SEC and Big Ten Rivalries Run Deep for College Football Loyalists
I was introduced to the Iron Bowl in 1982. My dad scored two tickets, and my mom never forgave him for taking me instead of her. The game was dramatic, to say the least.
Bo Jackson went over the top. Auburn snapped Alabama's nine-year domination with a 23-22 win. And to the shock of everyone, Paul "Bear" Bryant coached his penultimate game.
It wasn't just a game. It was an experience.
As we left Legion Field, people danced in the streets in celebration. And I watched grown men cry in agony. College football doesn't get more intense than that—at least that's been my sacred belief for nearly four decades.
I was raised in Iron Bowl country. All my life I knew Auburn and Alabama hated each other, but for many years I didn’t even realize other rivalries existed. Loyal fans in the Midwest probably grew up thinking the same thing,
Now my faith is in question, and I'm led to wonder . . . Is the Iron Bowl really the rivalry to beat all rivalries? Is it possible that Ohio State and Michigan fans could even compete with the intense hatred?
Longtime Buckeye fan Ryen Valentine moved from Ohio to Birmingham to play tennis at UAB. He's lived in Alabama for a decade, but his loyalties remain up north. He insists the Big Ten rivalry is more intense.
"I think it's a bigger rivalry because year to year the teams are better," says Valentine, who has been known to make the 7 1⁄2-hour drive just to be in the stadium parking lot for the Ohio State-Michigan game. "Every year, the game means something important to one or both of the teams. There's always something on the line.
"I've lived in both places, and it just seems to me that there is more hate with the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. You're just raised to hate the other team. And you don't come in contact with them every day . . .you don't live among them. There is a state line that divides us. And you don't just hate the school, you hate the whole state of Michigan. I don't even want to go over there. I just get a funny feeling whenever I cross over that line and realize I'm in Michigan."
The actions of legendary OSU coach Woody Hayes might have inspired that sentiment. He once admitted that he would have his team buses pull over just before the state line to top off the tanks so he wouldn't have to spend any money in Michigan.
College football fans in Alabama make a passionate plea for the importance of their own rivalry.
Alabama fan Sherry Shealy went into labor at the 1992 Iron Bowl and refused to leave Legion Field until the game was decided. Her daughter was born early the next morning and a week later she was back in the stands watching her team win the inaugural SEC Championship Game. And even a 5-week-old baby couldn't stop her from getting to New Orleans to see Alabama bring in the New Year with a national title.
"Our seats were in the second to the top row of the upper deck, and it was not easy carrying 30 extra pounds up all those steps. But I just couldn't miss the Iron Bowl," she says. "I love being part of the crowd and part of the history. There is just no way that I would miss that game. I can remember after that game we were all cheering and laughing, and all the Auburn fans were crying. It was great!"
After recounting the story, about five minutes passed before Shealy called back. "I may have sounded too nice," she said. "The truth is, I really hate Auburn. Whenever we win, I just want to rub it in their faces. When Auburn plays someone else, I pull for the other team. I mean, I really hate them. Make sure you print that!"
Don Lambert is a 1972 Auburn graduate and has attended 48 consecutive Iron Bowls.
"It's a mission for me," says the Florence, Ala., architect, who once owned burnt-orange Irish setters named Sullivan and Beasley. Auburn fans will understand the significance of this.
"I just can't miss it. In this state, you are almost forced to choose one side or another and then it's just who you are. I can understand the Ohio State-Michigan dynamic, but there's just no way it can be as big a rivalry for them.
"We truly have this issue of bragging rights. The next day we go to church with our rivals, and then see them at work on Monday morning. And if you're on the losing end you have to hear it for an entire year.
"They have a bigger fan base because it's just more people. But our rivalry transcends all that because usually we're not playing for anything of national circumstance. The bragging rights are a real thing and that one game can make or break your recruiting for the next year."
Lambert's son, Christopher, was an Auburn fan before he could walk. Like his dad, he finds it hard to miss an Iron Bowl. The 32-year-old Birmingham accountant has been to 25 of them. His first was in 1989, the first year the game was played in Auburn.
