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Strange but true stories from the 40-year Iron Bowl hiatus

Nov 21, 2018

  • Alex ScarboroughESPN Staff Writer
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    • Covers the SEC.
    • Joined ESPN in 2012.
    • Graduate of Auburn University.

The Iron Bowl that nearly ended all Iron Bowls was a mess. There were reports of fights in the streets, blood spilled inside the stadium and lots and lots of angry fans throughout the state. One observer described it as a “free-for-all,” and he wasn’t referring to the local Black Friday shopping. Witnesses testified to nothing short of mayhem, and it was over, of all things, a tie game.

At least that’s how some people remembered it.

Alabama and Auburn played to a standstill in 1907, but all anyone could seem to agree on was the location (Birmingham) and final score (6-6). All that debauchery? Well, there were other observers, other eyewitnesses including players on both sides, who denied it, claiming it was an excuse to stop the often heated rivalry.

Some say it was the reportedly poor behavior of fans that resulted in a blockade on the series that would last until 1948 despite repeated attempts of government intervention. Others say it was over a seemingly minor disagreement over each team’s per diem. Another contingent, voiced here in a letter by UA director of athletics B.L. Noojin in 1944, said it was due to an interpretation of the rulebook.

“It probably had its beginnings in Auburn’s objection to the shift plays — ‘varsity two step’ — which Dr. [J.W.H] Pollard … used in his football formations and which Auburn contended were always ‘offside,'” Noojin wrote to A.B. Moore, faculty chair of athletics. “These plays, ahead of their day, were but a forerunner of the many varied shifts employed today and were allowed by some officials and penalized by others. My recollection is that inability to agree on officials — scarce in those days — was the crux of the ‘break-up.'”

Whatever the reason, Noojin was fine with the resulting divorce. In writing to Moore, he questioned whether Gov. Chauncey Sparks knew what he was doing lobbying for the game’s return. He warned of “reopening this ‘Pandora’s Box'” and hoped Sparks would see the error in “jumping out of the window just to get a breath of fresh air.”

The letter is one of many stored as part of Alabama’s Special Collections Library. ESPN examined the correspondence of past university presidents and athletic directors to gain insight into the inner workings of a rivalry kept on ice for 40 years despite repeated pleas of ordinary citizens, motions drafted by various Kiwanis Clubs and Chambers of Commerce, and the maneuvering of businessmen and political officials. Why the Ensley Real Estate Board felt compelled to pass a resolution in favor of resuming the series, no one knows. But there it was, mixed in with Alabama president George Denny’s papers.

Across the state, in the basement of Auburn’s library, there’s a folder labeled “AU-UA Controversy, 1940-47.” It’s more than an inch thick and contains everything from negotiations between the two schools to a poem written by C.C. Scarborough poking fun at Alabama dodging an invitation to play football, which AU president Luther Duncan described as “interesting, ingenious, and appropriate.” There was even a parody song written to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

“It is our calm conviction that if relations in football were renewed … we would encounter more subtle but equally damaging situation that football would tend to become the all-the-year topic at both institutions.”Auburn president Spright Dowell, 1920-28

But what these fail to mention is how Auburn and its president, Spright Dowell, rebuffed an overture from Alabama decades earlier to renew the series.

“It is our calm conviction that if relations in football were renewed, although we might not return to the old bitterness and practices, we would encounter more subtle but equally damaging situation that football would tend to become the all-the-year topic at both institutions,” Dowell argued.

Dowell wrote of a “growing spirit of good will” between the schools. There were such good will that he hoped one day Alabama and Auburn would actually “pull for each other.”

If the game was reinstated, current UA institutional records assistant Kevin Ray said, “there was a genuine fear of bad things happening.”


Every trick in the book was used to get Auburn and Alabama back together. In 1930, there was a movement to make the Iron Bowl a postseason game, with proceeds going to charity. The Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation wanted in. So did the American Legion. The Native Sons of Birmingham, fearing the impact of the stock market crash a year earlier, asked that the estimated $75,000 gate go toward the unemployed.

“We challenge you in the name of humanity to accept this invitation,” the Native Sons wrote. “There can be no POSSIBLE REASON sufficient to warrant your refusal. Your acceptance will earn for the University of Alabama a place in the heart of every Alabamian. Your refusal COULD AND SHOULD mean an IRREPARABLE LOSS to you and the University — that of good will and future support of the citizens of Alabama, and more especially the citizens of Birmingham.”

