Legion Field welcomes back the Auburn Tigers, who won't be happy to see it again
Have you ever watched highlights of the first two SEC Championship Games — in 1992 and 93 — and wondered why those games appear to be taking place in a poorly lit, freezing cold venue with rock hard turf?
Yeah … about that. The first two championship games for the Southeastern Conference — after the league added Arkansas and South Carolina, giving them 12 teams and the right to host a 13th game for the league championship — actually took place in Birmingham, at Legion Field, a sentence which makes no sense to the relatively new college football fan. Legion Field in 2015, after all, is mostly known as a) a decrepit old stadium in the middle of a lousy neighborhood; b) the home of UAB football (UAB football is still a thing as of this writing); c) the home of the least appealing bowl destination in all of college football (yes, worse than Montgomery or Shreveport).
That bowl game got a shot in the arm with Auburn’s disappointing 2015 — the Tigers have already sold out their allotment for their Birmingham Bowl date with Memphis, the first time the game has been a sellout in its brief history.
It shouldn’t have come to this. Go back and watch a game tape from the 1970s or 80s, and you’ll see a rollicking stadium that billed itself “Football Capital of the South,” and really meant it. It did play home to the Iron Bowl, but it also played home to Alabama’s biggest home games of the season — Tennessee and LSU didn’t come to Tuscaloosa until relatively recently — and served as an alternate host site for Auburn games, against Tennessee and Georgia Tech (the last Auburn-Tennessee game in Birmingham was 1978).
Aside from all the great Iron Bowls and the first two SEC Championship Games, Legion Field’s greatest moment may have come in November 1968, when Alabama whipped LSU in an afternoon game, only to have Auburn do the same to Tennessee that night. The Football Capital of the South, indeed.
Having extolled the virtues of the place, it’s worth noting that Auburn fans, for the most part, utterly hated Legion Field and resented having to play any games there at all. While romantics like me enjoy telling tales of the “50/50 split” in Birmingham, Auburn fans long complained that the crowd was always partisan in favor of the Tide, and even when Auburn “hosted” Alabama there in the late 80s — and in 1991, the last “home game” Auburn ever played at Legion — it felt like an Alabama crowd.
Birmingham, they’ll tell you, is an Alabama town; the Birmingham News is an Alabama paper; and Legion Field was always just Alabama’s home stadium, jersey colors be damned. They longed to get Alabama to come to Auburn, and finally did it in 1989.
Of course, the city of Birmingham helped make the decision easier by being too corrupt and cash-strapped to actually do anything that might have enticed people to want to go to the stadium; if anyone ever renovated the place, it never really showed. By the time I attended my first game there — the 1996 Iron Bowl — the building had long since outlived its usefulness.
Alabama continued to play a few token games in Birmingham now and again — the 2001 squad played a nasty game against Southern Miss there, on the Thursday after the Auburn game (it was postponed due to 9/11) — but when the city finally tore off the upper deck in 2003, that was that. Visit Greymont Avenue today, and you’d never know you were standing in the former Football Capital of the South.
Here’s hoping Auburn can pump a little bit of magic into the place, at least for a few hours.