The intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street serves as a stark reminder of just how serious the rivalry is. It’s quiet now, a Monday morning, but come Saturday it’ll morph into the epicenter of one of college football’s greatest spectacles… the Iron Bowl.
Three years ago, somebody tried to take this revered gathering place away from them. It was one of them; one of the Alabama fans.
Wrought with pain having seen his beloved Bear Bryant statue adorned in a Cam Newton jersey after the 2010 Auburn Tigers took down the Alabama Crimson Tide on their way a national championship, Harvey Almorn Updyke, Jr. sprang into action. He drove to downtown Auburn, and made his way for the corner.
He past the corner store where hundreds of thousands of Auburn fans have gotten the roll of toilet paper they’d get to blanket the two famed oak trees in celebration of another War Eagle win. What he did next crossed the boundaries of even a rivalry that seems to know no bounds.
Auburn fans and Alabama fans hate each other. They hate each other in a way really only befitting of sport, and they hate each other with an intensity only befitting of college football.
But even in a rivalry as heated as this, it’s not always about the hate.
Roughly 65 years ago, the hate had forced the Iron Bowl off the map. The two schools wouldn’t, couldn’t and didn’t play each other.
The state of Alabama remained permanently divided over crimson and orange, but there was never any resolution. Just never-ending smack talk always concluded by a “Roll Damn Tide” or a “War Damn Eagle.”
There were no winners and no losers.
However, a few folks had enough. Dick Coffee and a few influential friends from Alabama made inroads with the Auburn administration with help from a few influential friends at Auburn, and in 1948 they convinced the two schools to start playing again.
Dick Coffee was there for that Iron Bowl and every other Iron Bowl between 1948 and 2012. He was there for every other Alabama game at every other stadium in the country (both home and away) for the rest of his life.
He passed away last year having attended 781 Alabama Crimson Tide games in a row. He was on Auburn’s many times. He likely walked past Toomer’s Corner, sometimes jubilant in victory and other times dejected in defeat.
He probably cursed those Barners—even admonished the silliness of papering the trees—but never once did he think to do what Harvey Updyke did. Thousands of other Alabama fans over the years did the same.
On Saturday, the rivalry starts a new chapter.
It will be the first Iron Bowl since the trees were removed and the soil was overturned, eliminating the last remnants of an act of a desperate man. In the years since “Al from Dadeville” did what he did, Alabama has flourished while Auburn has struggled.
The Crimson Tide have won three of the last four national championships, and while Auburn has a title of their own, they’ve also seen winless SEC seasons and a change at head coach.
It’s Gus Malzahn’s job now.
He was the architect of the brilliant offense that powered Auburn’s title run with Cam Newton. Most people believe he deserved credit for the title as de facto head coach in lieu of Gene Chizik’s ineptitude.
Now, a year after going 0-8 in the SEC and getting trounced by Alabama in a meaningless Iron Bowl, he’s got his Tigers back in the national spotlight. Malzahn will host the No. 1 team in the country on Saturday with a chance to make the Auburn Tigers legitimate national title contenders.
A rivalry that’s been entirely one-sided since a heinous act robbed one school of a landmark and the other of its dignity finally seems reinvigorated. It never lost its intensity, but now it’s finally significant again.
There are national title and BCS implications. A state hinges on the outcome.
Even after it dies, College and Magnolia lives.