Denny gave his answer in ink atop the letter. It would not be practical, he wrote, to “comply with your request.”

The Lions Club wrote in. So did a member of an Alabama alumni chapter who, with a wink and nod, appealed to Denny’s political aspirations.

Alabama president Raymond Paty told a member of the school’s board of trustees that they would not be “pressured” into anything. That Alabama was seen to have spurned Auburn’s overtures resulted in Alabama having “lost considerable face,” he wrote.

There were rumors of the whole thing being concocted by The Birmingham News in conjunction with prominent Auburn officials. Gessner McCorvey, a prominent lawyer and member of the Alabama board of trustees, told Paty of the dozens of people proposing the game to him. “Some of them have even gone so far as to say we are acting like a bunch of babies and were afraid we might get beat,” he wrote. “Auburn, of course, will encourage this thought.”

When Sparks, who served as the state’s governor from 1943 to ’47, got involved, it prompted a study by the UA Athletic Committee. The six-page report detailed the effects of in-state rivalries in neighboring states. It referred to “unhappy incidents” and contained a blind reference to a death “arising out of the annual football game between two well known colleges.”

The report agreed with Dowell’s statements in 1923 and cited additional objections, including the likelihood that recruiting would intensify and “inevitably unwholesome rumors and stories would be retailed concerning how the one or the other institution procured this or that player in the state.” Keeping or attracting a coach would prove more difficult, it argued, and the “strenuous football contests between the two institutions would inevitably sharpen the spirit of the rivalry between them in all phases of their life and relationships.”

In the end, the answer was no.

A vindicated Doyle Buckles later sent Paty a one-line note: “Remember what our critics had to say about the fine example of Georgia-Georgia Tech relationships in urging the resumption of athletic relationships between Alabama and Auburn?” The UA administrator had attached a newspaper clipping detailing a so-called open conflict between UGA and GT supporters that began when students attempted to burn a coffin representing the “body of Georgia Tech” and ended with 500 people “pulling hair, swapping blows, and otherwise performing belligerent acts.”

Moore told McCorvey he expected the “unpopular” reaction from their report.

“Therefore,” Moore wrote, “it took courage, if I do say so, to do what we did. [Auburn president Luther Duncan] does not want to see the two institutions play football, but believing that we would not agree to play, he put us behind the eight ball. We understood the situation and could easily have moved out in the clear, but to have done this … would have been a cowardly and faithless act.

“In this sad hour” — World War II — “when our boys are dying on the seven seas and on battlefields all over the globe … the press of the state has been seriously discussing the question of whether or not Auburn and the University should play football. … Does not all this represent a fearful overemphasis of football in the public mind of Alabama?”


But even those serving abroad were interested in the resumption of athletic relations between Auburn and Alabama. Tucked in Paty’s correspondence was a letter from Lt. Fred Sington telling of his fellow soldiers’ interest in the news back home.

“In these troublesome times,” Sington wrote, “when we are thinking in post-war terms of living with other countries, it seems to me a small beginning for two neighboring institutions to be able to play each other in collegiate competition.”

A city manager for the Fourth War Loan Drive and County War Fund chairman of the Red Cross wrote in as well. And on another note, the Birmingham Post crafted an editorial with the idea that the game could raise money for the construction of a cancer clinic. It cited a study claiming 350,000 Alabamians would die of cancer unless the clinic was built. “Are they not worth any effort we might take to save them?” it asked.

It was such that Moore commissioned a list of those people and organizations in favor and those opposed. The final tally: Pro 15, Con 9.

In 1945, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a resolution that Alabama and Auburn “are urged to resume relationships in the field of athletics, particularly football.” Two years later, the state Senate demanded action, threatening an amendment cutting off appropriations to the schools if they didn’t comply.

Auburn president Ralph Draughon wrote to McCorvey that no one liked feeling “bludgeoned into the game through such legislation” but “we need to recognize the possibility that we may make an ever greater mistake in persisting in our refusal.” Director of athletics Carl Voyles then appeared before a legislative committee to say that Auburn would like to play Alabama again and was holding an open date on the last Saturday in November and the first in December.

“It amounted to another dare — dares which have been coming from the Auburn campus over a long period — but as the week ended no signs of acceptance had come from Alabama,” a local newspaper wrote.

Internally, Alabama circled the wagons as Gov. Jim Folsom picked up the mantle from his predecessor, Sparks, by warning of further legislation.

