AUBURN — Pat Dye tried to explain the magnitude of the game to his team. Tried being the operative word there, because there really was no way for the ninth-year Auburn head coach to do that.
No one could have possibly imagined what Dec. 2, 1989, would be like, least of all a locker room full of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. There was nothing to compare it to — nothing like it had ever happened before.
They knew it was a going to be a huge game, of course. The Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama always is, no matter the stakes. And this one had plenty of stakes. The Crimson Tide was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. The Tigers were 8-2, ranked No. 11 in the country, and needed to win the final game of the regular season to clinch a share of the SEC championship for a third straight year.
“The thing for us, at the time, was that nobody respected us being the defending champs,” Quentin Riggins, an Auburn Board of Trustees member who was a senior captain on that 1989 team, told said. That’s what he was focused on when he left Auburn’s walk-through on Friday afternoon.
But it didn’t take Riggins long after that to begin realizing that the SEC race would be just a footnote; that this particular Iron Bowl would be no ordinary Iron Bowl.
The pep rally with students at Plainsman Park was “electric,” Riggins said. When it was over, Dye packed players onto buses and drove them 45 miles out of town to LaGrange, Georgia, something he had never done prior a home game. When they returned the next day, the line of cars parked along South Donahue Drive extended all the way to South College Street — farther than anyone had ever seen it before.
When the buses pulled up to Sewell Hall before the game, players were stunned to see how many Auburn fans were there to greet them. The crowds were so large that they didn’t even know how to start Tiger Walk — usually, Riggins said, they would walk five to seven people across. On that day, there was barely enough room to walk in a single-file line. The fans lining the street slapped players on the back and yelled in support as they walked by. The fans who couldn’t get close enough climbed trees and on top of cars and campers just to get a better view.
“We just couldn’t believe it,” Riggins said.
That was the first time the Iron Bowl was played on Auburn’s campus. Auburn won it, 30-20. Now, it all seems so normal — the Tigers will host Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium this Saturday for the 15th time.
Thirty years ago, though, it was anything but routine.
“The fact that it had been Auburn’s dream all those years, and that it happened, made it special,” said David Housel, Auburn’s athletics director emeritus and unofficial historian. “Auburn people made a trip that day they never thought they would make — to Auburn, to see Auburn play Alabama.
“It was a very emotional day. Coach Dye said earlier on that it would be the most emotional day in Auburn history, and he was right. It was.”
The story begins not in 1989, or when Dye was hired as Auburn’s head coach in 1981, or even when the Iron Bowl series was renewed in 1948 after a 41-year hiatus.
No, Housel said, the story begins in the 1930s, when Ralph Jordan and Jeff Beard were student-athletes at Auburn. The Tigers’ home “stadium” back then was Drake Field, a bare-bones facility that sat only 700 people in temporary wooden bleachers. Most of the team’s home games were played at more established stadiums nearby, such as Cramton Bowl in Montgomery or Memorial Stadium in Columbus.
Jordan and Beard dreamed then of Auburn one day having facilities it could call its own. That day finally came in 1939, when Auburn Stadium opened with 7,500 permanent seats. Capacity nearly tripled to 21,500 in 1949, when the wooden bleachers opposite those stands were replaced with more permanent seating.
But it wasn’t until Jordan was named head football coach and Beard the university’s athletics director in 1951 that the process was really kicked into high gear. By the time the former retired as Auburn’s all-time winningest coach in 1975, three separate expansions had brought Jordan-Hare Stadium — Auburn put his name on it in 1973 — up to 61,261 seats.
Georgia became the first major rival to visit that stadium, in 1960. Georgia Tech came in 1970. Tennessee came in 1974. Alabama was the only holdout.
“I don’t know that Auburn was in a position in the 1970s to demand that Alabama come,” said Housel, who worked for the athletic department from 1980 to 2005, rising from associate sports information director to athletics director.
That changed in the 1980s, though, when Dye was named head coach. He did demand it.
The turning point
Dye, who played for Georgia from 1958-60 and began his coaching career at Alabama in 1965, came to Auburn after one season as the head coach in Wyoming. He spoke to his former boss, legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant, a few days after getting hired.
“Well, I guess you’re going to want to move that game to Auburn,” Bryant said to him.
“Yep. Sure am,” Dye responded.
“Well, that won’t happen as long as I’m here,” Bryant said.
It’s not difficult to figure out why Alabama had no interest in playing the game elsewhere. The Iron Bowl had been played at Birmingham’s Legion Field every year since the series was renewed in 1948, and while it was technically a neutral site (the teams alternated home and away and tickets were split close to 50/50 between the two schools), it didn’t feel that way for Auburn fans, especially when you consider that it was a 50-minute drive from Tuscaloosa but more than two hours from the Plains.
The Crimson Tide won 26 of 37 meetings there between 1948-85.
"It was really a second home for Alabama," Shayne Wasden, an assistant coach at Troy who was a receiver for Auburn in 1989, once told the Advertiser. "They played a few of their games there every year. There's a statue of Coach Bryant sitting outside of Legion Field. They tried to sell it as a neutral site and it really wasn't a neutral site."
Bryant never did see the Iron Bowl played outside of Birmingham. He retired following the 1982 season and died shortly thereafter. Seven years later, the game came to Auburn.
