It is the day after another football game between Auburn University and the University of Alabama, called the “Iron Bowl” in these parts. And orange and blue flags are fluttering atop cars in celebration of Auburn’s 48-45 win.
It was a wild one for certain. Alabama ran a kickoff back for a touchdown. Auburn ran an intercepted pass 100 yards for a touchdown. Auburn’s field goal kicker had struggled in recent games, but yesterday was a perfect 4-4 to provide the difference in the game.
Like two prizefighters who simply refuse to be bested, the teams swapped blow after blow. Ten times the lead in the game changed. One would score, then the other. Most football gurus predicted a low-scoring game. So much for their collective wisdom.
And for the second time in the last seven Auburn vs. Alabama games, coach Nick Saban learned that the final outcome may come down to what happens in just one second.
In 2013, with the score tied and the game headed to overtime, Saban insisted to the officials that there was still one second remaining in the game, just enough time for Alabama to try a long field goal for the win. The result was the famous (for Auburn fans) KICK SIX. Bama did try the field goal, but Auburn had defensive back Chris Davis waiting in the end zone to run it back if possible.
And 109 yards later Davis was in the end zone at the other end of the field and Auburn was the victor.
This time Auburn coach Gus Malzahn insisted that there was one second left in the first half, enough time for field goal kicker Anders Carlson to try for three points. His successful effort made the halftime score 31-27 in favor of Alabama. This time Saban augured that one second was NOT enough time for such a play.
Finally it came down to Auburn holding a 48-45 lead with two minutes left and Bama facing 4th down near the Auburn end zone. Saban’s field goal kicker Joseph Bulovas lined up in hopes of tying the game, But as such things sometimes happen, the kick hit the left upright and bounced harmlessly to the ground.
Auburn needed one more first down to win the game. Facing 4th and four, Malzahn outmaneuvered Saban with his play calling and a penalty gave Auburn a first down and the win.
Bedlam quickly followed. My sister and niece in Black Mountain, NC called and sang the Auburn fight song. A school superintendent in North Dakota sent me an email. I got a text from Nebraska.
Kendall Leland will go to her 5th grade class in Cape Girardeau, MO tomorrow and tell her friends all about being at the game. Her father went to Auburn, her grandmother lives in Opelika, and pilgrimages from eastern Missouri to Auburn games are common place for her family. Her Thanksgiving was a little bit of turkey and a whole lot of Auburn.
Sully Van Sice is also in the 5th grade. But his trip to school in Fairhope tomorrow will not be as jubilant as Kendall’s. He cheers for Bama. But not his grandmother. At Sully’s insistence, he and grandma had a small wager on the outcome. For the next month, Sully will have to make up her bed every day.
No doubt thousands of such stories could be told across Alabama today.
All just a part of the annual madness we call the Iron Bowl.
Long ago I realized that apparently the sound of tires on asphalt is my own special brand of therapy. How else can I explain all the miles I cover and time in my car?
I graduated from Auburn 53 years ago. I doubt there have been many of those years when I didn’t drive at least 30,000 miles. (I just checked my records and have driven 35,000 miles since last November. And yes, I do have the record.) At that rate I’ve covered 1.5 million miles in the last half century.
And I have often given thanks that I have never had an accident, that every log truck I’ve ever met stayed on their side of the road, that someone didn’t run a red light and find me in their way. Surely the good Lord has played a role in my safety. For which I am certainly grateful.
However, my luck almost ended on a recent Thursday afternoon.
If you get off I-85 at the Tuskegee-Franklin exit about halfway between Montgomery and Auburn and head north, you are on highway 49. Stay on it long enough and you get to Cheaha Mountain. But this day I was only going as far as Oskars, a restaurant near Still Waters on Lake Martin, to have lunch with Joe Windle, superintendent of Tallapoosa County schools.
While highway 49 is very serviceable, it has its shares of twists and turns as it heads into Alabama’s Piedmont region. If you come up from behind on a slow moving vehicle, patience is your friend, Straight stretches where you can pass someone are few and far between.
It was raining when I headed back towards Montgomery. Not hard rain, just a slow drizzle.
I was rounding a curve when it happened. In a microsecond I was off the road on the right side. Was not speeding, did not slip. Just somehow I was suddenly staring at a washed out gully and pine tress. There was no shoulder. My first thought was “this ain’t gonna end well.”
I jerked the wheel and to my utter amazement made it back to the pavement. Fortunately, there was not an on-coming vehicle because I was on the wrong side of the road. Debris I gathered on the underside of the car was dragging the road. Coming to a place to pull off I got out and tried to clear some of it away.
I will never understand how I got the car back on the road. My only thought is that an angel was riding with me and grabbed the steering wheel.
Needless to say, it was a sobering experience. So much so that a few days later I went back up highway 49 to find the spot. I still don’t know what kept me out of the gulley and pine trees.
