It’s late November, time for the trees to shed their leaves and become bare (except for those with toilet paper hanging from them), #1 to lose a big game, and Alabama to pulverize Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl. Due mostly to improvement in the football product put out by Auburn since the arrival of Pat Dye, a number of myths have cropped up surrounding the aura of the Iron Bowl. You are going to hear a number of those myths this week. In fact, you’ll probably hear more this week than normal because the circumstances surrounding both programs.
MYTH #1: Either team can win this game.
OK, so in a technical sense, I guess that’s true. Appalachian State did beat Michigan, after all. But this statement is usually nested among a discussion of how “the Iron Bowl is competitive and either team can pull out the victory even if they’re 0-10.” The only words for this are “unadulterated hogwash.” If anyone says this, simply ask them to list for you the upsets they can name in this series. Since it only rekindled in 1947 and Alabama rolled Auburn for most of the 1960s and 1970s, what examples can be given that substantiate this idea? Invariably, they will list in order: 1972, 1982, 1984, 2001, and 2002. Let’s dispense with the obvious ones. 2002 was an anomaly because it is clear that Dennis Franchione was already plotting his getaway a couple of weeks later. 1972 is not so memorable because it was an upset as it is how Auburn won: two blocked punts in the final five minutes, both returned for touchdowns that turned a 16-3 Tide rout into a 17-16 Auburn win. But Auburn was ranked in the top ten entering that game. While the way they won was truly phenomenal and ranks in Bama lore of painful moments right alongside the nutty pass from the end zone by Tom Clements in the 1973 Sugar Bowl and the “Cam-back” in the 2010 Iron Bowl, it can hardly be called an upset. 1982 was only considered an upset at the time because Alabama had been number 2 earlier in the year, and Auburn had not won in a decade. ANY Auburn win at that point even against an 0-10 Alabama would have been considered an upset. And the later loss by Auburn to LSU in 2001 proves that Auburn was not really all that great that year anyway. Thus, the only “true upset” of the last 65 years in the Iron Bowl is Alabama’s stunning win on December 1, 1984. And even that upset is tainted by the fact that Pat Dye simply outsmarted himself. Trailing 17-7 in the fourth quarter, Brent Fullwood hit a touchdown. Dye opted to gamble for the win early by calling for a two-point conversion that was successful and brought Auburn to within 17-15. Moments later thanks to a Tide fumble, Auburn was knocking at the door again. They got it to fourth down and goal from the one. Had Dye simply stuck with his prior plan of a field goal, Auburn gets a chip shot and – probably – wins the game. For whatever reason, he sent in a toss to Fullwood, who collided with Bo Jackson and bought the defense enough time to wrap up Fullwood and bring him down.
That one case simply does not give anyone the ammunition to argue that the Iron Bowl is closely contested and anyone can win it. The favorite nearly always wins the game – and a huge favorite ALWAYS wins the game. Bet the house on Alabama this Saturday.
MYTH #2: Coaches Are Hired And Fired on The Basis of the Iron Bowl
This is another waste of time argument that people on both sides of this rivalry actually say. It is then picked up by the clueless press (insert ESPN logo here) and proliferated. Almost every Iron Bowl and especially those telecast on ESPN feature a reference to this claim. But nobody at the four-letter network has ever bothered to do his homework. Once again – how many coaches can you name that have been fired SOLELY or even PRIMARILY because they couldn’t win the Iron Bowl?
Bill Curry? He wasn’t fired. He resigned and went to Kentucky.
Tommy Tuberville? Whatever the truth about that case, Tuberville was not fired because of the 36-0 blowout in 2008. Word on the street is he resigned and only the Auburn mafia knows. But he had won six in a row. He was not fired because of the Iron Bowl.
Terry Bowden? No, he resigned in the middle of the season. So WHO exactly has ever been fired because he couldn’t beat Alabama or Auburn?
Not counting the interims (Bill Oliver, Joe Kines), there have been eleven Alabama coaches since 1947 and seven Auburn head coaches. One of those (Mike Price) never coached a game, and the other two will coach next week. That leaves fifteen head coaches in the last 65 years whose reputation supposedly depended on the Iron Bowl win. Yet out of those fifteen coaches, only six were fired: Earl Brown, Harold “Red” Drew, JB “Ears” Whitworth, Doug Barfield, Mike DuBose, and Mike Shula. And even Drew’s case is somewhat strange as he remained the Tide track coach for another decade. Thus, we have five coaches on which this case could be made. Earl Brown had a three-year record at Auburn of 3-22-4. To make this even stranger, one of Brown’s three wins was against Alabama in 1949. Given that he was 0-10 in 1950, you would be hard-pressed to say he got fired because he lost the Iron Bowl. The same is true regarding the disastrous regime of J.B. “Ears” Whitworth, who compiled the worst record of any coach in modern Alabama football history. His 4-24-2 record coincided with Auburn’s 1957 national title, which probably had more to do with his firing than anything else.
More recent history suggests that only perhaps Barfield’s case could be considered proof of this myth. DuBose was a disaster from day one, undone by off-the-field shenanigans and on-the-field under-achievement. And I should point out that on the day DuBose was fired shortly after the Central Florida debacle in 2000, he had a 2-1 record in the Iron Bowl that should have been 3-0. Shula never beat Auburn, but he also never beat LSU and his lone victory over Tennessee had more to do with luck than anything else. A 1-11 record against those three teams would get Nick Saban fired, and it wouldn’t be because he couldn’t beat Auburn.
So does Barfield then prove the myth? Not really. Doug Barfield had the misfortune of taking over from a coach who towered over his university in the same way Johnny Vaught and Vince Dooley ruled their prospective campuses. Barfield was not such a big man, but his firing wasn’t due to his failure to win the Iron Bowl but rather his 0-6 record in the SEC in his fifth season. Thus, we have debunked the second myth.
MYTH #3: If You Go 1-11 But Win The Iron Bowl, You Had A Great Year
This myth is unquestionably the invention of Auburn fans during the heyday of a certain man in the hound’s tooth hat. For starters, the expansion of FBS to include unworthy teams at the lower end has virtually guaranteed neither team will ever enter the Iron Bowl winless. Even a terrible Auburn team managed to hang 51 points on Alabama A&M. The worst Alabama team of the last 50 years (2000) won three SEC games, two by double-digit margins. So the likelihood of this even happening is virtually nil.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it actually happened: does anybody REALLY believe that Alabama fans would celebrate a 1-11 year just because they happened to beat Auburn? Alabama fans begin every season looking forward to the possibility of winning the national championship. Auburn fans begin every season looking forward to seeing how they measure up to Alabama, even in years Auburn is better.
Let’s not overcome ourselves with bull. These three myths need to be abandoned immediately. Remember that – you’re going to hear a lot about them the next five days or so.