#2 Greatest Iron Bowl: The Boy from Red Bay

This is Part Four of a five-part series counting down the greatest Iron Bowls of all-time. This year’s game will be played Saturday, November 29th, 2008.  The titles for each game are taken from Bill Cromartie’s Braggin’ Rights, the authority on every Iron Bowl ever played. 

#5-1971 / #4-1967 / #3-1989 / #1-1972 /


Nov. 30th, 1985 – Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.

Alabama 25     Auburn 23

Of all the flashy quarterbacks, thousand-yard rushers, dazzling receivers, and brutish defensive giants in Alabama’s illustrious football history, skinny Van Tiffin from Red Bay, Ala., is the biggest legend.  

The Kick
The Kick

Tiffin was one of the best place kickers to ever step on the field for The University of Alabama.  He made more extra points than any other UA kicker ever and never missed a PAT.  A starter for three years, he is 3rd on The Crimson Tide’s all-time scoring list (for any position) and third in field goals made.  He booted the longest field goal in ‘Bama history, a 57-yarder vs. Texas A&M his senior year that broke the previous record of 53 yards…set by him the season before.  The kid was the best kicker to wear a Crimson/White uniform.  But consistency and stats don’t immortalize a kicker’s name.

One play, the final play of the ’85 Iron Bowl, immortalized the name Van Tiffin.  The tale is chilling.

This is not fiction.  It is unbelievable, but it is all true.  In an Iron Bowl that topped all Iron Bowls, both Alabama and Auburn came back from death, again and again.  

                                                  – Wayne Hester, The Birmingham News

This one should be put in a time capsule and preserved for the future so future generations will know what this football game was all about.

                                                  – Rosco Nance, USA Today

Bo Jackson and Gene Jelks ran wild.  Mike Shula and Pat Washington filled the air with passes…In the end, however, one man and one play decided Saturday’s Iron Bowl.

                                                  – Greg Bailey, Gadsden Times

Ray Perkins, the man who committed the unpardonable sin of succeeding Bear Bryant, may be pardoned after all.

                                                  – Clyde Bolton, The Birmingham News

Fifty times they’ve met now, these bitter rivals, and never before had their collision produced anything like this.

                                                  – Mark Bradley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Four possessions, four scores, a fourth quarter that will rival the best of anything college football has to offer.

                                                  – David Murphree, Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer

Pat Dye said this one didn’t hurt as much as last year’s, but the Auburn head coach carried back home about all the misery one man can handle.

                                                  – Jimmy Bryan, The Birmingham News

Before the season, Inside Sports ranked Auburn #1.  Playboy Magazine ranked Alabama #1.  The AP poll, which at the time only ranked its top-20 teams in the nation, placed the Tigers at #2 pre-season, behind Oklahoma.

The Vols cooled
Tennessee gave Auburn a cold shower just three weeks into the 1985 season. A couple weeks later, the Vols beat Alabama too.

The Tide was nowhere to be found on the AP’s preseason rankings.  Both teams failed to meet their own (and most everyone else’s) expectations during the 1985 season.  

AU lost to Tennessee in Knoxville and Florida at home.  The Vols and the Gators shared the SEC crown that year.  UA lost narrowly to Penn State in Happy Valley and to Tennessee in Birmingham.  A tie with LSU soured the year even more.  Before the Iron Bowl, Auburn accepted a bid to play in the Cotton Bowl.  Alabama accepted an offer to play in the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii.  

So the Tigers (8-2-0) and The Tide (7-2-1) entered the ’85 matchup aware that the game would not affect bowl trips.  No national championship implications.  Not even an SEC title was at stake.  Nothing on the line…except state pride.  Those are the fiercest.

The first three quarters of this Iron Bowl were great.  The Tigers jumped out to an early 13-0 lead, thanks to a long early drive that resulted in a short TD run by fullback Craig Turner, an Auburn fumble, and a long punt return by UA’s Greg Richardson.  After both the fumble and the long return, each of which gave ‘Bama the ball in Tiger territory, the AU defense held firm and forced two field goals by Tiffin.  

Auburn battled back, led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, and scored on a Bo run from seven yards out.  The Tide offense, led by quarterback Mike Shula got back down to the Auburn 25 late in the half, stalled, and Tiffin booted another three-pointer with just over a minute remaining before halftime and Bama was up by nine.

1985 Heisman Trophy Winner
Bo Jackson: 1985 Heisman Trophy Winner

However, in the little time he had, Pat Washington, Auburn’s tough QB, guided his own offense to within field goal distance with seconds still left on the clock.  AU place kicker Chris Johnson’s kick sailed through the uprights as the halftime horn bellowed.  Alabama 16     Auburn 10.

Neither team scored in the 3rd quarter.  And so one of the fiercest and wildest 4th quarters in Iron Bowl history began with The Tide up on the Tigers by six.  For fans and players in the State of Alabama, it would be a segment in time that still unearths eerie shivers of joy or icy shudders of agony, depending on whether they bleed crimson or orange and blue.

…The giant football fireworks display was about to explode over Legion Field.  And, ready or not, the home viewers and the 75,808 souls at the site were about to be taken on a roller coaster ride of thrills and chills.  This was no place for the timid.  (Cromartie 317)*

At the beginning the 4th, ‘Bama found itself close to scoring position.  Shula tossed a pass into the endzone, but AU cornerback snagged it for a touchback.  Washington, Jackson, and the rest of the Tiger offense covered 80 yards in 16 plays, chewing up over half the final period.

