Marshall: Less Enthusiastic Look at Rivalry

There was a time when this was my favorite week of the year. But that was long ago.

That was before the Internet gave voice to those known only by screen names, before talk radio hosts thrived on stirring up bad feelings. That was when the Iron Bowl really was mostly about football, history and tradition.

It's different now. I'll be glad when this week is over, the game has been played and the talk turns to something else.

The Iron Bowl has meant a great deal to people in this state for many years. There has always been an undercurrent of hostility among some fans. But in recent years, the dark underbelly of the rivalry has become more and more prominent.

It's even spilling over to the players, who once talked mostly with respect about each other, played hard, hugged each other's necks when it was over and went on. These days I hear talk from both sides I wish I didn't. I hear the word hate thrown around, and that's unfortunate.

Alabama coach Mike Shula was asked at his press conference Tuesday if he knew Auburn coaches say they "hate" Alabama. I don't know who asked the question, but if any Auburn coach has ever said that, I've never heard it. I don't believe it's ever been said.

The "Fear The Thumb" slogan, coined by a bookstore owner, not by any Auburn player or coach, has taken on a life of its own. It started when Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville held up four fingers to Auburn fans near the end of last season's victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium and Auburn players held up four fingers while celebrating with their fans when it was over. It grew when Tuberville was photographed in Orlando wearing a shirt with the slogan on the front.

Tuberville has not publicly spoken those words, to my knowledge. He has not said Alabama should fear anything. But perception often is stronger than reality.

I've never been sure why holding up four fingers to Auburn fans was so offensive, but it seemingly angered Alabama players and fans.

Alabama players have vowed to make Auburn pay for those perceived slights. Auburn's Kenny Irons held up five fingers for a Birmingham TV station's cameras.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but it all makes me uncomfortable. It makes me fear that one day emotions will boil over and we'll see an ugly incident, the kind that has embarrassed teams in other rival games.

Who wins or loses Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium will say nothing about the character or integrity of anybody. It won't mean any fan of the winning team is better than any fan of the losing team.

It will not mean one school is better than the other.

If Auburn makes it five straight, it won't mean that the streak will get to six. If Alabama breaks through Saturday, it won't mean Alabama will win again next season at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The truth is there have been few Iron Bowls with less at stake. Auburn could still get into the SEC Championship Game if Arkansas loses twice, but that's a real long shot. Alabama will finish either 7-5 or 6-6. Auburn will go to a good bowl. Alabama will go to a lesser bowl.

A huge majority of people watching college football nationwide will be focused on Michigan's game at Ohio State and will have only passing interest in what happens between Auburn and Alabama.

But it's still the Iron Bowl. It still matters a great deal to those who play and those who watch. Nothing wrong with that. That passion is what has allowed me to make a living for more than 37 years.

In the end, words, taunts and slogans won't decide who wins this game. Both teams will play as hard as they can play. The winner will be the team that executes the best and makes the fewest mistakes.

But it would be nice if people would keep things in perspective, recognize this is a game that pales in importance compared to the real issues that plague our nation and our world, enjoy it and appreciate it for what it is.

That would be nice, but alas, it's not going to happen.

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