I was just a month out from covering my Division I-AA alma mater, Western Kentucky. It was my third game as a fresh-faced Auburn beat writer.
I had heard about the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. I knew it was big, and the build-up before that 1996 game in Birmingham didn't disappoint.
But I sure didn't walk into Legion Field that night expecting Alabama's 17-0 start, followed by Auburn's 23-0 rally, followed by Alabama's dramatic drive, followed by Gene Stallings announcing his retirement.
I didn't expect to see Phillip Tutor, then our Alabama beat writer, called into duty as word of Stallings' plans permeated the press box.
Yes, all Alabama beat writers went into Earth-shattering-breaking-news-mode that night. All Auburn beat writers, including this brand new one, became game writers by default.
And what a game it was.
I had already learned not to write too far in advance of the game's finish. Auburn taught me that painful lesson just a week prior to the Iron Bowl, blowing a 28-7 lead in a four-overtime loss to Georgia.
Punching the key sequence "ctrl-A-delete" on deadline is just sick, so I held my fingers back off the keyboard when Alabama went up 17-0.
Good thing, because Auburn was up 20-17 by halftime and 23-17 when Alabama got the ball on its 26-yard line with 2:14 to play.
I knew enough about my beat to know that Auburn was in trouble. Injuries had left Auburn's defense thin and young, which is why the Tigers blew leads against Georgia and Northeast Louisiana in my first two games on the beat.
They nearly lost homecoming because of it.
When Alabama's Freddie Kitchens converted a third-and-long pass early in its clinching drive against Auburn, I could see the final scenario playing out.
I watched it play out from the sideline, which is where media go in the final minutes of game to be positioned for interviews.
I stood there, feeling the tension build as Alabama drove down the field before 83,000-plus people in one of college football's hallowed venues.
Dennis Riddle caught the game-winning pass right in front me. I was closer to him than some Auburn defenders as he juked his way into the end zone untouched.
There's an Alabama football history book — can't remember the title — that has a wide-angle picture overlooking the field as Riddle scores. Look on the far sideline. Squint, and you'll see me in the olive trench coat.
Glad it's not a close-up, lest the world would see my wide eyes.
Readers of The Star could probably sense it when the following words appeared under the headline "Dramatic enough for you?" in their Sunday paper:
"Only in cheesy wrestling matches do combatants come back from such near-death experiences. Only soap operas could produce such story twists.
"But this was football. Big-time football. Auburn and Alabama. The Iron Bowl. Unbelievable."
I'll never experience the pressure of the Iron Bowl from the perspective of a coach whose lucrative career hinges on the outcome.
But I'll never forget what it was like to be three weeks into my new job and having to write such a dramatic game — the biggest game my paper covers all year — with such a dramatic backdrop and on a tight deadline.
Nix saved Bowden's debut
The first Iron Bowl experience can be eye-opening for a head coach, even those familiar with the Alabama-Auburn rivalry.
Auburn's Gene Chizik, who experienced three Iron Bowls as Auburn's defensive coordinator from 2002-04, is surely finding that out as the Tigers prepare for today's game.
Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden was no stranger to the Iron Bowl when he coached Auburn to a 22-14 victory in 1993, his first year as the Tigers' coach. He grew up in Birmingham, and knew the rivalry well.
Still, there's no pressure like that faced by the Auburn and Alabama head coaches in a state where fans live with the game's result year-round and share the same air. Bowden found that out in 1993, as he tells Star sports columnist Joe Medley:
"For me, obviously, it was the last game of an undefeated season.
And just when you thought you could never imagine any more exciting experience than what you've already been through the previous 10 weeks, the Iron Bowl experience trumped all of that. It was a lot more, a lot bigger.
The thing that I remember the most was how much pressure I felt. It being my first year at Auburn and in the SEC and being undefeated, I knew it would all be completely shot down if we did not beat Alabama, and they were the defending national champion.
I had a saying at Auburn that you could be 10-0 on The Plains and have saved your career, but you haven't even saved your job yet because you haven't played Alabama.
My biggest memory — and maybe it's because it's a bit humorous — of that week leading up to the Iron Bowl was a clip on ESPN. An Auburn tailgater was interviewed the day before the game, and the interviewer asked them if the Auburn-Alabama game was life or death.
