Lessons from college football’s greatest rivalry

alabama auburn rivalryWe continue with this white paper in the profile of a prominent football coach who reached the pinnacle of success only to retreat at a record pace. Here we stop to appreciate the intense competition which eventually overwhelmed him.

Many consider the Auburn-Alabama game the greatest rivalry in college football. They face off every year in what’s come to be known as the Iron Bowl.

Bart Starr the first MVP of the Super Bowl and Joe Namath – also MVP of the Super Bowl after leading the American Conference and the old AFL to its first victory – played in the game.  They both learned what it meant to win it and to lose it.

Apropos of its distinguished history in the 1981 Iron Bowl Bear Bryant broke Amos Alonzo Stagg’s record for most wins by a coach. Fittingly In response one year later Bo Jackson catapulted himself over the top at the one yard line for the touchdown that beat Alabama and broke their 9 year strangle-hold on Auburn in 1982. And started his ascension to what many consider the greatest athlete in sports history. Bo knows greatness.

Appropriately Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton led Auburn to the greatest comeback in Iron Bowl history overcoming a 24-0 deficit in 2010 – on their way to a national title.

It’s no accident that the two teams from the same state have currently produced four national titles in a row – the only state that came make such a claim.  It is no accident that Nick Saban at Alabama is going for the coaches’ all-time record of three national titles in a row, and four in five years. Such intense competition only serves to motivate a team to higher heights.

The rivalry is a 365 day a year proposition for all concerned. Fans of both schools continually wish a pox on their across the state enemy.  A really fine Saturday in October at both schools means a win for your team and a loss for your arch-rival.

But really they need each other to be good — to push each other. That’s what makes the rivalry great.

Ideally fans of both schools should want their opponent to be undefeated until The Game — until the Iron Bowl.  The preeminence of the rivalry demands a worthy opponent – the strongest foe possible. The harder the game the bigger the victory.

Both state schools in Alabama should be hoping they are #1 and #2 the week before the game. You want to beat the best — and you want your best game to be against your arch-rival. Without question the Iron Bowl brings out the best a team has to offer – with few exceptions like 2012.

This is why Auburn will not be down long. Alabama will push them to get better.  (To his credit, Chizik did not leave the barn empty just undisciplined and uncoached.)

Big rival games produce glorious victories, tremendous upsets and unexpected heroes. Wins that last a lifetime and losses that leave a still bitter taste. But Auburn Coach Gene Chizik’s decline was so bad it took the fight out of the rivalry, took the glitter off of it to the point in 2012 it was no contest: 42-0 at the end of the first half as Alabama scored on all six opportunities. The defeat was such a foregone conclusion that the game lacked any of its normal passion. It was as if Alabama were playing a lower level team from another conference. Pity can be an ugly word – which sums up the game.

The lesson for us all: we need to be challenged. Competition brings out our best and in the end is the most fun. Getting the best out of ourselves.

In one sense Saban can thank Chizik for offering such little resistance the last two years, putting teams on the field not worthy of the rivalry. But there’s more to understand about what Chizik was up against— his own worst enemy: himself.  He will continue to show us the unrecognized hurdles that present themselves on the way to attaining peak performance.

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