Wednesday, May 2, 2012

the return of inexplicable road trips: the last-ever Iron Bowl

Editor's Note: A long time ago I started reminiscing in blog form about some of the very odd road trips I have taken over the years to see Alabama play. Since we are once again facing the long dark of the spring and summer, please enjoy the return of said reminiscences. You may remember me trying a few of these last spring before giving up. So we're taking another shot at it. Fair warning: A number of these stories end with Alabama losing. Today's episode does not: the 1998 Iron Bowl, or the last time Auburn visited Legion Field.

The 1998 Iron Bowl might have been the most forgettable game between Auburn and Alabama that was ever played. And that's probably why I don't remember much about it at all. The game occurred roughly 24 hours after my senior football season at Opelika ended in a loss to Tuscaloosa County; we were ranked No. 2 in the state, but ran into a really terrible matchup for us, and ultimately couldn't overcome it (if you care you can read more about my alma mater's brutal decade of sports here). I was in attendance, and here is what I remember.

The lead-up: While researching for this blog post, it occurred to me that I have little to no memory of the 1998 season for either Auburn or Alabama. Which should probably tell you something — either that I am developing dementia, or the season just wasn't all that memorable for either team (note: it is entirely possible that both are true).
Here's what I do remember: Alabama, in the second season of Mike Dubose's reign of ineptitude, was attempting to wash away the bad taste of a 4-7 season — at the time, only the second sub-.500 campaign of the post-Bryant era — which had ended with Ed Scissum's fumble that gifted Auburn both the biggest game of the year and the SEC Western Division championship. The following season was ... um, less than thrilling: after opening with a win over BYU (Shaun Alexander's 5 TDs carried the team) and beating Vandy at home, the Tide got slapped at Arkansas, 42-6. The following week we lost at home to Florida, 16-10, in what (I think) was the debut for quarterback Andrew Zow (a redshirt freshman who was inserted into the game under the time-tested, "He can't be any worse than freaking John David Phillips" logic). The team held together for wins over Ole Miss (in overtime maybe?) and East Carolina (by a point!), lost on the road to eventual national champ Tennessee and beat Southern Miss at home. They should've been drilled the following week at LSU, but ... well, you know by now. We were at least bowl-eligible by then, but the momentum from the LSU game didn't carry over — we were drilled the following week in Starkville by a superior State team, and limped into Auburn week 6-4.
(Sidebar: It is remarkable, looking back, that a college football team as poorly organized as Alabama ever won a thing. It's almost sickening to watch now the number of pre-snap penalties, special teams mistakes and just genuine bizarre mental errors. Thank God those days are over; my dad's blood pressure is high enough.)
It was an uninspiring season, but still better than what was going on in Auburn that year. Coming into the season, the Teagles were the defending SEC Western division champs — they had come within a whisker of winning the title game vs. Peyton Manning and Tennessee — but there was a pretty strong undercurrent around town against then-head coach Terry Bowden. I was living in Opelika at the time around throngs of AU folk, and the general consensus was as follows: If Bowden ever stumbled, he would be chased out of town with rocks.
And that's basically what happened. Playing without all-everything quarterback Dameyune Craig, Auburn lost five of its first six games, and stumbled into the Bama game 3-7. They were playing a combination of Ben Leard and Gabe Gross at quarterback ... and that's about all I remember. At one point my uncle took me — an Alabama fan who had just played a high school football game — with him to Gainesville to see Auburn play Steve Spurrier's Florida, a game played the day after Bowden "resigned" his post (Florida barely tried in the second half and won 24-3) ... because there was literally no one else who wanted to go. They had gone through a bizarre stretch where their quarterback couldn't field a snap from center. They had another sequence in their loss to Tennessee where they recovered a fumble on UT's six-inch line ... and couldn't score in 4 tries. The interim head coach was Bill Oliver, the same guy who had fled Tuscaloosa after the 1995 season because he didn't think Gene Stallings would ever resign. They had needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Central Florida. They unequivocally sucked about as bad as Auburn has ever sucked in my lifetime.

How we got there: This is where my own memory starts to get fuzzy (not for the reasons you think, you jerk ... I was president of the youth group). I'm fairly certain someone who was a college counselor at church — was her name Hillary? Maybe? — sold me the ticket. It was in the AU section, but both teams were so bad, who really cared? I had on a Bama hat and my letterman jacket from OHS; you know, to be incognito.

The trip: I'm pretty sure I rode to Birmingham with my folks — there was a family party in ... I have no idea — and to Legion with my aunt and uncle. If memory serves, we parked at my cousin's frat house on the Birmingham Southern campus. I met the group I was supposed to be sitting with inside the stadium. I must have been close friends with someone in this group at some point, which is probably why it bugs me that I have little to no memory of any of them.

The game: In what was easily the greatest game of Gabe Gross' football career, Auburn roared out to an early 17-0 lead. And that was about that — Alabama rallied to narrow the margin to 17-14 before halftime, and drove the ball into scoring possession two other times to either tie or go ahead (naturally, both drives ended in turnovers). Finally, the lone star on the team made a play:
Bama went home a 31-17 winner.
It turned out to be the last time Auburn and Bama played at Legion Field — not long after that, the University announced it was moving its home game vs. Auburn to campus, something Auburn had already done 10 years earlier. Alabama continued its relationship with Legion until 2003, and now neither team will ever go back unless something goes horribly wrong and they wind up in the Papa John's Bowl.

The aftermath: Well, Alabama continued its characteristic play under Dubose by turning his first bowl bid as head coach into a nightmarish 31-7 loss to Va. Tech (to be fair, Va. Tech wound up playing for the national championship the following season). Auburn, after apparently giving Oliver the idea that he was the frontrunner for the permanent head coaching job, hired Tommy Tuberville away from Ole Miss. I don't suppose I have to tell you how either coach worked out for either program.
Two other notes from this game that I couldn't remember at all until I started writing this: First, I caught a ride home with another college person from church, an AU student who couldn't wait to lecture me about how my faith would be tested if I chose to go to Alabama. Everybody there drank, was his contention, and everyone there is in a fraternity. Apparently fraternities and alcohol did not exist at Auburn.
Second, when I finally made it home that night, very late, I plugged in the tape of the game and plopped down on the couch in my parents' basement. The day had been very long, and I was quite tired from the events of the preceding week. And yet, in my haze, I was almost convinced I saw highlights from my high school playoff game playing as part of ESPN's pregame introduction. I rewound it and watched again. The following day, I made my family watch it, as well.
Wouldn't you know? ESPN had sent a camera to our second-round playoff game vs. Lee in Montgomery, and had cut the highlights as part of the pregame narrative about kids in Alabama who grow up wanting to play for the hometown universities.
It was the only thing memorable about either the game or the season.

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