. 2, 1989, meant to Auburn people in that day,” said Housel, the foremost historian on the subject. “And it’s a good thing they don’t understand because that’s what Dec. 2, 1989 was all about - so they wouldn’t have to understand, be forced to go to Birmingham, be forced to play your biggest game of the year on your opponent’s home field, be forced to go to a place where you weren’t really wanted. ...”These kids don’t know,” he added. “Thank god they don’t know.”
To understand why the 1989 game was so momentous, you have to look at the history of the Iron Bowl. Once the series was resumed after a 41-year hiatus in 1948, games were played at Birmingham’s Legion Field, back before the schools’ on-campus facilities could hold as many fans as they can today.
Although the ticket split was 50-50, Auburn questioned the site’s neutral status. Less than an hour from Tuscaloosa, Legion Field was a second home to Alabama, which scheduled three to four games there a season. The ushers wore crimson and white outfits during games, Housel said. A statue of legendary Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant stood in front of the stadium.
Morris Savage, a former Auburn player and trustee, once said the field was “as neutral as the beaches of Normandy were on D-Day.” From 1948-81, Alabama went 24-10 against Auburn in games played in Birmingham.
Bryant did not want to concede any competitive advantage he might have held. Naturally, Alabama dug in: it would not under any circumstances move the game from Birmingham.
Because of the relative size of what was then known as Cliff Hare Stadium, it was not unusual for Auburn to play neutral site games. The Tigers did so with Tennessee (Birmingham or Knoxville) and Georgia (Columbus) for a lengthy period and always played games against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
But it was former coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan and athletic director Jeff Beard’s dream to expand Auburn’s stadium to the point where it could host games against those schools. A series of expansion projects pushed the stadium’s capacity from 21,500 in 1949 to 61,261 by 1970. One by one, Auburn’s rivals visited the Plains - Georgia in 1960, Georgia Tech in 1974, Tennessee in 1974.
Alabama still resisted for a variety of reasons, some bordering on ridiculous. Auburn couldn’t handle a game that big. It didn’t have enough restaurants. It didn’t have enough restrooms.
Even after Bryant retired, Alabama stood firm. Shortly before leaving for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986, Crimson Tide coach Ray Perkins famously said, “Alabama will never play in Auburn,” stating his preference to drop the series rather than play at an on-campus site.
“Would you say that’s a little condescending?” Housel said.
The tipping point
Shortly after he was plucked from Wyoming to be Auburn’s new head coach and athletic director in 1981, Dye met with Bryant, determined to let the long-time Alabama coach know his desire to play the Iron Bowl at the renamed Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Dye remembers that meeting fondly: “The first thing out of Coach Bryant’s mouth was, ‘I guess you’re going to want to move the game.’ I said, ‘We’re going to move the game.’ He said, ‘Well not as long as I’m coaching.’ I said, ‘Well, you ain’t going to coach forever.’ He said, ‘Well, we’ve got a contract through ‘88.’ I said, ‘We’ll play ‘89 in Auburn.’ He just laughed. Because he knew.”
The reasons against a move were dwindling. Auburn added the upper decks to Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1980, bringing the seating capacity to 72,169.
Other factors helped Auburn’s cause. The NCAA had strict recruiting rules pertaining to neutral site games, meaning neither Alabama nor Auburn could entertain recruits if the game was in Birmingham.
Another issue was ticket allotment. The schools got a 50-50 split for games in Birmingham, hardly enough to satisfy the tens of thousands of fans who wanted to attend the game. The break in the standoff came when Alabama began its Tide Pride campaign, akin to the Greater Auburn Fund (now Tigers Unlimited), the fund-raising wing on the Plains that had started years earlier.
Then-Alabama athletic director Sam Bailey needed more Iron Bowl tickets to get the program off the ground. Auburn had a solution: alternate the game between home sites.
“It was the pick that broke the lock,’ Housel said. “When they said, ‘We need 70,000 tickets for Tide Pride,’ coach Dye immediately said yes. Everybody knew it was inevitable. Then the lawyers got together.”
The contract to play in Birmingham went through 1988, although there was a dispute over whether it had been extended through 1992 (Bryant had hand-written it on Alabama’s contract; Auburn had no such notation on its version). Dye insisted the first game in Auburn be in 1989. To make it happen, Auburn made one last compromise, agreeing to play in Birmingham in 1991 instead of hosting.
