The History of Alabama football and Auburn: Part one, the Early Years

AUBURN - OCTOBER 16: Photo of the Auburn University logo at the top of Jordan-Hare Stadium during the game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Auburn Tigers on October 16, 2010 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
AUBURN - OCTOBER 16: Photo of the Auburn University logo at the top of Jordan-Hare Stadium during the game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Auburn Tigers on October 16, 2010 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images) /

The Alabama football history with the Auburn Tigers. Part one covers the early years and the dispute that ended the game for 41 years.

Throughout the realms defined by the fandoms of Alabama football and War Eagle, the annual contest between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers is an event second to none.  A few seasons, a national championship game is bigger, but not exponentially so.

For most fans of the two programs, losing a national championship game retains the honor of having made it to the game.  Nothing good is retained by losers of the Iron Bowl.  Losses can haunt fans and players for a lifetime.  The least pain to be endured by an Iron Bowl loss is the daily agony of disappointment and debasement that lasts until the next Iron Bowl.

Being professionals, coaches are expected to take both success and failure in stride, moving forward from either with equal disregard for the past.  The game’s history indicates that forward focus is a theoretical rather practical reality. For more than a few coaches the outcomes of Iron Bowls define their careers.  It has been this way for almost seven decades.

The contests before there was an Iron Bowl

The first Alabama – Auburn game in Legion Field was December 4th, 1948.  It was the thirteenth meeting in football between the schools. The teams first played in February 1893 at Lakeview Park in Birmingham. Auburn won that first contest and maintained the upper hand in the eleven games that followed, Auburn winning seven, Alabama four. What later became known as the Iron Bowl started with early games in Montgomery and Tuscaloosa and only twice in Birmingham.

Fears of violence, both on and off the field, were said to have caused the cancellation of the series after the 1907 game.  Similar concerns had threatened the very existence of the intercollegiate football game in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rules committees of mostly eastern coaches attempted to modify the rules and mollify the desires of numerous college Presidents. School Presidents sought to exert more control over the sport and in some cases lobbied vociferously for the game’s abolition.

In 1905 football fan President Theodore Roosevelt called to the White House, six men representing the ‘Big 3’; Yale, Harvard and Princeton.  The President provided a strong impetus for the existing Rules committee to save the game by discouraging brutal play and to a degree outlawing many of the “mass play” rules of the time.

Auburn and Alabama administrators in 1907 shared many of the same concerns about violence in football, but it was an intense dispute between the schools that caused the game’s abandonment. That irreconcilable dispute was over money; for player lodging and meals. The resulting schism took 41 years to repair.

Dispute over $34 of per diem and using ‘northern’ officials

In 1907 both sides agreed to a two dollar per day, per man reimbursement. For 17 man squads, those terms totaled $68.  While negotiating the terms of the 1908 contest, Auburn requested $3.50 per day for two days, for 22 players.  Alabama football countered with an offer of three dollars per day, for two days, but only for 20 players. The dispute over the $34 difference in the two proposals was compounded by a disagreement over the choice of officials.  Auburn, fearing prejudice by any officials residing within the state, demanded the officials be contracted from “northern” geographical areas.

The dispute fueled the already acrimonious relationships between the fans of both schools. The monetary deal points were eventually reconciled but with inordinate delay and the two schools failed to agree on a 1908 date for the game.

Once the expectation for an annual contest went unfulfilled, chances of reconciliation diminished with each passing season.  Instead, the oppositional dualities of good vs. evil (based upon the eye of the beholder) became entrenched across the state.

In the mid-1940’s the state of Alabama legislature made multiple unsuccessful attempts to force a renewal; even passing non-binding resolutions imploring the schools to resume play.  More than four decades and two World Wars passed before the two sides dodged the demons of their dispute.  Prior to the 1948 game, the two university Presidents, mindful of potential cuts in annual funding by a spurned legislature, met in Birmingham and literally buried a hatchet signifying a return to friendly relations off the field and the attendant return to battle on the gridiron.

Next: Why Alabama will beat Auburn

There are three more parts to our Iron Bowl history. Check in with us each morning this week as we offer a new segment on Alabama football in college football’s greatest rivalry.