Iron Bowl Publicity Leads to Research on Alabama Politicians With a Gridiron Background

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Greg Markley

By GREG MARKLEY

It happened a few days after I arrived at Fort McClellan, Alabama, in November 1989 to serve as editor of The McClellan News and enlisted leader in public affairs. My boss asked me which team I was rooting for in the Iron Bowl that  Dec. 2, the first time at Auburn instead of at the usual site of Birmingham.

“I don’t care who wins, it doesn’t matter to me,” I said as my supervisor Mike stood horrified. He soon said, “I have never heard anybody say that around here.”

Growing up in the turbulent 1960s, I heard a little about Bear Bryant, the great UA coach, and his star quarterbacks Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. But I was more interested in news about government and politics, and baseball was my favorite sport to play and watch on TV.

Now 32 years later, I answer the question of what team I support by “Auburn, of course. I received a grad degree there, after all.”

Counting in 1989, Auburn has won 11 of the 13 games that were held here. In the rivalry that began in 1893, results show Alabama winning 47 times and Auburn 37 times, with one tie.

Before moving to Anniston in 1989, I was stationed in Panama for 13 months. It was a difficult year for soldiers and their families, as a war was brewing with strongman Manuel Noriega against the United States. Over the summer, to spread morale and have fun, the Army took on the Air Force in a football contest.

 I was there to write a feature about the activities outside of the actual game. The Air Force confidently said, “We will win because we have a ‘secret weapon.'”

You can imagine how the Army folks were scratching our heads trying to find out what the “secret weapon” was.

As the third quarter began, Air Force players ran onto the field — and they were ALL new players. They were well-rested and not tired from playing in the tropical heat. The Army coach challenged the “secret weapon” of fielding an all-new team. But bringing on a completely new team was not addressed in guidance, so the AF won that debate and the game, too.

Amid the excitement here in Auburn,  I decided to look into the biographies for Alabama governors since 1960 and U.S. senators from the state since 1960. Of the 11 governors, only one had a football background in high school or post-secondary school. His name: Fob James, a native of Lanett.

James played football at Auburn under head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan. He was an All-American halfback in 1955. The next year, he played professional football in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes. Turning to the nine U.S. senators from our state, only one was either a player or a coach in football. You get  it  —
U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville. An Arkansas native, Tuberville is the only coach in Auburn football history to beat Alabama six consecutive times.

Once while doing research at the University of Alabama, I got sick with an unknown illness (probably cold-related and not dangerous). So I ended up at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa. Everything worked out nicely, I was probably just under the weather.

 I told the emergency room doctor, “I am glad you did not find out I live in Auburn.” He replied: “No, I did know from your chart that you live in Auburn, but I didn’t say so until now.”

 I had visited the Paul W. Bryant Museum that very day and noted that he had died of a heart attack at Druid in 1983.

“So I thought if he died here himself, you may not make out all the stops to save me.”

The doctor laughed; he knew I was kidding!

Incidentally, the day before a Crimson Tide home game 10 years ago, a man and his young son were standing in front of Bear Bryant’s desk saved from his office. Suddenly, the man fell to his knees and started praying for a few minutes at the museum. When he was done, I asked him why he was praying that day in front of that exhibit. He said, “I always stop here before a game and pray to Bear for a safe game and even better, for the Tide to win!”

Three decades have passed since my conversation about the Iron Bowl with my civilian boss at Fort McClellan. Now I recognize the long rivalry does indeed matter. It beats in the hearts of Auburn and Alabama fans wherever they may live. It just happens that Alabama’s other legendary coach, Nick Saban, would not be happy with my choice of team.   

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 12 years.  gm.markley@charter.net      

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