We are now celebrating the Thanksgiving season. It has special meaning for me this year.
And I hope it does for you as well. But not for the same reason.
Once a year, the rest of the world is oblivious to most folks in Alabama. The stock market can crash, a tsunami may wipe some country from the face of the earth, Old Faithful may forget to shoot water out of the ground and Niagara Falls may become a trickle–but none of that matters.
Because this is the week the football teams of Auburn and Alabama play one another in what Auburn Coach Shug Jordan long ago dubbed the “Iron Bowl”. For a handful of days, nothing else matters. Even the pathetic sight of Jeff Sessions groveling at the feet of President Trump. Every where you look, people will be wearing red and white or orange and blue.
I was a freshman at Auburn University in the fall of 1961 when I saw my first Iron Bowl. In those days this annual clash took place at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Bear Bryant was just beginning his 25-year reign as coach of the Crimson tide. He beat Auburn 19 times, including a stretch of nine straight in the 1970’s.
But Auburn hired Pat Dye, a Bryant disciple, in 1981 and the series became competitive again. During his career at Auburn, Dye beat Bama seven times and lost six. However, Dye is remembered as much for getting the annual contest moved from Legion Field to Auburn as for his success against the team from Tuscaloosa.
The first game on Auburn’s campus was in 1989. I was there. Alabama was ranked No. 2 in the country. Auburn won 30-20. The first game in Tuscaloosa during the modern era was in 2000. I was there with my son Kevin. Auburn won 9-0. It was a beastly day with the temperature in the mid-30s and sleet falling. (The game was also played in Tuscaloosa in 1895 and 1901. Auburn won both.)
Since the game left Birmingham and moved to Auburn and Tuscaloosa, it has been played ten times in Tuscaloosa and 14 times in Auburn. Auburn has won five times in Tuscaloosa and nine times in Auburn. Tommy Tuberville, who wants to be one of Alabama’s U.S. senators now, was the Auburn coach from 1999 to 2007. He beat Bama seven out of the nine times he coached against them.
I don’t know how many Auburn vs. Alabama games I have seen in person. A lot for sure. I was at Legion Fiend in 1969 when Auburn won 49-26 and late in the game Auburn punter Connie Frederick ran more than 80 yards on a fake punt to score. I was there in 1972 when Auburn blocked two punts and won 17-16. I was there in 2013 when Chris Davis ran a field goal attempt 109 yards on the last play of the game for a 34-28 Auburn win. I watched in disbelief on TV in 2010 when Auburn quarterback Cam Newton engineered a 28-27 win in Tuscaloosa after falling behind 24-0.
Is this obsession healthy? I’m sure many people in faraway places would say it is not. No doubt they probably belittle our devotion to a GAME. But this is OK as they don’t understand the collective psyche of this state–for good or bad. Nor do they know much about pot likker, fried green tomatoes, boiled peanuts, dinner on the grounds and all night singings.
So bring on the Iron Bowl. It is uniquely ours.
It’s not hard to find Coalwood, WV. Go north on highway 19 out of Abingdon, VA, take a left on highway 16 in Tazewell, VA and don’t get in a hurry because the road soon clings hard to what little space there is between a meandering creek bank and whatever mountains you are passing.
After a bit you will go through War, Cucumber and Caretta and find Coalwood, where the road takes a hard turn to the right. Truth is, you will find what used to be Coalwood because there is scant left of what once was a thriving mining village of 2,000.
But the real question is: why would anyone go searching for Coalwood, WV?
For me, it started with a book I read more than a decade ago that told the story of Homer Hickam, Jr. and his teenage years in McDowell County. A story that recounted how Homer, better known as Sonny, and his friends Roy Lee, O’Dell, Billy, Quentin and Sherman learned to build rockets. In fact, they learned so well that they won a gold medal at the 1960 National Science Fair.
As things do sometimes, the book captured my attention and I filed Coalwood away in my mind, promising that if the opportunity ever came along, I would pay my respects. So one August day in 2019, I paid a visit to this little spit of West Virginia.
The story goes that a George Carter wandered through the hills and hollows of McDowell County in the early 1900s and found coal. He bought 20,000 acres and over time, built Coalwood, most of which he owned lock, stock and barrel. Everything belonged to the company. Houses, school, company store, doctor, dentist, church, post office, utilities, everything.
Homer’s daddy was the mine superintendent. Coal was his life–and his death–and at a young age Sonny determined that it would not be his. Oddly enough it was an event on the other side of the world from Coalwood that gave purpose to young Homer. Russia sent Sputnik into the heavens in the fall of 1957 and when Homer watched from his backyard as the first space craft passed far, far above he set his heart on building rockets.
