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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Iron Bowl Part Two - 1948-2007 Overview

During the long layoff from 1907 to 1948, there were a number of attempts to renew the historic rivalry. In 1908, the two teams agreed to compromise on the financial issues that lingered after 1907, but there was a total scheduling debacle and the season lapsed. In 1911, Alabama offered to play but Auburn declined. In 1923 again the offer was made, but Auburn president Dr. Spright Dowell turned it down, saying that the game would be a tilt that would overshadow all others, making any other contest insignificant every year. In 1944, it was Auburn who offered, but Alabama who turned it down. The UA board of trustees thought that renewal of the rivalry would only lead to unhealthy "rumor and rancor" between the two schools, and that it would be impossible for either school to hire quality coaches, as the intensity of the Iron Bowl would surely make any good coach skittish.

And oh how wrong they all were. The citizens of Dixie hungered for renewal of that fierce contest. Put it to you this way: between 1944 and 1948, there were several legislative interventions to try and force the two schools to play. That's right. The state government of Alabama (in its enduring wisdom) thought it necessary to legislate the Iron Bowl into existence.

I don't know if they were tired of legislative meddling, or if they finally realized that the Iron Bowl would not feed but rather would lance the boil of "rumor and rancor" that has forever existed between the two schools. But in 1948, the presidents of the two schools agreed to renew the rivalry. A ceremony was held in Birmingham by the student governments of both schools, in which an actual hatchet was physically buried.

But that hatchet wasn't put in the dirt to end differences. It represented the transposition of that rivalry from off-the-field issues into on-the-field combat. Later that year, Alabama beat Auburn 55 to nothing and the gladiatorial contest had begun anew.

Interesting stats: of the 16 coaches 1948 and beyond, only three have won their first Iron Bowl: Stallings, Bowden, and Franchione. And, of the 16 coaces 1948 and beyond, only four have a winning Iron Bowl record: Drew, Bryant, Stallings, and Tuberville. For one thing, that means that Saban's off the hook for a little while. First, almost no one wins their first Iron Bowl. Second, he's facing the winningest Iron Bowl coach since Gene Stallings, and the best one Auburn's ever had. Shug Jordan went 9-16. Pat Dye broke even at 6-6. Tuberville is our only coach of the post-war era to have a winning record. And he's got the best record in the Iron Bowl since (gulp) Bear Bryant.

Take a look at this chart:
It's a little busy. Allow me to explain. The long blue line is the "lead" Auburn enjoys over Alabama. A tick up is an Auburn win, a tick down is an Auburn loss. The horizontal bars are the coaches' tenures (orange for Auburn, red for Alabama.) And, the vertical lines also punctuate coaching changes (blue for Auburn, red for Alabama.) The long orange line is a polynomial fit to the "Auburn lead" line, which really doesn't add much but makes trends a little clearer. For those of you who, like me, are nerds, I put the R^2 value up (it's a decent fit.)

So what do we notice, right away?

We notice the Bear.

There are essentially three sections to this graph. The first encompasses Auburn coach Brown and the first part of Jordan's career as well as Bama coaches Drew and Whitworth. The third encompasses most of Dye's tenure as well as Bowden's and Tuberville's for the Plainsmen, and everyone from Perkins to Saban for the Reds. These two sections are pretty comparable, with upticks and hard-fought coaching wars. But in the middle, there is Paul Bear Bryant, who really owned the Iron Bowl. Shug Jordan, for whom our altar of pain is named, struggled valiantly to beat Bryant, and did so only five times (one of which being the amazing Punt Bama Punt game.)
Just look at the graph - there is a huge, dramatic downturn in Auburn football that represents the Bear. It is two shelves separated by a long, painful decline.

So as much as they're absolutely crazy....'s easy to understand why Bama fans worship Bryant to this day. He took the Iron Bowl and made it his own in a way that will likely never happen again. Forget the neshnul chempunships for a minute. Alabama is a state whose government worked to force the intrastate football rivalry to resume. It's a place where four hours of split-second nationally-televised decisions made by kids in their early twenties entitle you to rub your enemy's nose in defeat for the remaining 364.83 days of the year. It's a warzone. And Bryant knew that, famously remarking he'd rather lose to Texas twice than Auburn once.

To go along with that, notice the pattern of coaching changes. Auburn typically has relatively long coaching periods separated by relatively short coaching periods. Jordan, Dye, and Tuberville have all had pretty long tenures, and Brown, Barfield (thank God,) and Bowden enjoyed comparatively shorter stints on the Plains. However, Alabama has changed coaches six times since the Bear left Tuscaloosa. Granted, that's not all due to a lack of Iron Bowl domination, and off-the-field issues have played a large role in forcing Bama coaches to pack up. But I just wonder how much they're looking for the reincarnation of ol' Paul...

Goldangit, Phyllis - this might be the next Bear!

Thankfully, we Auburn fans aren't rabid enough to indulge in such idolatry. Even though Tuberville has a 7-2 record in the Iron Bowl (better than anyone but Bryant...) we're not likely to canonize him any time soon. Granted, we do have a life-size representation of the famous "Bo Over the Top" play, complete with accurate numbers, dimensions, and poses, but hey, we keep that in the museum.

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