Flag Wars: An Auto Anatomy of the Rivalry Between Auburn and Alabama

Kevin StricklandCorrespondent INovember 3, 2009

The Monday afternoon following Auburn's loss to Kentucky, a caller to a regional sports radio show who identified himself as a proud supporter of the Tiger's rival Alabama Crimson Tide offered the following bit of snarkiness:

"Well at least one thing come out of Kentucky beating Aubren (apparently pronouncing Auburn in this manner is a speech impediment suffered by a vast majority of the Crimson Tide fanbase),"  the caller opined. 

"What's that?" the host lobbed the softball. 

"Well, we won't have to see no more of them Aubren flags on the cars. I hadn't seen one since Saturday, heh, heh, heh."  

The host, stirring the pot, chuckled along and launched a diatribe about the bandwagon nature of Auburn fans. 

Granted the radio show in question caters to the absolute bottom of the barrel, the most crass, the least educated and worst mannered fragments of the respective Auburn and Alabama fanbases, but the caller's complete and total ignorance of the irony of his assertion is worth examination. 

After a recent move from a town neighboring Tuscaloosa to another about four hours away, one of the primary benefits was escaping the cloying presence of Bama fans who made up the vast majority. 

The difference was readily apparent. A car sporting a flag or magnet in the new locale was just as likely to support Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss or Tennessee as it was to pay homage to the Tide. 

For a family that had been drowning in Crimson for years, it was a breath of fresh air. 

All that changed about four weeks into the 2008 season.  Where once you might have seen one or two Bama-bedecked vehicles, suddenly there were four or five. 

By the end of the regular season, the number of Tide-tricked autos had multiplied like drunken tribbles. 

At a redlight across from a South Alabama shopping mall in December, there were 37 easily observable pieces of Bama flair winking from the vehicles waiting on the change. 

The mall parking lot looked like a houndstooth mushroom field, with flags popping up from car after car. 

Fast foward to the Monday after the SEC Championship loss to Florida. Same redlight. Same approximate time.  A solitary tattered Bama flag fluttered limply from the window of a truck.  The remainder of the flags, magnets and stickers had been stored away. 

The mall parking lot, still packed with Christmas shoppers, had seemingly been mowed.  Where hundreds of flags once sprouted, not a single car flag was visible.  It was like the flag rapture had come in the night. 

There's no doubt that some chagrined Auburn fans stowed away their Tiger flags after the Kentucky Wildcats reduced the team to rubble, but that's hardly an Auburn-exclusive phenomenon. 

How do you know when Alabama's winning? You can smell the mothballs in the air. 

There is no greater rivalry in college football than that between Auburn and Alabama. None can match the passion, the sheer unadulterated hate, the rancor and ferocity the Tigers and Tide share.  The only rivalry in all of sport that comes close is the ongoing feud between baseball's New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. 

What both Tiger and Tide fans miss, however, is that in reality their fanbases are not significantly dissimilar.  They come from the same towns, shop in the same stores, go to the same schools, work shoulder to shoulder and (too often) intermarry. 

Each group of fans earnestly believes it has  moral superiority, that its fans are just a bit better than that other rabble. And they trust with all their hearts that the rest of the nation sees things exactly as they do. 

Each has its claim to gridiron glory.

The Tide proudly tout twelve national championships.  

Auburn fans scoff at the number, pointing out the dubious nature of most of the so-called titles.  It's a valid argument.  How can the Tide expect to be taken seriously when it claims a title in 1941, a year the team finished with two losses, was third in the SEC and ranked 20th in the AP poll? 

Auburn takes the moral high ground noting that the Tigers could claim seven titles if they counted in the same manner as their rivals, but Auburn acknowledges just one. 

The Tigers grandly point to a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Bo Jackson (1985) and Pat Sullivan (1971). 

Alabama fans snort, insisting that football is a team game and that 21 SEC titles trump any number of Heismans. Again, a valid argument.  But don't kid yourself. Bama fans would love to have a Heisman winner to put in the books. It's why they foolishly try to argue that Shaun Alexander, a fine tailback, was on par with Auburn's Jackson, one of the greatest players in the history of the game.  It's like comparing the Taco Bell Chihuahua to Cujo. 

