Former Auburn head coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan (above, left) talks with former Alabama head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant prior to a football game at Legion Field.
Mike Kolen’s first Legion Field memory involved trudging up and down stadium steps as a junior high kid, hawking sodas and popcorn and catching glimpses of his SEC heroes between selling his wares and making change.
For Miami native Al Del Greco, his Legion Field memories include kicking a career-long 52-yard field goal for Auburn in his first game at Legion Field in 1980.
Kolen would go on to be an All-America linebacker at Auburn and be a starter on the 1972 Miami Dolphin team, the NFL’s only undefeated Super Bowl champion. Del Greco would go on to a 17-year NFL career, where he played in one Super Bowl and ranks in the Top 20 among the NFL’s all-time scoring leaders.
Auburn University has been a major player in that history. Coaches like Pat Dye, Ralph “Shug” Jordan, John Heisman and Mike Donahue, Heisman winners Jackson and Pat Sullivan and countless All-Americans--as well as unlikely heroes--helped carve their legacy in The Magic City.
Auburn’s first game in Birmingham came on Washington’s Birthday, 1893 at Lakeview Park against Alabama. The Tigers won 32-22 in front of 5,000 fans. Construction began on Legion Field in 1926, but that season Auburn played two games at Birmingham’s other historic stadium, Rickwood Field that season, defeating Howard College (now Samford University), but losing to Marquette.
Legion Field opened in 1927 and the Tigers played their first game there in 1928, a 19-0 loss to Ole Miss. The Tigers first victory at Legion Field came at 1931 against Sewanee. According to Auburn Athletic Director Emeritus David Housel, Auburn’s first great win at the stadium came against Alabama in 1949, a 14-13 win behind All-American Travis Tidwell. Against Tennessee in 1958, the Tigers shut out the Vols on national TV, holding them to no first downs.
So iconic are some of Auburn’s appearances in The Magic City, that the contests are christened. “17-16,” “Bo Over The Top,” “The Tornado Game” and “Reverse to Victory.”
Housel’s first game at Legion Field was the 1956 Iron Bowl. He has a vivid memory of that game.
“In those days, the Birmingham Zoo would parade a tiger or an elephant around. If Auburn was on the west side, they’d roll that tiger back and forth in front of the Auburn people, and in front of the Alabama people, they’d roll that elephant,” Housel remembered.
Legion Field is important in the history of Auburn football, Housel said. The “ Old Gray Lady” was the site for Auburn home games against rivals Tennessee from 1956-72 (plus 1976 and1978) and against Georgia Tech beginning in 1960 before moving to Auburn in 1970.
“Had Auburn not had access to Legion Field, the Auburn-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia Tech series would be greatly different.’’
Legion Field is the site of Wednesday's Birmingham Bowl matching Auburn and Memphis.
Kolen, who prepped at Berry High School in Birmingham, holds a flood of memories in his heart about playing for the Tigers at Legion Field. Kolen, a two-time team captain at Auburn, helped lead the Tigers to a 49-26 win over Alabama, snapping a five-game Iron Bowl losing streak.
In 1968, Kolen and All-America defensive lineman David Campbell helped lead Auburn to a 28-14 win over Tennessee. The game was part of an historic doubleheader at Legion Field. Alabama played LSU that afternoon, while the Tigers and Vols clashed that night. All four teams were nationally ranked, prompting the Chicago Tribune to trumpet the twin bill in the days leading up to the games.
“It was a dream come true for me to be in that position,” Kolen said. “Before my senior year (at Berry), I was an Alabama fan, following Lee Roy Jordan and some of their other linebackers. But my Auburn roots (Kolen’s grandmother was an Auburn grad), drew me to Auburn.”
Kolen, 67, a businessman, author and motivational speaker, has a special memory of his last regular season game, the 1969 win over Alabama in his hometown. The Tigers, sparked by sophomores Sullivan and receiver Terry Beasley, scored the most points ever against a Paul Bryant-coached Crimson Tide team.
“There couldn’t have been a sweeter way to finish our regular season than to defeat Alabama to the extent that we did,” Kolen said.
Like Kolen, Al Del Greco helped snap a losing streak against Alabama at Legion Field. Del Greco also helped the Tigers to an SEC title in 1983 and a New York Times poll national title.
Del Greco, who now co-hosts a sports talk show with former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker and serves as the golf coach at Samford, played in two iconic games at Legion Field, so special they were given names in Auburn football lore, “Bo over the Top” in 1982 and the “Tornado Game”, a 23-20 win over Alabama in 1983. Del Greco kicked three field goals in the 1983 win. Del Greco was also part of history in 1981, when Coach Paul Bryant won his 315th career game to pass Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Al Del Greco kicks a field goal against Florida while playing for the Tigers.
“The whole atmosphere was so unique and so different, different than a Super Bowl or any other place. Now that I’ve lived a majority of my life in Birmingham, you learned to appreciate something more than you did even back then. Back then, you didn’t know that you were going to be a part of something so special.”
Legion Field takes on added meaning for the Del Greco family. The former All-SEC kicker reared his family in the magic city. His son Trey played a state championship football game for Spain Park High in the stadium and son Derek will be playing in the Auburn Band in today’s game.
“That’s really kind of special to me,” Del Greco said. “They may not know the history like I did and like a lot of people did, but in my heart I know I set foot on that field, my son Trey did and my son Derrick did, too.”