His response was, 'No, no, no, it's much bigger than that.'
It just hit me not only as funny but the perfect explanation of what it feels like.
As for the game and the match-up, we didn't have a dominant team. We just had a team that knew how to win.
We won late in ballgames. We were behind at times. We ran the ball on third-and-10s and -12s.
Everything was about winning the game close, and this was an Alabama team that was defending champion. They were loaded.
It was going to have to be won by doing everything just right, and we were down at halftime, as most people remember.
The most unexpected of events that would have happened, one of the great events in Auburn history, was when Stan White goes out on fourth down, and we throw Pat Nix on fourth-down-and-10 or whatever it was. He throws a touchdown pass to Frank Sanders, and we go on and win the game."
It wasn't in the bag until the final run. We were up 15-14 until the final minute, and we ran 60-yard touchdown run, when (James) Bostic broke through for that 60- or 70-yard touchdown run.
The game was in question the whole way, and even then they could have scored a touchdown and hit the 2-point play and tied it up.
Winning the game was an overwhelming feeling.
Not only did we beat Alabama — which in and of itself is one of the most memorable events you can have in your life as a coach is to win the Auburn-Alabama game — but to do it to capture an undefeated season in your very first year, it was just a unforgettable moment.
And for all the ups and downs of my career and my career in the future, you get to carry it with you. It's something you carry with you all your life.
I had a moment with (predecessor) Pat Dye on the field afterward. I believe he kissed me on the cheek.
As a new head coach who was playing with his players, I felt like he should be part of that success, and he should be recognized for allowing me to have those players, for those players being there, because it was partly his success."
Dye started Auburn's turnaround process
Pat Dye went against his former mentor, Paul "Bear" Bryant in his first Iron Bowl in 1981. He lost that one, but his 1982 team won, ending a nine-year Alabama rein. Here are some of his memories, as he tells Star assistant sports editor Christa Turner:
"I tried not to over-emphasize the game because I didn't want the guys going in thinking the world would stop turning if we didn't win. We weren't intimidated by Alabama, and they played that way. We went ahead of Alabama in the fourth quarter, and they came back and scored twice and beat us, 28-17.
We won the next year and the next. It was a big deal for the Auburn folks. I hadn't been there but one year, but the Auburn people reached a point where they didn't think they could beat Alabama. I knew that wasn't true."
Each year the state stands still for a few hours for the Iron Bowl, and today will be no exception. On paper, the game appears to be a mismatch, as Alabama is in line to meet Florida in next weekend's Southeastern Conference Championship game in Atlanta. Auburn, meanwhile, has over-achieved from preseason projections, but could still use a victory over Alabama, not only for bragging rights, but to climb in the pecking order of bowl season.
No. 2 Alabama (11-0) at Auburn (7-4): Today
1:30 p.m., Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn TV — CBS 42; Radio — UA: 95.5 FM; AU: 94.5 AM, 810 AM
Players to watch
Running backs Mark Ingram and Ben Tate can resolve who can claim the title of the state's best running back today. The running games of both teams are the building blocks of their offenses and without the star stepping up, a win will grow increasingly unlikely. The two quarterbacks, Greg McElroy and Chris Todd, have struggled, but if either can provide that necessary balance, momentum can easily swing in his team's direction. Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain is also returning to the site of what can be considered his breakout game. However, the 15-tackle performance in Jordan-Hare Stadium by the true freshman came in a losing effort.
Key matchup Alabama front seven vs. Auburn's line/Ben Tate
If Alabama's run defense can stop Ben Tate and the Auburn rushing attack, the odds of its second straight Iron Bowl win are a near lock. Since the Tigers don't have the downfield threat necessary to stretch the Tide defense, Alabama is freed to up concentrate a little more on clogging running lanes. The biggest difference comes in the defenses. Alabama ranks second nationally against the run, while Auburn will need its 88th-best rush stoppers to come up big against Ingram.
Weather: Sunny, high 55
Last meeting: Alabama 36, Auburn 0, Nov. 29, 2008
All-time series: Alabama leads 39-33-1
— Star staff