V.H. Friedman, a prominent Tuscaloosa businessman and member of the committee on athletics, was livid. He wrote a letter to a friend of the governor’s hoping to “cool” his stance. “I seriously doubt if the Governor is interested in football,” he wrote. “If you were to place a football, basketball, baseball and softball before him I wonder if he could spot the football at first guess?”

Friedman then told to Moore to stress what had occurred at Mississippi State as the result of their in-state rivalry. He wrote, “The coach of Miss. State — a man with a good ten year record and their Athletic Director — a man who has given the School lat least 35 years of his untiring efforts, were asked to resign by petition of more than 1500 students because they committed the unpardonable sin of allowing Ole Miss to win.”

During a committee on athletics meeting that lasted nearly three hours, Friedman called for yet another study. And this time the official report swelled more than twice the length of the one three years earlier. It doubled down on the dangers arising from other in-state rivalries and argued that the game would only hurt the records of both Alabama and Auburn. What’s more, the rivalry “would not make a single constructive contribution” to education in the state where “deplorably the public is already stressing football too much and learning too little.”

But with all that said, with all the cries of good sportsmanship and slippery slopes, a copy of the report recognized the public outcry that wasn’t going away. And in an about-face, it alluded to the corner Auburn had painted the university into.

“If athletic relations should not be resumed the University would have to bear the brunt of public displeasure and criticism,” it read. “The public ill-will engendered toward the University, we fear, will be highly injurious to it. In such a situation, we feel that we cannot afford to hold out for our convictions, though they are deep and well sustained.”

Just like that, it was over and Alabama conceded. Western Union telegrams were sent in to the presidents of both schools, including one from Gov. Folsom commending them on their stance to “bring about peaceful relations.”


The next steps were done in the dark.

In a letter marked confidential, Draughon, the Auburn president, asked Alabama president John Gallalee that arrangements “be kept in strict secrecy.”

“Some of them have even gone so far as to say we are acting like a bunch of babies and were afraid we might get beat. Auburn, of course, will encourage this thought.”Alabama board member Gessner McCorvey

Gallalee, at the same time, was “afraid that the whole matter might burst in our faces if a leak occurred in any direction,” he admitted in a letter to Dr. Joseph Hirsh explaining why director of athletics Frank Thomas had to remain so tight-lipped about the situation. During a fishing trip, Hirsh described Thomas as “more reticent than the proverbial Sphinx.”

With an understanding in place, Voyles suggested to Thomas that they start small with baseball games in the spring before a football game that fall.

There were additional meetings and haggling over details, but things went relatively smoothly as Auburn and Alabama eventually agreed to play football games at Legion Field in 1948 and 1949. The student bodies met, decided a sportsmanship trophy would be commissioned and that first run in the pregame parade would be decided by a coin flip. Nothing was left to chance.

A release from Auburn dated May 23, 1948, read: “When officials of the University of Alabama and the Alabama Polytechnic Institute agreed to resume athletic relationship, they have started a new era in higher education in Alabama.”

When Frank Boyd wrote to Draughon commending him on a “fine job well-done,” Draughon credited Gallalee for the “courage” it took for him to help the matter along.

“You should be careful in breaking such news so suddenly,” Boyd joked. “Some of us are not as young as we would like to be and cannot stand the kind of shock you gave us.”

That December, Alabama and Auburn met on the football field for the first time in 40 years. The Crimson Tide won handily 55-0, but what happened next was a harbinger of things to come as much as it was a reminder of why the rivalry game was tabled in the first place.

Seven Auburn students ended up in jail after they were arrested near a bonfire on Alabama’s campus the night before the game. Meanwhile, a letter written by Gallalee mentioned attempts to learn the names of some rogue Alabama students who were said to have visited Auburn’s campus and “painted on an ancient lathe.”

Gallalee succeeded in having a Tuscaloosa judge dismiss charges of disorderly conduct for the seven Auburn students, but two would still face the consequences of violating prohibition law.

“If we had lost Saturday,” Gallalee wrote to a local businessman, “I had planned to ask you and Ed Leigh McMillan to hide me out in one of your lumber holdings for a short time.”

This Saturday will mark their 71st consecutive meeting since the rivalry was put on hold. Now the thought of a season without the Iron Bowl is the furthest thing from anyone’s memory.

The rivalry remains as intense as ever, and sometimes the resulting arguments get heated. Sometimes the mayhem is exaggerated. Other times it isn’t.

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