You could say I was born with a Crimson spoon in my hand. My father has always been an avid follower of the Crimson Tide and indoctrinated me from a young age. As a University of Alabama student in the early 1970s he was the first person in his family to go to college, but he had been to countless games before he even enrolled. His family wouldn’t go on trips that didn’t culminate in an Alabama football game—the question wasn’t “where are we going?” it was, “where is ‘Bama playing?”
In those days, Alabama was at the pinnacle of college football and consistently competed for championships. During a tenure that spanned from 1958 to 1982, Coach Bear Bryant was not only one of the most famous figures in all of sports, but also the most powerful man in the state of Alabama. A month after his death—only four weeks after his last game—President Regan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He won six national championships and 13 Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships during his tenure and retired with a higher win percentage than anyone in the history of college football.
Bear Bryant won hearts and minds all over Alabama and established in-state rival Auburn as the David to its Goliath. Bryant’s retirement left the Crimson Tide with plenty of goodwill, but his vacancy led to a long stretch of mediocrity on the field. ‘Bama only won one SEC championship and zero national championships between 1993 and 2009. I attended around 75 games with my dad during those years, and only half were Alabama victories. There was a brutal period from 2003 to 2008 where Alabama lost five straight times to its three biggest rivals: Auburn, LSU, and Tennessee.
Although times were tough, we tailgated every game as if we were competing for the biggest prize. Alabama football is as much about the pageantry as it is about the game. The cult following transcends all demographics, as long as you don’t wear an Auburn hat. It’s a time for family and friends to come together, laugh about the good times, drink a little beer, and if they’re lucky, maybe see Alabama not embarrass themselves. Regardless of the outcome, you’ll always see familiar faces the following Saturday.
Recently, though, we’ve been enjoying a golden era. Alabama has won two of the last three national championships, and we’re currently favored to win this season. This incredible reversal of fortune seems appropriate for the years of torment and torture that the fan base has endured. It seems to validate all of the long road trips that culminated in watching our favorite team get roughed up.
In the South, college football rivalries become allegories for entire states and for Alabama there are two that stand above the rest: LSU and Auburn. Our feud with LSU is relatively new. They weren’t a powerhouse team until the early 2000s when current Alabama coach Nick Saban made their program elite, leading them to a national championship in 2003. Prior to 1971, Alabama’s record against LSU is 25-15-1. Since 2000, though, we’ve gone 3-9. LSU and Alabama have four national championships between them (two each) since 2003 and continue to sit atop the college football world. Last year, Alabama, ranked number one at the time, played second-ranked LSU, lost 9-6, then played them again in the national championship—this time with the rankings reversed—and won 21-0.
I was at an LSU game back when Alabama wasn’t playing so hot and LSU had just come off a national championship. The expectations were low, but as always, we support our boys. As I reached our section, I noticed two middle aged LSU fans sitting in my seats. I approached them cheerily, assuming that they must have been mistaken and would gladly acknowledge their error. This was not the case. I got their attention and let them know that they had made a mistake. They informed me promptly that they had not made a mistake and planned on watching the game in their “new” seats. I had the tickets in my hand, but decided against getting help from a stadium employee. Instead, I took matters into my own hands. Naively thinking that as a 16-year-old boy I would be immune to any repercussions, I started jawing off with them about their choice in seats. They ignored my demands to evacuate. Being a teenager, I had to do something extreme to get their attention.
I remember what happened next vividly and question to this day why I did it. In an attempt to demand respect, I grabbed the LSU beanie from the man’s head and threw it to the ground. I remember looking back around to seek admiration from nearby witnesses. Imagine, a teenager standing up to a grown man!
That was the last thought I had before I was punched in the face. When I opened my eyes I was being helped up three rows down from where our argument had begun. The man who punched me was already being detained by police, which made me think I had been out for a little while.
Granted, I should not have removed his hat. You don’t touch another fan’s gear. Alabama lost the game and I left with a black eye.
The rivalry with LSU has become our most high profile, but it’s far from our most intense. That distinction goes to our feud with neighboring Auburn. The biggest game of the year will always be the Iron Bowl, played over Thanksgiving weekend between Alabama and Auburn. This in-state classic dissolves friendships and marriages for one day of the year and ensures bragging rights for the remaining 364. Although Alabama’s football history is richer than Auburn’s, the past decade has brought about radical change in the rivalry. Auburn has won two league titles and one national championship since the turn of the millenium. Not only have they been good, they have been dominating the Crimson Tide, going 8-4 against Alabama since 2000, including six in a row from 2002 to 2007. The winner of the Iron Bowl game has won the national championship each of the last three years.
Coming into the most recent Iron Bowl, Alabama was ranked No. 2 in the nation and Auburn was the defending national champion. Sitting in the Alabama visitor’s section, my family and I noticed that there were a few Auburn fans directly behind us, including a middle-aged man and woman couple. At first, nothing suggested that this would be anything but a civil coincidence of proximity. It quickly became apparent that the two were extremely drunk and had little expectation of a victory. It was clear that they were more interested in expressing aggressive school spirit than focusing on the game.
I had the pleasure of sitting in the row in front of them, directly in the crossfire. At first their behavior was sloppy and benign, but as the game went on they began to heckle my family aggressively. I decided to take the high road and ignore them. Towards the end of the third quarter, we noticed a distinct lack of commotion coming from behind us. The wife had clearly passed out from the alcohol and the husband was struggling to stay upright in his seat. In this moment of silence, we watched the end of the game in peace.
As Alabama built a massive lead, we realized that the couple had stirred from their daze and managed to sneak out of the stadium. A massive puddle sat where the two had been stationed.
Dixon Johns B’14 is an allegory for an entire state.