Having spent the first 2/3 of my career splitting time between covering the two programs, I decided to do a different kind of comparison today. Just for fun, I decided to take a look at the schools and the programs instead of the teams that will take the field on Sept. 3.
Here we go:
Basically, Auburn and Alabama fans are the same kinds of people, but they approach the game from very different perspectives.
Alabama fans, obviously, have a fixation with Coach Paul Bryant. That's not all bad. He was certainly one of the better coaches ever to walk a sideline and maybe the best. At the same time, living in the past is not a healthy thing for any football program. No opponent today is intimidated by what Bryant did or how many national championships Alabama claims. Today's players were born after Bryant died. The thing I like best about Alabama fans is that they always believe the next championship is right around the corner, regardless of the circumstances. They may get angry, but they rarely get discouraged.
Auburn fans are, I truly believe, the most pessimistic of any of the top programs in the SEC, and with very little reason to be pessimistic. To hear some talk, you'd think their team was a constant underachiever, when history says something else entirely. They want desperately to be considered among the nation's very best. When sometimes they aren't, they tend to take it personally. Even in good times, they seem to worry that bad times are surely coming.
Both sets of fans are much more obsessed with the other side than they would ever admit. Never believe someone who tells you "I pull for Auburn/Alabama every game except when they are playing Auburn/Alabama." Only rarely is that statement true. Most fans take great delight in misfortune on the other side. Too many fans of both schools act as if what football team you happen to pull for or where you went to school says something about who you are as a person.
There is very little difference, really. The two schools recruit in the same areas and recruit the same kinds of players. It's not a coincidence that you have never seen a brawl in the Iron Bowl like you have seen in so many other rival games. For the most part, Auburn and Alabama players respect each other and realize what it means to play on that stage every year. They love their fans, but they laugh at the animosity.
There's a pretty significant difference between the universities, in style if not in substance. There is a kind of smugness at Alabama, the belief that their school has a special place in the family of universities that Auburn can't match. Auburn is more laid back, maybe a little more conservative but not a lot. Auburn is regarded somewhat more highly as an academic institution, but again, not a lot more.
Alabama does a terrific job of keeping most its dirty laundry out of public view. Auburn does an awful job of that, with some segments of the Auburn Family apparently believing that pursuing their various agendas is more important than the image of a historic university.
Both Auburn and Tuscaloosa, obviously, are dominated by the universities within. That fact is more striking at Auburn because the town is smaller. A larger percentage of Auburn residents are connected to the university in some way. Both communities could be more tolerant of the excesses of youth than some of the older heads want to be. There are actually a lot of Auburn fans in Tuscaloosa and a lot of Alabama fans in Auburn/Opelika. You'd probably be surprised at the number of students who attend one school and pull for the other.
Former Tiger tailback Carnell Williams, no fan of the Crimson Tide, celebrates an Auburn victory after the Tide's last visit to Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium.
At Alabama, some would like you to think that the Iron Bowl is much bigger to Auburn than it is to them. That's a myth. Alabama has a very significant rivalry with Tennessee and Auburn with Georgia. But the Iron Bowl is the one fans, coaches and players have to live with for a year. Your next-door neighbor or the guy in the next cubicle at work or the guy you sit beside in Sunday School isn't going to let you forget it if your team loses. I believe, for both sides, the fear of losing outweighs the anticipation of winning. A coach has to win his share of Iron Bowls to keep his job. A trip home can be a miserable experience for a player on the losing side.
So there you have it, one man's objective and somewhat informed comparison. In the final analysis, a small, relatively poor state has two proud universities with football programs that are historically among the nation's best.
That's something of which to be proud, regardless of the colors you wear.