“Auburn gave up one year, in ‘91, to get forever,” Housel said. “It was at that point, no longer could Alabama or anybody else, dictate Auburn’s business. No longer could anybody else tell Auburn where to play its home games. Auburn was in control of its own destiny now. No excuses.”
As fans began to descend on Auburn in the week leading up to Dec. 2, 1989, it became apparent that this would be more than a game.
Dye took his team to LaGrange, Ga., the night before, a common practice for road games but something he had never done for a home contest. When the players arrived back in Auburn by bus, ready to make the short walk to the stadium, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
“We didn’t realize it until we came up on Sewell Hall how big the crowd had gotten that morning,” said linebacker and team captain Quentin Riggins, now a radio sideline reporter for Auburn. “It took us a few minutes to get prepared to go to Tiger Walk and my goodness, people were everywhere. And on top of campers and trees, all positioning themselves just to be there. That was the most electric, emotional Tiger Walk that I’ve ever been a part of.”
An estimated 20,000 fans lined Donahue Drive to catch a glimpse of the Tigers on their way to the stadium, a wall of people dwarfing anything Tiger Walk had been before. Current athletic director Jay Jacobs, the team’s conditioning coach at the time, remembers walking through the crush of fans behind fullback James Joseph, who was hyperventilating by the team he got to the locker room.
“That gameday experience for the Alabama game in ‘89 has now become what we do about every gameday,” Jacobs said.
Auburn fans didn’t hold back when greeting the Crimson Tide buses, either.
“I played in three Super Bowls, and I never saw more hype than was built up for that one,” then-Alabama head coach Bill Curry said. “People were lining the highways on the bus ride, standing on the overpasses. I don’t mean they lined all the highways, but I mean in patches there were people out just to watch us ride down there. And to get off the bus, people were rocking the bus so much I really thought it might turn over. I’ve never seen a build-up for a pro football game like that.”
Housel remembered seeing an Alabama fan hours before the game, walking aimlessly around the campus.
“He looks like he doesn’t know where he’s going,” Housel said. “I thought, ‘Well, now you know how we felt all those years in Birmingham.’ Kind of uncertain.”
A crowd of 85,319, the largest the state had ever seen, packed Jordan-Hare Stadium on an overcast day. Paper shakers passed out to the fans produced a dusty blue haze that hovered over the field, creating a surreal atmosphere.
It would have been an enormous game without the historical implications. Alabama was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. Auburn, after close losses at Tennessee and Florida State, was 8-2 and ranked No. 11.
“We had a better football team than Alabama,” Dye said. “They just didn’t know it.”
The Crimson Tide found out early. Wide receiver Alexander Wright hauled in a 44-yard pass from Reggie Slack on Auburn’s first drive, sending the crowd into a frenzy. It set the tone. Stacy Danley ran for 130 yards to lead the Tigers to a 30-20 victory and a share of their third straight SEC title, the team’s fourth in seven years.
As Dye gave a memorable post-game speech, players in the locker room could still hear the raucous crowd celebrating in the stadium. Nobody had left.
“I’ve been doing sideline for 19 seasons with Auburn Network, and it was the most electric atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of,” Riggins said. “And selfishly, I don’t want to ever experience that again. I want to remember that. Because I don’t know if you can duplicate that.”
The 1989 game was the beginning of the end for the series in Birmingham. Alabama continued to play its “home” contest there until 2000, when the Crimson Tide finally moved the game to a renovated Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Since the ‘89 matchup, the series is almost even. Auburn has won 11 games, Alabama nine.
Does playing it on campus change the intensity of the game? Somewhat.
“As coach Dye would say — in Birmingham, every play was a big play,” Housel said. “If it’s a no-gain, that’s a great play for the defense. If it’s a 5-yard play, that’s a great play for the offense. So one side or the other is cheering like hell every snap of the ball. We don’t have that any more.”
But the trade-off was substantial in the eyes of Auburn fans, who had for years reluctantly acquiesced to Alabama’s insistence that the game never leave Birmingham.
“I don’t think it took that game to make Auburn people feel like they had arrived as a football program, but it took that game for Auburn people to know finally, surely, unequivocally that we were equal,” Housel said. “Nobody else could dictate terms to us. It had never been unconditional surrender. But as long as Alabama, the city of Birmingham can tell us where we had to play that game, were we equal? Were we totally in charge of our own destiny? No.
“That game was our last thing, the last yolk. And like I say, Auburn was free.”