The moment that became inevitable came in 1984, when Auburn's Board of Trustees approved the addition of the upper deck and suites on the east side of the stadium. One of Alabama’s arguments against the game being played on campus in Auburn is that Jordan-Hare Stadium wasn’t big enough to handle a game of that magnitude.
That renovation, completed in 1987, increased capacity to 85,214 — nearly 10,000 more seats than Legion Field and, at the time, the largest in the state.
“Auburn had too much money invested in the stadium. It owed it to its fans,” Housel said. “It was just a matter of time.”
Alabama still fought it, of course. Birmingham did, too. The final barrier that stood between Auburn and an Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium was a contract dispute. The copy of the contract Alabama had, which was initialed by Bryant, showed the agreement with Birmingham was extended through the 1992 season. Auburn, though, never received that extension — the contract it had ran through only 1988.
The Tigers were set to be the home team in 1989. They decided they were going to be the home team on more than just the scoreboard at Legion Field — “we’re playing our home game in Auburn, in Jordan-Hare Stadium, on Dec. 2,” Housel said. Alabama said no. Auburn told its rival, “that’s where we’re going to be. If you don’t come, you can forfeit.”
Birmingham sued both universities. Alabama said it would agree to come to Auburn in 1991 if Auburn agreed to play at Legion Field as the home team in 1989, then as the road team in 1990 and 1992.
Auburn stood firm, on principle. The school was willing to play one more home game in Birmingham in 1991, but the 1989 game would be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium whether Alabama and the city of Birmingham objected or not.
"That was by far more important than the outcome of the game," Dye once told the Advertiser. "Just the fact that we were going to play our home game at Auburn every other year was monumental to Auburn and our program."
Riggins played four years for Auburn and two seasons in the CFL. As a radio broadcaster, he was on the sideline both times the Tigers played for a national championship this decade, in Glendale, Arizona, following the 2010 season and at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to close out the 2013 campaign.
He never experienced an atmosphere anything like that 1989 Iron Bowl.
Running back James Joseph got so emotional trying to fire the team up in the locker room that he began hyperventilating. Riggins said there was so much adrenaline flowing through his body that his feet were numb throughout the first half. It was so loud that, if he wanted to talk to a teammate on the sideline, he had to yell directly into their ear. Fans the orange-and-blue shakers that had been left on every seat so furiously that a haze formed over the stands because of the dust coming off them.
“To be honest with you, there’s no way you can describe or put that feeling into words if you’re an Auburn person,” Housel said. “If you’re not an Auburn person, it’s just another big day. If you’re an Alabama person, I don’t know how it would feel. But for Auburn people, the emotion of that day cannot be put into words.”
Wayne Hall, a former Alabama linebacker who was then Auburn’s defensive coordinator, tried. Before the lineman, linebackers and fullbacks took the field before the game, he gathered them in the tunnel and told them, “You’re supposed to be the best, so don’t disappoint them.”
Joseph put Auburn up early with a 1-yard touchdown run after Reggie Slack’s 44-yard pass to Alexander Wright. Alabama led 10-7 at halftime, though, after quarterback Gary Hollingsworth (who finished with 340 yards and two touchdowns) found Marco Battle for an 18-yard score late in the second quarter.
The Tigers scored 20 unanswered points in the second half to take a 27-10 lead. The Crimson Tide fought back to make it 27-20 with 1:49 left to play, but running back Stacy Danley iced the game for the home team after it recovered an onside kick — he carried three times for 32 yards, which put Auburn in range for a game-clinching, 34-yard field goal from Win Lyle with 33 seconds remaining.
“Bo Jackson didn’t get to play Alabama at home. Greg Carr didn’t get to play Alabama at home. Joe Cribbs. None of those guys. Pat Sullivan,” Riggins said. “We got to play Alabama at home. We couldn’t lose that first game.”
After the game, Dye compared Auburn winning the Iron Bowl in its home stadium to the Berlin Wall coming down in Germany — “jubilation for days weeks on end.”
People made fun of Dye for saying that back then, Housel said, and it might not be an apt comparison today. But Auburn people understood.
Because until 1989, the Tigers were not in full control of their football program. They had won four SEC Championships and produced two Heisman Trophy winners (Sullivan and Jackson), but they were still letting someone else — Alabama — dictate where they played one of their home games every other year.
The 1989 Iron Bowl changed that. Auburn played only one more home game there, in 1991, as promised. Since 1993, the Iron Bowl has been played at Jordan-Hare Stadium every other year. It hasn’t been played in Birmingham since 1998 — every Alabama home game has been played at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa since 2002.
“The beautiful thing about it is, Auburn students of today and Auburn’s young people have not had to experience the indignity of being forced to go to Birmingham,” Housel said. “Now, it’s just routine to play Alabama here every other year.”
That’s why the impact of that 1989 Iron Bowl is still being felt 30 years later.
“I have a senior at Auburn. That’s all she’s talking about, is the game. She’s a War Eagle Girl. She’ll be on the field,” Riggins said. “It will be an emotional game for her. You can’t duplicate that at a neutral site.
“Coach Dye fighting and scratching to get that decision made to move the game — it was a decision, whether they knew it or not, that was bigger than football. The kids who watch Auburn come to Tuscaloosa and play; they will always have those memories. They will always be able to tell their kids what that was like. Likewise, my daughter will be able to tell her kids, her senior year, Alabama came to town.”