Former Auburn athletic director David Housel famously compared the Tigers' first opportunity to host Alabama for an on-campus football game to "the Children of Israel entering the Promised Land." On Wednesday, the Israelites will return to the wilderness -- or in this case, Birmingham, Alabama.
It has been 17 years since Auburn last played at Birmingham’s Legion Field, home of the annual showdown against Alabama for a half-century. Many Tigers figured that the 1998 Iron Bowl would be the last time Auburn would play in the former "Football Capital of the South."
The Tigers will make an unexpected return for Wednesday’s Birmingham Bowl, which has Auburn folks of a certain age looking back fondly on the days when the Tigers regularly played in the historic building.
"People think I’m crazy when they ask, 'What was the most memorable game that you played in?' and I always say that '98 Iron Bowl," said former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic, who started in the 1998 game and grew up in Homewood, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. "If somebody actually knows about Auburn or Alabama football, they immediately look at me and say, 'Well wait a second, you guys lost that game.' And I say, 'Yeah, we did.'
"But for me, growing up in Homewood and going to Alabama home games, going to Iron Bowls, going to high school playoff games, going to SEC championship games -- a lot of people forget that the SEC championship game started there -- to me, that stadium was exactly what it said on the upper deck: the Football Capital of the South. That’s what it was when I was growing up, when I fell in love with football and with college football."
That’s the association that so many Auburn fans over 30 have with the place.
The vast majority of Auburn fans remain ecstatic that then-athletic director and football coach Pat Dye won the bitter fight with Alabama to move the Iron Bowl to campus sites, culminating with the landmark win at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1989 where Housel used his Old Testament analogy. It was, after all, a sign to many Tigers that they were finally on equal footing with their cross-state rival.
"I didn’t move the game to Auburn because of Birmingham. I moved the game to Auburn because it was the best thing for Auburn," Dye said Monday. "Birmingham, that’s not our home field. That was Alabama’s home field. They played a lot of their home games up there. We played one game a year."
In the years before Auburn expanded Jordan-Hare, however, the Tigers played many of their biggest games in Birmingham. They regularly hosted Tennessee and Georgia Tech there into the 1970s, and numerous key moments in Auburn football history took place on Legion Field’s AstroTurf.
It’s the home of "Bo Over the Top," when Bo Jackson’s fourth-down touchdown dive in 1982 helped snap Alabama’s nine-game winning streak in the Iron Bowl. It’s where Coach Shug Jordan’s team won 40-0 in 1957, clinching Auburn’s first national championship. And it’s where Jordan’s 1972 "Amazins" pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks in college football history, returning two blocked punts for touchdowns in the closing minutes to beat heavily favored Alabama 17-16.
The game has since become known as "Punt Bama Punt."
"The thing that I remember most about Legion Field itself was after that game, Coach Jordan had been hinting that we were one of his favorite teams. And in that dressing room, we started chanting and chanting and he just said, 'Well, I’ll go on and say it. Y’all are the best.'" recalled Roger Mitchell, who blocked an extra-point attempt and partially blocked Alabama’s first punt in the 1972 game. "He said, 'I’ll even put y’all up there ahead of the national championship team.' We hollered and we threw some of the coaches into the shower. It was a good time."
In fact, the disruption that Mitchell’s blocked kicks created within Alabama’s protection unit cleared the way for Bill Newton and David Langner to make two of the most famous plays in Auburn history. With the Tide’s punt protector inching Mitchell’s way to prevent another outside block, Newton was able to accelerate up the middle and block two straight Greg Gantt punts. Langner returned both for scores to cap Auburn’s rally from a 16-0 deficit.
Several members of that 1972 team will be in attendance for Wednesday’s game in the Birmingham Bowl against Memphis. More than just watching their alma mater in a bowl game, this will be like a family reunion with a formerly estranged relative.
"I think we have a lot of good memories there. I know most of my bunch that’s still left upright will be there, and I look forward to seeing them," Mitchell chuckled. "It was always the big games there."
Wednesday’s game will be even more of a blast from the past for those who grew up around Birmingham, where Legion Field was once a major part of the college football landscape.
Of course the Tigers would prefer to play in a high-profile bowl instead of barely qualifying for the postseason with a disappointing 6-6 record. With that reality in mind, there is a certain feel to this bowl game -- that some Auburn fans are making lemonade out of the lemons they’ve been dealt.
"I think it’s almost a best-case scenario," Cubelic said. "I know it’s not where a lot of Auburn fans want to be, but I think the fact that the Auburn Tigers are playing in Legion Field should be considered by most as a pretty cool deal, especially considering the circumstances."