On his 23rd birthday, Bo Jackson pounded UA for 142 yards and two touchdowns.  He finished his career as the series' all-time leading scorer and rusher, with 38 total points and 630 total yards (157.5 yds/game) in four Iron Bowl contests.
On his 23rd birthday, Bo Jackson pounded UA for 142 yards and two touchdowns. He finished his career as the series

When Bo dived into the endzone from a yard out to knot the scoreboard, he became the series’ all-time leading scorer with 38 points.  Kicker Johnson missed the extra point.  Not so fast, however…Alabama was flagged for having too many players on the field, and Johnson got another shot.  His second try sailed through.  Auburn was ahead for the first time of the day, 17-16, with just over seven minutes remaining.

In just 66 seconds, Alabama ripped the lead back into its favor.  Gene Jelks took a toss-sweep at the UA 26, skated to the outside, and raced 74 yards for the touchdown.  The two-point conversion pass attempt failed, but The Tide was winning again, 22-17 with 5:57 on the clock.  

Auburn again swallowed up precious minutes on its next possession.  The Tigers took their time on an 11-play, five minute drive that covered 70 yards, and 240-lb sophomore fullback Reggie Ware concluded it with a short touchdown run.  Up by a single point, Dye called for a two-point attempt.  Washington dropped back for a pass, but the UA defense got to him quick, forcing the right-hander to throw back left to a screening Jackson.  At an awkward position, legendary linebacker Cornelius Bennett got a paw on the weak pass and batted it to the turf.  So for the second time in Dye’s AU coaching career, the Tigers were on top of ‘Bama, 23-22, with very little time for Alabama to reach scoring position.

00:57 on the clock.  Van Tiffin stood in shadows, behind towering football players on the ‘Bama sideline.  He was close enough to the stands that, even over the roar of the crowd, he could hear particular shouts from a couple liquor-filled fans.  They told the kid from Red Bay to get ready.  This game was gonna boil down to him and his scrawny leg.  

“The Drive”

Meanwhile, The Tide began one of the most incredible journeys for victory on its own 20.  Incomplete pass on first down.  On the next play, defensive end Harold Hallman and a few other Tigers dragged Shula to the grass for an 8-yard loss.  Hopes for a miracle were dwindling quickly, as UA faced 3rd-and-18 from its own 12 and was forced to burn its final timeout with 00:37 to go.  “Cool Mike Shula,” had led his offense on an amazing hurry-up last minute scoring adventure vs. Georgia in the first game of the season.

Although maligned as a head coach, Mike Shula is still a Crimson Tide hero for his accomplishments as a quarterback, most notably the drive to set up Tiffin's game-winner in '85.

That drive had begun with only 50 seconds remaining, and ended with The Tide prevailing, 20-16, over the Bulldogs.

But this was the Iron Bowl.  And the Georgia defense that year was no Auburn.  And this was the Iron Bowl.  Hopes for a miracle were dwindling quickly, as UA faced 3rd-and-18 from its own 12 and was forced to burn its final timeout with 00:37 to go.  

Shula stayed cool, finding Jelks for a 14-yard gain on the next play.  Most importantly, the UA receiver got out of bounds, freezing the clock at 00:29.  It was still 4th-and-four.  Auburn was one play from sealing a comeback victory in what had already become one of the classics.

On the ensuing 4th-down play, UA head coach Ray Perkins made one of the most insane calls in Iron Bowl lore.  If Alabama was gonna run, Auburn knew the ball would be put into Jelks’s hands.  It was.  Shula took the snap and tossed right to Jelks on the wide side of the field, as the AU defense expected.  But what

Ray Perkins: Complete Maniac.

Auburn (or anyone else) did not foresee, is that Jelks would not end up with the football at the end of the play.  Receiver Al Bell, who had lined up wide right, cut back behind the line of scrimmage to catch a reverse toss from Jelks.  At least one Auburn defender, either Greg Robinson or Tracy Rocker, had sniffed out the trickery and had a shot at belting Bell as he bolted around the end.  But Shula side-swiped the big AU lineman on what was the game’s biggest block.  What a block by the quarterback!  Bell raced for 20 yards to the 46-yard line before being ushered out of bounds by a swarm of blue jerseys.  The heart-stopping play only took eight seconds off the clock.  00:21 remaining.

An incomplete pass play burned six seconds.  On second-down, Shula found Greg Richardson over the middle.  Richardson hauled in the catch around the AU 45, but he kept trucking and somehow dragged defensive back Luvell Bivens out of bounds at the 35 to stop the clock at 00:06.

…Shula keeping a back in for protection…looks…set…looking…looking…dumping…open Richardson…HEAD TO THE BOUNDARY GREG!  HEAD TO THE BOUNDARY, GET OUTTA BOUNDS!!!  He does! 35-yard line!  Six seconds to go…let’s bring on the field goal unit!

“The Kick”

Tiffin, all 160 pounds of him, rushed onto the field with his kicking team.  As if the Tide players were unaware Richardson had reached the sideline to stop the clock, they scrambled to snap the ball.  Tiffin hardly gave himself time to line up his tee behind the center…hardly measured his steps backward and left to line himself up for the kick…hardly even breathed.

52 yards, straight down the pipe, as zeroes melted onto the Legion Field scoreboard clock..

Alabama 25     Auburn 23.

Tiffin would say later the mad rush to get the kick away helped because it gave him no time to think about what he was about to attempt.  People have gasped for 23 years, and will forever continue to think about not only what he attempted, but also what he did.


* Cromartie, Bill.  Braggin’ Rights: Alabama vs. Auburn.  3rd ed.  Atlanta, GA: Gridiron Publishers, 1993.



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