Sweet Hoops, Alabama! Tide and Tigers pursue basketball glory in the heart of football country
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama. Deep in the heart of the Iron Cup rivalry lies a truth that is often ignored.
Alabama and Auburn—or Auburn and Alabama, depending on your loyalty—need each other.
This conflict between blood siblings needs to escalate to keep the goal going, and history has shown that when one wave rises—or a tiger lets out a mighty roar—the other side usually retaliates in kind.
It was here that college football’s fiercest rivalry flared up between 2009 and 2016, resulting in seven out of eight SEC champions. Players from Tuscaloosa and Auburn together have won five national titles and also appeared in five consecutive national championship games during those eight seasons.
But it’s only recently that the “whatever it takes” approach has been adopted in basketball.
History is made on Saturday. Both Alabama and Auburn will play in the same building, in their own backyard, for places in the NCAA Sweet 16 Tournament. Alabama, who finished first overall, will play No. 8 seed Maryland (20:40, CT, TBS) ; Earlier that night, Auburn’s 9th seed tango with the suddenly hobbled 1st seed Houston (7:10, TBS).
Fittingly, the Legacy Arena is just a few miles from Legion Field, where Bear Bryant, Suge Jordan and Pat Dye have been harvesting hay by tossing mowers in the backyard. Now Bruce Pearl And Nate Oates added their own important chapters to this backcourt brawl.
Since Sonny Smith and Wimp Sanderson teamed up to win three of five SEC Tournament titles from 1985 to 1989, basketball fever hasn’t attracted as many faces in the state. Never have both rivals played for a national title in the same building, but here in March 2023 they are doing just that in Birmingham city centre, the epicenter of the Iron Bowl.
“It’s calmed down a bit,” said Sanderson, who coached Alabama in nine SEC Tournament championship games over 12 seasons during the Tide’s heyday. “Now we have two great coaches here.”
“It’s really important for me to be a part of this,” Pearl said.
A lot has changed in just four years. Auburn has won three regular season or conference tournament titles, and the Tigers advanced to the Final Four in 2019. This week, Alabama took first place overall in the NCAA tournament and won two of the last three tournament titles in the SEC.
How did it happen? While the Kentucky bluebloods faltered and Florida fell, Auburn and Alabama seized the moment and turned basketball into a state championship carnival.
The escalation led to bigger and better results for both programs.
Auburn hires a big name in Pearl, Alabama, hires one of his NBA champions, Avery Johnson. The Tigers win SEC titles and reach the Final Four, Tide fires the NBA champion and hires Nate Oates, a fast-growing coach with a penchant for poaching opponents from the SEC.
It would seem that every uppercut in the backcourt has elicited a cast-iron backcourt — and no scene in the NCAA tournament could be crazier than what awaits the Tide and Tigers when they play their games in the second round on Saturday.
Their pickups won’t be the culmination of years of effort, but the Legacy Arena will host the coronation of a new force for the sport in the South. Alabama and Auburn own four of the last six regular season SEC titles and three of the last four SEC tournament trophies.
Alabama No. 1 could also win the sport’s first state national title.
“It’s a very interesting time to have two of these teams here,” Sanderson said. “I don’t know how they did it, but they did it.”
The fire started in 2014 when Auburn risked outcast Bruce Pearl, a flamboyant personality and championship coach, chained to a desk as a broadcaster after the NCAA issued a fine for the organization’s ostentatious lying during an illegal recruitment investigation. practices in Tennessee. Pearl inherited an empty closet at Auburn and didn’t win straight away, but he woke fans out of apathy after four straight losing seasons under Tony Barbie and no NCAA tournament appearances since 2003. An unsurpassed showman, Pearl was not afraid to sell his program to anyone who would listen to his commercial proposals. He ripped his shirt off at fraternal lotteries and stood shoulder to shoulder with students at football games, screaming until his voice was hoarse.
Pearl’s personality and winning pedigree also gave the Tigers massive recruiting progress — and it rocked Alabama, which fired Anthony Grant and hired former NBA champion Avery Johnson, who won an NBA championship as a point guard for the San Antonio Spurs and was close to another as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks. A TV regular, Johnson had a fiery name and personality that could match Pearl’s passion, but was unable to realize his own championship aspirations as Pearl pushed the Tigers to new heights. Auburn won the SEC regular season championship in 2018, and as the Tigers marched to their first SEC tournament title in 34 years in 2019, Johnson was fired. Three weeks later, the Tigers played in front of 70,000 fans in the Final Four.
Enough was enough. Auburn pressed the Alabama buttons too many times.
“I know we’re big contenders, but now they’ve set the bar pretty high by reaching the Final Four,” Oates told me in May 2019. “We have something to strive for. We need to improve our game.”
Oates was hired to spearhead a revival in Tuscaloosa, with a clear and aggressive approach to recruiting. The blue chips followed, wins piled up, and the gap between the Tide and the Tigers narrowed quickly (they swept the Tigers in a two-game series this season). Alabama has won two of the last three regular season SEC titles (Auburn won it in 2022) as well as back-to-back SEC tournaments. Brandon Miller is a top-five superstar in the NBA draft, and the Tide looks to be part of one of the best teams in the state’s history.
Captured in the moment and in the midst of preparations for the second round games, it is difficult to properly express the importance of what happens here on Saturday. Win or lose, Alabama and Auburn attract the attention of the sport.
“I look back at Sonny Smith, Wimp Sanderson and Gene Bartow of UAB and realize it was a good time for those guys,” Pearl said. “Wimp and Sonny, they recruited each other, but then they could go and drink some of Sonny’s moonshine. Nate and I are not drinking buddies, but he knows how much I respect him. I said it publicly. I think over the years I have earned his respect. I think when he came to Alabama, he looked at our program and realized that we are competitive. My God, look what he did. I take my hat off to the team, the university, their fans. They are real”.
Like it or not, Auburn needs Bam and Tide needs the Tigers. Competition leads to escalation, and escalation comes with more risks and better rewards.
When Gene Stallings won the Alabama national title in 1992, Auburn went all in and hired Terry Bowden, who led Auburn to an undefeated record during probation the following year. When Nick Saban woke up the slumbering Alabama giant by winning the program’s first national title in 17 years, did Auburn give in? No. The Tigers poached Cam Newton from Mississippi State during recruiting and won the national title the following year for the first time in 53 seasons. At the first sign of trouble, Auburn fired Gene Chisick just two years after winning the national championship, and history almost repeated itself when freshman coach Gus Malzan led the Tigers to the BCS national championship.
History tends to repeat itself in sports, but this is the first time this has happened on hardwood. The 1980s are back and Birmingham has become the Basketball Mecca. On Sunday UAB holds the NIT game of the second round. On Thursday, Blazers head coach Andy Kennedy was at Legacy Arena to watch the Tide thrash Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 96-75, followed by Auburn’s 83-75 win over Iowa.
“This is Birmingham, this is a football country, and we dominate – and I’m proud of it – but today we looked like a basketball state,” Pearl said.
“They play really good basketball in this state,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey. “These people are sports fans, they love both (football and basketball).”
Brandon Marcello is the national football reporter for 247Sports. You can follow him on Twitter@bmarcello).