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 but isn’t sure. But he clearly remembers the SMS that was on it that day, the picture he received on November 29, 2008.

As he sat in the locker room at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama left guard Mike Johnson was locked in. It was the redshirt junior’s fourth season with the Crimson Tide, and although his team was ranked No. 1 in the country with a date Johnson was already poised to play against No. 2 Florida in the following week’s SEC championship game and wanted necessarily beat the 5-6 team in front of him.

Johnson came to Alabama in 2005 and for three years thought he would be part of the team that ended the losing streak against Auburn. Instead it grew. There was the Sack Brodie game in 2005 that brought the losing streak to four. Then the “Fear the thumb” game in 2006, where it went up to five. In Nick Saban’s debut season in 2007, Alabama lost its sixth straight, Auburn’s longest winning streak in Iron Bowl history.

As he sat in the locker room preparing for the 2:30 a.m. CT CBS game of the day, Johnson couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw what the photo on his phone revealed.

Across the stadium, where opponents exit a bus and head into the visitors’ locker room, Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville held up seven fingers, symbolizing what the series would achieve with a win that day. Johnson was shocked.

He showed it to his teammates. They joked that Tuberville held the number of fingers that showed how many losses the Tigers would have after the day’s game was 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 against Auburn was psychologically damaging to the Alabama program and its fan base. With the streak rising to five, Alabama fired head coach Mike Shula at the end of the 2006 season. In no small part, that was because he never beaten LSU or Auburn. But it was mostly auburn. The 4-0 loss to the Tigers was a sin too big to cleanse.

But Saban also lost his first Iron Bowl. So, in many ways, the 2008 Iron Bowl was therapeutic for the entire Alabama program.

This year was different and the teams knew it.

“We’ve probably been an average 6-6 team for the last six years,” said quarterback John Parker Wilson. “I know we were pretty good (in 2005) and going to the Cotton Bowl, but other than that we were a fighting team. This year we had already secured our spot at the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. The game was really irrelevant overall, but the biggest game of the year we’ve played.”

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

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

Former Crimson Tide star running back Siran Stacy (1989-91) was the honorary captain and provided the cue ball. A year earlier, his wife and four of his five children had died in a terrible car accident. As he got onto the field, the crowd reaction overwhelmed him and he started jumping up and down and then sprinted into the north end zone, waving his arms above his head and cheering for the crowd. It was a wild, emotional scene that brought about what was to come.

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

Auburn was held for 170 yards overall offense and was shut out for the first time since 2003 when the Tigers were beaten 23-0 by USC. Alabama rushed for 234 yards, led by Glen Coffee’s 144, including a 41-yard touchdown that left him untouched.

That game and all season established Alabama as a more physically formidable team than almost any other they played against. It was a message that Auburn was sure to get that day.

“We were well prepared,” said Johnson. “I think that’s what caught my eye. They ran a blitz into one of our runs inside the zone. I remember Glen Coffee pointing that out. They drove lightning at us like a bad dog and I mean we were so prepared for it that we literally called it out before they even moved. We picked it up. Andre (Smith) ended up getting a crooked defensive tackle. I picked up a linebacker and I don’t think Glen got touched.

The whole game was repeated: Alabama the sledgehammer and Auburn the object. Six years of futility and embarrassment, all left out in a day that ended the series.

At the end of the game, the Million Dollar Band played “Rammer Jammer” six times. It’s unclear if this was symbolic of the end of the six-year losing streak or just cheering to play it as often as possible.

Nobody in the stands left the blowout early. They stayed and sang and took photos with the scoreboard in the background. Players hung out on the field and even came back to the field to take photos to commemorate that day.

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

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

In the fourth quarter, as the offense was tapering off, Saban pulled the starters one by one to give them a moment to deal with the crowd.

“What I remember best at the end of that game is we had the ball and it was typical we attacked for four minutes all of the fourth quarter this season,” Johnson said. “I mean, we were good at running the ball and our MO was it doesn’t matter if there’s 10 minutes left, we’re going to go into a four-minute mode. We’ll put the ball in your throat, we’ll rip 4 and 5 yards at a time. And that’s how we got into business.

“But I remember we were in a four-minute drill and I think the first person they took out was (centre) Antoine Caldwell. And that in the middle of the drive, like game after game. Then I want to say that maybe they knocked out Andre Smith. This was intentional in hindsight. They took us out one by one, kind of an opportunity for us to enjoy it and get a little ovation if you get away with it. And I had never experienced anything like this because we would never get into a situation like this. We had never run away with any of these games. Coach Saban let us sink in and took us out one by one. You kind of get the hugs from people coming off the field. You hug your coaches and some of your teammates, and I remember walking off the field and looking around and thinking, ‘This is what it feels like.'”

Johnson has the photo at his home as he emerged from the dressing room to head back onto the field with his teammates after the game. Wilson got the front page of The Tuscaloosa News from this game. It was a program-changing year.

This team has not won 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 laying the foundation of the long-running Crimson Tide dynasty, with the first of six national titles won a year later and a 10-4 Iron Bowl record going up to the game ever since this Saturday in Tuscaloosa is enough. It’s the legacy that means a lot to them.

“When I get around with Antoine Caldwell and Rashad (Johnson) we talk about not winning the national championship but man we’re so proud of what we’ve done and stick with it and be leaders,” said Wilson. “That’s essentially our legacy of being the team that turns things around.”

Johnson is still laughing at how this picture of Tuberville ended up on his phone. He laughs at how stupid it was of Tuberville resigning a few days after the loss.

“I remember they were 5-6 at the time and how they would take their seventh loss,” Johnson said. “We kind of laughed at each other and they’re going to suffer another loss in that case. One of the things I remember is seeing this picture of Tuberville holding up seven fingers and I thought this guy had lost his mind.”

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(Top Photo by Glen Coffee: Doug Benc/Getty Images)