Alabama, Auburn and the Iron Bowl that set the stage for Nick Saban’s dynasty


He doesn’t remember which phone he had. He thinks it might have been the iPhone 3G, though he’s not positive. But he clearly remembers the text message that was on it that day, the picture he received on Nov. 29, 2008.

As he sat in the home locker room inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama left guard Mike Johnson was locked in. It was the redshirt junior’s fourth season with the Crimson Tide, and though his team was ranked No. 1 in the country with a date already set to play No. 2 Florida the following week in the SEC Championship Game, Johnson wanted badly to beat the 5-6 team in front of him.

Johnson arrived at Alabama in 2005 and for three years thought he’d be on the team that ended the losing streak to Auburn. Instead, it grew. There was the “Sack Brodie” game in 2005 that pushed the losing streak to four. Then the “Fear the thumb” game in 2006 where it stretched to five. In Nick Saban’s first season in 2007, Alabama lost its sixth in a row, Auburn’s longest winning streak in Iron Bowl history.

So as he sat in the locker room preparing for the day’s 2:30 CT CBS broadcasted game, Johnson couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw what the photo to his phone revealed.

On the other side of the stadium, where opponents exit a bus and walk into the visiting locker room, Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville held up seven fingers, symbolizing what the streak would reach with a win that day. Johnson was shocked.

He showed his teammates. They joked that Tuberville was holding the number of fingers that showed how many losses the Tigers would have after the day’s game had been completed.

Nick Saban won his first Iron Bowl in 2008 and is 10-5 in the rivalry. (Doug Benc / Getty Images)

The six-game losing streak to Auburn was psychologically damaging to the Alabama program and to its fan base. After the streak went to five, Alabama fired head coach Mike Shula at the end of the 2006 season. That was in no small part because he never beat LSU or Auburn. But it was mainly Auburn. Going 0-4 against the Tigers was a sin too great from which to be cleansed.

But Saban lost his first Iron Bowl too. So the 2008 Iron Bowl was in many way therapeutic for the entire Alabama program.

That year was different, and the teams knew it.

“During the previous six years, we were probably an average 6-6 team,” quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “I know we were pretty good (in 2005) and went to the Cotton Bowl, but other than that we were a struggling team. That year we had already secured our place in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. The game really was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but the biggest game of the year that we played in.”

The scene was set before the teams even took the field.

It was an overcast day, and a fine mist in the air and a light fog hung over the stadium. Country music singer Sara Evans sang the national anthem. The emotion was established in pregame too.

Former Crimson Tide star running back Siran Stacy (1989-91) was the honorary captain and delivered the game ball. A year earlier, his wife and four of his five children were killed in a horrific car accident. When he came onto the field, the reaction of the crowd overwhelmed him and he began jumping up and down and then sprinted to the north end zone waving his arms above his head and hyping the crowd up. It was a wild, emotional scene that precipitated what was to come.

The game was one-sided. Alabama won 36-0, ending the losing streak and propelling the Crimson Tide into Atlanta the following week for a truly great SEC Championship Game against Florida.

Auburn was held to 170 yards of total offense and was shut out for the first time since 2003, when the Tigers were beaten 23-0 at the hands of USC. Alabama ran for 234 yards, led by Glen Coffee’s 144, which included a 41-yard touchdown during which he was not touched.

That game and whole season established Alabama as a more physically imposing team than nearly everyone it played. It was a message certainly delivered to Auburn that day.

“We were well prepared,” Johnson said. “I think that was the thing that sticks out to me. They ran a blitz into one of our inside zone runs. I remember Glen Coffee scored on it. They ran a blitz like a cross dog inside against us, and, I mean, we were so well prepared for that that we literally called it out before they even moved. We picked it up. Andre (Smith) ended up getting a slanting defensive tackle. I picked up a linebacker and I don’t think Glen was touched.”

It was repeated all game: Alabama the sledge hammer and Auburn the object. Six years of futility and embarrassment, all let out on a day that ended the streak.

When the game ended, the Million Dollar Band played “Rammer Jammer” six times. It’s unclear if that was symbolic of the six-year losing streak ending or just the jubilation of playing it as many times as they could.

No one in the stands left the blowout early. They stayed and they sang and they took pictures with the scoreboard in the background. Players hung around on the field and even came back onto the field to take pictures to remember this day.

Saban added to the nostalgia of the game by tipping his hat to his players, knowing what the game meant to all of them.

Alabama outgained Auburn 412 to 170 in 2008. (Doug Benc / Getty Images)

In the fourth quarter, as the offense was running out the clock, Saban pulled the starters one by one to allow them a moment to soak it in with the crowd.

“What I remember the most about the end of that game is we had the ball and it was typical that we ran four-minute offense for the entire fourth quarter usually that season,” Johnson said. “I mean, we were good at running the ball and our M.O. was it doesn’t matter if there’s 10 minutes left in the game, we’re gonna get in a four-minute mode. We’re gonna run the ball down your throat, we’re gonna rip off 4 and 5 yards at a time. And that’s just how we went about business.

“But I remember us being in a four-minute drill, and I think the first person they took out was (center) Antoine Caldwell. And this is in the middle of the drive, like play by play. Then I want to say they took out maybe Andre Smith. This was by design, in retrospect. They were taking us out one by one, kind of a chance for us to soak it in and kind of get a little ovation as you come off. And I had never experienced anything like that because we’d never be in that kind of situation. We had never run away with any of these games. Coach Saban was kind of letting us soak it in a little bit and one by one took us out. You kind of get the hugs from people coming off the field. You hug your coaches and some of your teammates, and I remember getting off the field and looking around and thinking, ‘This is what this feels like.’”

Johnson has the photo in his home of when he came out of the locker room to go back on the field with his teammates after the game was over. Wilson has the front page of The Tuscaloosa News from that game. It was a program-changing year.

That team didn’t win a championship. It played a classic game against Florida before the Gators pulled away in the fourth quarter. It lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. But that team is credited with building the foundation of the long-lasting Crimson Tide dynasty, with the first of six national titles won a year later and a 10-4 record in the Iron Bowl since then stretching up to this Saturday’s game in Tuscaloosa. It’s legacy that means a lot to them.

“When I get around Antoine Caldwell and Rashad (Johnson), we talk about how we didn’t win the national championship, but man we are so proud of what we did and sticking with it and being leaders,” Wilson said. “That’s essentially our legacy, right, of being the team to turn it around.”

Johnson still laughs at how that picture of Tuberville came to his phone. He laughs at how foolish it was of Tuberville, who resigned a few days after the loss.

“I remember they were 5-6 at the time and how they were gonna get their seventh loss,” Johnson said. “We kind of laughed to ourselves and they’re gonna get another loss in this one. That’s one of the things I do remember is seeing that picture of Tuberville holding up seven fingers and me thinking this guy’s lost his mind.”


(Top photo of Glen Coffee: Doug Benc / Getty Images)


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