"I'll never forget that day," the younger Lambert, a 2004 Auburn graduate, says, "Alabama came into that game 10-0, but I never thought we would lose it. The Auburn fans just refused to let that happen at Jordan- Hare. I remember the haze over the stadium at dusk and all the paper shakers.
"As an Auburn fan, you really take this game personally. When we lose, I feel physically sick. I feel like I just got sucker punched in the stomach. Other games I really look forward to, but when we play Alabama I almost can't even enjoy the game. . . it just means so much. I'm not on the field, and I have nothing to do with whether we win or lose, but as an Auburn fan I still take ownership of the game and of the outcome."
Big Ten enthusiasts contend their biggest rivalry carries the emotional element, as well.
"I think that because it's state against state, it just makes it bigger," says Paul Beaudry, a Birmingham-based journalist, who covered the Wolverines for Michigan newspapers for 10 years. "There is so much hatred among those fans. I mean there is legitimate hate between them. I've gone to two games in Columbus, and I always get a rental car without Michigan tags because those Ohio State fans are intense.
"Ohio Stadium is probably the most electric place to watch a football game. In many ways, Ohio State is Columbus' pro franchise. I've been in Alabama for many years now, and all I can say about the Auburn- Alabama game is, 'It's a fun little game.' "
As with most Alabama and Auburn loyalists, it's not just about a love for your own team, but a venomous hatred for the other team.
"Put it this way," explains 1982 graduate and Tide enthusiast Larry Filippini. "If Auburn was playing the Russians, I'd cheer for Russia. I just hate them. I always have. It's culture versus agriculture."
Filippini rarely misses an Alabama-Auburn matchup, but has also witnessed an Ohio State-Michigan game live. "It was awesome. I think those guys have an equal passion for winning, but because the Iron Bowl is an instate rivalry, you just have to go one way or the other. You have to choose an allegiance, so you may as well choose a good one and pick Alabama."
Jerry Smith was born and reared in Ohio and graduated from Ohio State in 1980. Even though he has lived and worked in Alabama for almost 30 years, he believes nothing can match the Midwest rivalry.
"I guess the biggest difference I've noticed between the rivalries is that the Alabama-Auburn game is talked about more all year long," Smith says. "But during game week, I think the intensity is greater with Ohio State-Michigan. When I was in school I was a resident in the athletic dorms and the security had to be seriously increased when it was time for the Michigan game. These two teams really hate each other, and the fans hate each other.
"We've always said that the only sign of intelligent life in Michigan is the sign that says 'Columbus 187 miles.'"
Mike Chase grew up in Ohio, but became a Wolverine fan when family friends gave his parents Michigan season tickets. He now lives in Alabama.
"Around here you teach your kids to say 'Roll Tide' or 'War Eagle' really young," he says. "It's the same with Michigan and Ohio State fans. You have to establish an allegiance. It is definitely a heated rivalry. Michigan goes down to Ohio to recruit a lot of high school kids. And once those guys cross that line, they are considered defectors and can never go back."
Win or lose, fans from all three states agree the memories of the epic battles leave imprints that last a lifetime.
"I remember my first Michigan-OSU game," Smith says. "I was 7 years old and it was 10 degrees, or it seemed like it. I remember how cold it was, and Woody Hayes was wearing a short-sleeve shirt—just like my dad said he would. OSU lost, and I thought the world would end."
So I'm convinced. The Midwest rivalry is perhaps as intense as the one I grew up with. Maybe there's no fair way to truly compare rivalries when so much heart and soul are invested.
Let’s find out. What do you consider to be the most intense college football rivalry?
Michelle Segrest has been a professional journalist for 25 years. In the early 1990s, she covered the SEC for three Alabama daily newspapers. Her beat coverage included the University of Alabama's 1992 national title run. She is a graduate of Auburn University. A version of Segrest’s article on these college football rivalries was originally published by LindysSports.com on Friday, November 17, 2006. It has been rewritten and updated using her original interviews and permission has been granted for repurposed publication.