Decades later Homer recalled it all in his book Rocket Boys. I could relate to the book for the simple reason that Homer and I are the same age. But while he was learning to build rockets in the mountains of West Virginia, I was chopping cotton in south Alabama. And it was Sputnik that convinced my father that I should study engineering at Auburn. So while Homer was at Virginia Tech becoming an engineer, I was at Auburn coming face-to-face with the realization that calculus was not my pathway to success.
At one end of Coalwood’s main thoroughfare these days is a large metal sign proclaiming it to be home of The Rocket Boys. But rust is about to reclaim the sign, just as nature is reclaiming Coalwood. The house Homer grew up in is across the street from the only store in town. But most all of Homer’s boyhood hometown is gone. The railroad, the mine tipple, even the post office. Only a handful of houses remain.
It’s hard to believe that a bustling community was once here. That this was were boyhood friends, spurred on by the encouragement and support of a teacher, Freida Joy Riley, created the Big Creek Missile Agency and launched their rockets from a coal slack site dubbed Cape Coalwood.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the mine closed. Coalwood closed with it. But the dreams this little community birthed never died.
So I took highway 19 at Abingdon and took a left on highway 16 at Tazewell a few months ago. Not so much as to see another mountain and winding creek as to be reminded of how powerful the human spirit truly is.
Editor’s note: Homer Hickam Jr. became an engineer, working for NASA in Huntsville from 1981 to his retirement in 1998. He trained astronauts. Rocket Boys was published in 1998. The movie about Homer and Coalwood, October Sky, was released in 1999. He has written a number of books, including The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone and From Rocket Boys to October Sky. They are all about Coalwood and I have enjoyed each of them. He lives in Huntsville.
The picture above comes from Northpontotoc Upper elementary school in Ecru, MS. Ecru has less than 1,000 people and is in Pontotoc County just west of Tupelo.
Here is what accompanied the photo. “These trees were 17 years old when harvested. The smaller one competed for space in a large plot of other trees and the large one was planted out in the open area. What if these were students, one in a crowded classroom with a high student/teacher ratio and the other in a smaller classroom with a low student/teacher ratio. Think about this!”
Think about it indeed. A graphic message of what is really, really important when trying to educate children.
This will not be welcome news for all the naysayers who say Alabama educators can’t walk and chew gum at the same time–but new info from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama says we are making great progress in graduation rates and preparing students for college and careers.
In 2012 when Tommy Bice was state superintendent, he and his staff put together Plan 2020 that tackled graduation and readiness rates. This was guided by tons of feedback from both four-year and two-year colleges, business and industry and local school systems.
Here is the PARCA news release of September 23 that details what is happening:
“In 2012, the Alabama State Board of Education adopted Plan 2020, which embraced a vision for the state education system led by the motto: “Every child a graduate. Every graduate prepared.” The plan called for raising Alabama’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent, while at the same time producing graduates who are better prepared for college and the workplace. Since that time, significant progress occurred in raising the graduation rate from 72 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2018.
While the high graduation rate is laudable, state education leaders have raised concerns about the gap between the percent graduating and the percent prepared for college or work.
Significant progress has been made over the past three years:
In 2016, Alabama graduated 87 percent of its students, though only 66 percent were college and career ready.
In 2017, the gap closed, with 89 percent graduating and 71 percent college and career ready.
In 2018, improvement continued with 90 percent graduating and 75 percent college and career ready.
Though the gap is still large, it is improving.
Continuing to close that gap is vital. The state has a goal of adding 500,000 highly-skilled workers to the workforce by 2025. To meet that goal, virtually all high school graduates will need to be prepared for education beyond high school or prepared to enter the workforce directly after high school.
The 2018 CCR data shows:
Career Technical Education (CTE) certificates are the fastest-growing means for classifying students as college and career ready.
Qualifying scores on the ACT and WorkKeys assessments are the two most common measures used to classify students as college and career ready.
Systems and schools leverage different strategies for preparing students – reflecting varying strengths, resources, and goals for education.
Some systems are very strong in particular areas and weak in others, which may not meet the needs of all students.
The Alabama College and Career Strategic Plan (a component of Plan 2020) articulated a vision in which all Alabama students graduate high school college and career ready. The plan defines college and career readiness as:
“…a high school graduate [that] has the English and mathematics knowledge and skills necessary to either (1) qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses without the need for remedial coursework, or (2) qualify for and succeed in the postsecondary job training and/or education necessary for their chosen career (i.e. technical/vocational program, community college, apprenticeship or significant on-the-job training).”
High school graduates are classified as college and career ready (CCR) if they meet at least one of the following criteria.
Score college ready in at least one subject on the ACT
Score at the silver level or above on the WorkKeys Assessment
Earn a passing score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Exam (college-level courses delivered in high schools)
Successfully earn a Career Technical Education credential
Earn dual enrollment credit at a college or university
Successfully enlist in the military”