A City Divided – A History of the Iron Bowl

Photo by Kate Sullivan

Roll Tide! War Eagle! What may seem like simple words are actually phrases that hold an unexplainable meaning for two very loyal fan bases. Phrases that have become battle cries ringing in the air all year long, sparking both friendships and fights.

In an interview with Charles Barkley for AL.com, University of Alabama football head coach Nick Saban said people who grow up in the state are raised in the football rivalry and it is a part of them. “And they have a lot of passion and they don’t have a lot of other choices. There’s not an NFL team, there’s not an NBA basketball team. So, everybody relates to one of these two schools and there’s a lot of passion for it.”

Alabama and Auburn fans wait all year long for that one day when their teams take the field against each other. The whole state of Alabama turns its attention to the game, and the neutral neighbors of these rabid fans are forced to pick a side. That day is known as The Iron Bowl.

The Iron Bowl gets its name from its Birmingham ties, as the city was the location of the game for 53 seasons, including the first. The programs met in 1893 in Lakeview Park for the first time ever in front of a crowd of about 5,000 strong. Drama ensued from the start as there were arguments as to whether the game should count for the 1892 or 1893 season. Word of the two teams playing and the subsequent tension drew interest as people began to discover the sport of football.

As Auburn was enjoying early success, threats from the university almost put an end to Alabama’s growing program. The dangers of football as well as the cost associated with funding a whole football team, had the University of Alabama’s faculty questioning the need for such a sport at the collegiate level.

Luckily for the Crimson Tide, football would be preserved and the yearly game against the Tigers would resume, that is until 1907 when the series was put on hold for financial discrepancies between the two teams.

Forty years later, the battle was reinstated after the Alabama House of Representatives brought forth a resolution to resume the rivalry by implementing full athletic programs for both schools. The state legislature went one step forward by threatening to withhold funding for the two universities unless they agreed to bring the Iron Bowl back.

The game was to return to Birmingham where the largest stadium in the state, Legion Field was located. By the time the game was officially moved to be played at each team’s respective fields in 1998, the game had earned its title of “The Iron Bowl” due to the city’s rich iron history.

While Birmingham may no longer play host to the most heated rivalry in all of college football, the roots of the teams run deep throughout the city with a plethora of both Alabama and Auburn fans as residents. It is easy to assume that almost everyone in the city has a side with which they align themselves in the series. However, this doesn’t always hold true.

In 2011 the Capital Survey Research Center in Montgomery surveyed throughout the state to see which team they pulled for. Of those surveyed, 37 percent identified themselves as Alabama fans and 18 percent said they cheer for Auburn, but 20 percent said they cheer for both teams and 22 percent said they cheer for neither.

Essentially, 42 percent of the polled population said they don’t care which team wins.

Birmingham is growing and with that growth comes new waves of people who don’t have a background with either team. Regardless of their football preferences though, new residents often find themselves in a bizarre situation of having to choose a team, either by coworkers, neighbors, friends or significant others.

Kasey Mack, a college student in Birmingham, found herself having to choose sides despite her background as a University of Georgia fan. “I moved to Birmingham for school and all of a sudden I was surrounded by all these Alabama and Auburn fans who wanted to know not what my team was, but whether I cheered for Alabama or Auburn. It was like they weren’t satisfied with my response of not really caring between the two.”

Mack said as a Georgia fan she was raised to hate Auburn because they were one of Georgia’s rivals, thus she found herself cheering for Alabama when the Iron Bowl rolled around. Ultimately, she was just watching the game as a fan of football as opposed to a fan of either team. Her Bama fandom was solidified when she began dating an Alabama graduate.

“Yeah, I pretty much have to root for Alabama now. When he found out I didn’t really care which team won, he looked at me like I had two heads. I’m still a Georgia fan at the end of the day, but I find myself saying ‘Roll Tide’ a lot more often now.”