History is a river and sometimes we float along without realizing that we are on the same river, but not in the same place.
The Alabama-Auburn rivalry has had more twists and turns than most rivers do, including a stretch of nearly 40 years where it didn’t run at all — or at least it ran underground, until it emerged again in 1948.
Almost immediately, the river was raging. For the next 50 years or so, the season-ending game was the defining sports moment in the state. Winning mattered. Losing mattered more, so much so that a coach’s employment could only survive so many losses. Every community in the state, from Mentone to Bay Minette, had citizens who celebrated the outcome and others who lamented the result until the time came to start talking about the next year’s game — immediately for the losing side, a few months later for the winners. The heroes were often known by a single name — Snake, Bo, Tiffin, Tillman.
There would usually be a bowl game for one or both of the teams but as Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once put it, “if we can’t beat Auburn, I’d rather stay home and plow.” At his introductory press conference in 2007, Nick Saban spoke of Auburn, not by name, but obviously by inference when he said “we have an opponent in this state that we work every day, 365 days a year, to dominate. That’s our goal.”
Saban has lived up to the promise to work every day, certainly, and if one can quibble about whether Alabama has “dominated” Auburn in his tenure, he has certainly been successful. But is it the same rivalry that it was in 1967, or 1987, or even 2007?
Let’s be clear. I would never take the position that the Alabama vs. Auburn game “doesn’t matter,” even if the outcome isn’t apocalyptic in the way it once was. The circumstances that allowed Alabama to lose the game in 2017 and still win the College Football Playoff were unusual (although the same scenario is not out of the question this year, either.) Yes, Alabama might have three games left after Saturday. Yes, those games would all have championship implications. The national perspective on this game is that Auburn might cause “chaos,” but that doesn’t differentiate the game from Clemson-South Carolina or Notre Dame-USC. But if you live in this state, or are a part of the Alabama or Auburn diaspora around the world, there is still something more about this game than there was about equally “significant” games like Alabama-LSU or Alabama-Mississippi State.
The playoff has changed things. Nick Saban’s approach — play to a standard instead of basing motivation on the opponent — has changed things. The world has changed. The rivalry is in a different place. But the river is the same river — and it does still run through this state.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.