When you examine the two fanbases, however, you do find cultural differences. 

The average Alabama fan is less likely to have attended the school than the average Auburn fan. 

The reasons for this are myriad, but a primary factor is the prevalence of sidewalk legacy fans, people who support Alabama for no other reason than they were raised to do so by their parents, who were taught to do so by theirs. 

Alabama's greatest era of football coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the state of Alabama. 

During the 60s and early 70s, Alabama was doing what the rest of the state could not. The Tide won. Against a backdrop of simmering racial tensions and national scorn in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the Alabama football team gave the rank and file working man of the state something to be proud of, a reason to hold his head up. 

Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide showed the country that people in Alabama and by extension the South had more to offer than dogs and firehoses. 

By winning on the football field and giving the residents of the state a reason to be hold their heads high, the Tide won the hearts and souls of people for whom there was little else to celebrate during a time of societal upheaval. 

As he guided his teams to victory, Bryant was elevated to god-like status.  Fandom became worship. His deification continues unabated. 

Auburn fans respected Shug Jordan, who spent 25 years at the Tiger helm.  They revere Pat Dye who rebuilt the program after it had declined. They admire Tommy Tuberville for his development of the program and successful ten-year tenure. But none of them are idolized in the way Alabama fans objectify Bryant. 

You won't find Auburn fans flocking to purchase khaki porkpie hats like those favored by Jordan. 

Conversely, you can't escape an abundance of houndstooth, the pattern identified with Bryant.  Hats, dresses, shoes, sunglasses, underwear all sport the checked design. 

You won't find an Auburn fan with a tattoo of  Dye stretching across his entire back. The tattooed Bryant fan exists, as anyone who's ever watched a Tide pregame knows. 

Recently, Bama fans rushed to stores to purchase straw hats when current head coach Nick Saban wore one to practice.  If his success continues, there may one day be a giant straw hat sitting atop Bryant-Denny-Saban Stadium.  

Tide fans mock Auburn as a "cow college" due to its agricultural beginnings. 

Funny. Except there are more cows in Tuscaloosa County, which Alabama calls home, than there are in Lee County where Auburn resides. 

Auburn fans deride Alabama fans as cousin-loving, tobacco-chawing, ill mannered rubes. 

Funny. Stereotypes exist for a reason. 

Alabama fans proudly boast of a nine-game winning streak over Auburn in the 1970s, an era of Tide dominance.  Collectively, Tide fans believe it is their birthright to dominate lowly Auburn and for that matter the rest of the college football world. 

They dismiss Auburn's recent six-game winning streak over the Tide on the basis that Alabama was on probation. 

Auburn fans snicker at Alabama's claim of dominance.  Yes, the Tide leads the overall series 39-33-1, but 19 of those wins came during the Bryant era.  Remove that span from the mix and Auburn owns the series by a wide margin.  Auburn won more before and has won more since Bryant was Alabama head coach. 

Bryant retired from Alabama in 1982, nearly 30 years ago. Hard to claim dominance or superiority when you are sub-.500 against your rival for three decades. 

Tiger backers also point out that much of the dominance during that span was accomplished when Auburn was on probation.  What's good for the goose is good for the gander. 

None of that really matters in the long run. 

Tomorrow morning Alabama and Auburn fans will wake up hating their rival just as much as they did when they went to sleep the night before.  They'll refuse to wear crimson or orange or blue, depending on their allegiance. They'll believe every negative word about their rival while rejecting anything negative about their own team.  They'll teach their children to carry the same permanent chip of loathing on their shoulder, often without knowing exactly why they hate their rivals, but just knowing that they do. 

And when they retire for the night, they'll do so thanking the stars in heaven that they aren't a fan of that other school. 

It's what keeps the rivalry thriving. It's what keeps the sports talk radio shows buzzing. Its what makes the Alabama and Auburn feud college football's best—even if fans of both schools occasionally hide their flags in despair. 


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