This is the sixth installment in my chronicles of the worst Alabama football games I have personally attended. The goal being to gain a little perspective about where we (as a fan base) have been and contrast the bad games with the good games in the past (and future).
You can find the previous entries here: No. 10 was the losses to Mississippi State in ‘06, UCF in 2000, and ULM in ‘07. No. 9 was the loss to State in ‘98 and No. 8 was the defeat against Georgia in ‘07 , No. 7 was the loss to Auburn in 2000, and No. 6 was a few kicks short in Fayetteville in 2006.
No. 5: Alabama (17) vs. Auburn (18), Jordan-Hare Stadium, November 22, 1997
Oh the humanity! Here lies the game that should have been in the season that never should have. The one game season was stolen literally, from under my nose. Damn you Mike DuBose! Damn you to hell!
Up to this point in my efforts to tell you of my trials and tribulations as an Alabama fan I have been able to keep a little bit of detachment. Granted, no loss is ever good but up until now the losses were somewhat bearable or explainable – even if using warped logic helped the explaining. Now we’re getting to those losses where I was beginning to doubt that the sun actually would rise the next morning. Those defeats that manged to suck the joy from life for more than just a few hours on a Saturday evening. This is the start of the truly painful ones.
The 1997 season, much like the 2000 version, was an utter disappointment. Maybe not in the same grand fashion that 2000 was – Alabama was not predicted to contend for the national championship – but in a sense it was worse. See, in 2000 we had the 1997 season to compare to and at least by the last few games everyone knew that DuBose was on his way out, but in 1997 Alabama was beginning a new era and there hadn’t been the fresh memory of a losing season to temper the disappointment. Alabama football had enjoyed a time of relative success; excluding the forfeited games of the ’93 campaign you would have to go back to 1990 to find a season that had more than 3 losses (7-5 in Stallings’ first year at the helm)and more than a decade to find a season with more losses than wins. Alabama had won a national championship in 1992 and every year since then, save 1995, they had at played in the conference championship game. Also since Auburn’s string of four-in-a-row in the late eighties they had only managed to win every other year at best. In retrospect I believe that 1997 and the administration of Mike DuBose was the beginning of what most of the followers of Alabama football would agree as the “time in the wilderness” that even now we hope is ending. Needless to say, in light of the decade preceding it the 4-7 effort of Alabama in 1997 was just brutal.
But as the saying goes, you throw it all out the window for the Iron Bowl.
In 1997, I was a student at the University and was engaged to the beautiful girl that would become, and still is, my wife. Football, even a decade ago, was different. Alabama was still playing a few games, including the Tennessee game in Birmingham and the capacity of Bryant-Denny was less than 75,000 – the new upper deck would be completed prior to the next season. LSU was still doing a good job of winning a big upset and then losing in grand fashion the following week and other than Florida there was really not another big time program, arguably, in the conference – Tennessee under Manning was beginning to build momentum (going on to win the SEC that year), as was a Jackie Sherrill guided Mississippi State team [Eds. Note: The Georgia Bulldogs, whom are about to be discussed, demolished State that season]. Georgia was not on the map. [Eds. Note: In response to a comment from Tommy (who is quickly becoming my favorite commenter) I offer up the following two options, which I should have chosen from, concerning Georgia in 1997: Option #1: and Option #2: Georgia had a relatively successful season in 1997, losing only to the two teams that represented their respective divisions in Atlanta, in what was the high-water mark of the Jim Donnan era. The 10-2 record and #10 ranking in the final poll would signal Georgia jumping in the pool with the big boys only to stand by and watch as the bigger boys made out with the cheerleaders in later years. In the age of mediocrity that defined the Donnan tenure, and subsequently ended with the hiring of Mark Richt, the venerable coach proved that one could do more with less by having uber-talented teams that almost always lost to division rivals Tennessee and Florida (except in ’97 as Tommy points out), in-state rival Georgia Tech, and end-all-be-all rival Auburn. So while Georgia was certainly on the map, most especially in 1997, in a retrospective view they were but a bump on it to the real players in the conference on all except the rare incident when they played to their potential. Of course that all changed in 2001 when Baby Jesus was hired, but as I recall my memories of 1997 I remember not Georgia and their climb to “player” contention but to be fair, in the future I will either exclude the Bulldogs or give a more complete account of their season as I recall the best and worst Alabama games and my memories of them.]
Auburn in 1997 was far from the program they are today. After Pat Dye left them to clean up the mess of NCAA problems, Terry Bowden had piloted them the first of the two undefeated seasons without the benefit of proving that they were the national championship in just over a decade- this time with NCAA sanctions prohibiting them from the post-season. They came into the 1997 version of the Iron Bowl with an 8-2 record and as a heavy favorite. As a fan hoping to see a win there was really not much hope of me doing that but none-the-less we jumped in the car and left Tuscaloosa late Saturday morning.
It was my first trip back to the Plains since my short tenure there as a student (in pre-veterinary medicine) in the fall of 1991. We arrived to the warmest Iron Bowl that I could recall – we took jackets but didn’t need them – and I knew things were going bad when we got our bottle of booze into the stadium only to have it shatter on the concrete underneath the seats we were in. To the smell of wasted rum, we watched the teams take the field.
Coming out of high school in the Gadsden area, Freddie Kitchens was the state’s Mr. Football and the next big-time quarterback for the University. And while his career was far less stellar than expected, he did have an uncanny knack for playing big against Auburn, leading the critical drive to win the game, near the end of regulation, the season before. It was not Kitchens, but Lance Tucker that started the game under center. After Tucker went 2-9 and was found ineffective Kitchens came in and righted the ship. Freddie did what the starter couldn’t do; move the football. His first drive ended with a fumble deep in Auburn territory, but on his second attempt he found pay dirt and gave Alabama a lead they would hold until deep into the fourth quarter.
I don’t remember if Alabama played above their heads as much in that game as they finally, after a season of frustration, played up to their potential, although I am certain that the return of several injured starters helped the cause. In any event, an Alabama team that had battled adversity all year came in and played like warrior-poets that night. They controlled the game. They were living up to our expectations and late into the game it seemed certain that they were going to cast aside the title of underdog and put things, in the state where football matters most, right. They were going to beat a ranked Auburn team that was headed to Atlanta. They were going to beat Little Brother and give us something to hang our hats on going into the long winter. They were going to give us one good feeling, a feeling that is better than most, to carry us through until Crimson jerseys were donned again in the fall and Alabama could reassert itself as a power in SEC football.
How quickly we learn or are reminded that this game is not truly over until it is… well, over. With under a minute to play and first down being all that was required to win the game outright or at least a punt deep into Auburn territory, giving the defense a chance to continue the fabulous job they had done all night, the
unthinkable happened. Third and eight, a screen pass was called and Kitchens rolls to his right and reverses field to find Ed Scissum near the line-of-scrimmage with some help out ahead. But a block was missed and mere moments after reaching up to catch the pass, Scissum was hit low by Montavious Houston, knocking the ball to the turf and our hopes of redemption with it. The only thing that needs to be stated after that was that the field goal was good and Auburn punched their ticket to their first trip to Atlanta and beat Alabama when they were ranked for the first time in five tries.
We left the stadium stunned. And we weren’t supposed to be stunned. Alabama had done what they were supposed to do all along but not that night- they played well. This had not been a season of close losses. Other than the Arkansas game early in the year, Alabama had just been beaten. The ride back home was quiet and the only thought was that we had to wait a whole nine months to get that taste washed out of our mouths. The game was an event that starts one of those brutal stretches of recollection where your mind goes through a myriad of things that you think, if had only gone a little different… So close but yet so far.