Twenty-five years ago, a break occurred in the fabric of Alabama history, a political shift so monumental that former Auburn coach Pat Dye likened it to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and former Auburn athletic director David Housel compared it to the Israelites returning to the Promised Land.
This was in 1989, the year the Auburn-Alabama Iron Bowl rivalry dispensed with the pretense of being a “neutral-site” game; this was the year Auburn finally prevailed on its rival to play an alternating home-and-home series rather than meeting them at Legion Field in Birmingham, a location so skewed toward the Bama ethos that there is memorial to Bear Bryant in front of it. This was the year Auburn succeeded in achieving what they believed to be a more equitable rivalry, which is what the Tigers had been striving for since the early 1900s, and which gets at what every college football rivalry is really about: A tug of war between the haves and the have-nots.
It’s rivalry weekend in college football, and it might be the best time to tune in to the sport even if you don’t otherwise care, because these fascinating little class metaphors will play out all over the country. The Iron Bowl is one of the archetypal rivalry setups in college football, an agricultural institution versus a prestigious university, a farm college versus a society school. But even if your rivalry of choice doesn’t fit that particular template, it still adheres to the general principles: There is one school that regards itself as more privileged than the other, and there is one school with a perpetual chip on its shoulder.
Occasionally these roles can even fold back upon one another, depending on circumstances: One of the most remarkable tricks of Kevin Rafferty’s excellent documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is that he somehow manages to successfully portray the Harvard football team – Harvard! – as the scrappy underdogs of this particular game, in 1968. And so it will go in several places this weekend.
In Mississippi, for instance, the “cow college” (Mississippi State) is on the verge of playing for a national championship, while the school of the upper crust (Ole Miss) can do nothing but play spoiler. In Ohio, the only consolation the bourgeois Michigan fanbase has at the end of Brady Hoke’s mediocre tenure as coach is the slim prospect of ruining Ohio State’s season; and in Florida, the Gators and their lame-duck coach will look to defeat what was once a women’s college, a school that the Florida administration was determined to treat as a second-class institution until the governor and state legislature stepped in and forced them to play football against each other.
It doesn’t even matter if most of the members of the current student body – and hell, most of the alumni – are not aware of the historic origins of their hatred. Because it’s there. Because that primordial feeling of being slighted (or being the slighter) still presides over everything.
The Iron Bowl, of course, is the premier rivalry in the sport at the moment, which means you’ll be hearing a good deal about the inherent improbabilities of last year’s Iron Bowl, as well you should. But if you are only familiar with the recent history of the Iron Bowl, you might make the presumption that Auburn and Alabama were always essentially on equal footing. You might not be aware, for instance, the Auburn and Alabama did not play each other for four decades between 1907 and 1948, while the state legislature (dominated by Bama men) repeatedly attempted to strangle funding for a school they looked down upon as an outpost for farmers and blue-collar workers.
Finally, in 1947, the legislature recommended the rivalry be resumed. Auburn lost 55-0 in 1948, and then won the next year, and after struggling for decades under the fist of Bear Bryant, the Tigers began to equalize things in the 1980s.
Really, there is no reason the Tigers should win this year’s edition of the Iron Bowl: They come into the game reeling and exhausted, and Alabama comes in having established itself as the best team in the country. They are again the clear underdog. But this is the beauty of rivalry week: Because that underlying current of resentment carries through the generations – because the student bodies of these schools often hate each other for reasons they cannot fully express – the games take on an importance that’s incomparable to anything else in American sport.
Rivalry week is about the oft-checkered history of American higher education, and about the struggle for egalitarianism; rivalry week is about someone else thinking they’re better than you are, or about you thinking that you’re better than someone else, which is pretty much the basis for every political argument you’ll be engaging in with visiting relatives this weekend. If you’re looking for an outlet for all that pent-up rage, it’s right there, on your television set.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb