Legion Field: Time is not on the side of Birmingham’s former ‘Football Capital of the South

 

The Old Gray Lady is pretty much all alone now.

The children grew up, moved away from home, and never came back to Graymont Avenue.

A couple of times of year, though, guests from out-of-town still stop by to visit and make her feel special again.

But “the Old Gray Lady on Graymont,” as Birmingham’s Legion Field is otherwise fondly known, is in her late 80s now, and as much as she has meant to the city, and the state, all of these years, time is not on her side anymore.

Auburn University, which used to host as many as three games a year at Legion Field, played its last home game there way back in 1991.

The University of Alabama, which made Legion Field its home away from home for three-quarters of a century, moved all of its games to Tuscaloosa after 2003.

The state high school “Super 6” championships left after 2008.

And the final blow may have come early last month, when UAB President Ray Watts shut down the Blazers football program, taking with it Legion Field’s last regular tenant.

Yes, there’s still this Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl, as well as the annual Magic City Classic in October, but that’s about it for an 87-year-old landmark that once boasted of being the cradle of Southern football.

“It’s kind of sad to see Legion Field now and think what it once was, in terms of being ‘The Football Capital of the South,”’ David Housel, the former Auburn athletics director, says. “But time marches on.”

That nickname – once painted in block letters across Legion Field’s old east-side upper deck — referred to the city in general, but if Birmingham was indeed the South’s football capital, there is no doubt that Legion Field was its foundation.

It’s where the Iron Bowl got its name, where Paul “Bear” Bryant wrote history, and where the SEC Championship Game was born.

It’s also the home of “The Run in the Mud,” “Punt Bama Punt,” “Bo Over the Top” and “The Kick.”

And even if you’re just a casual observer of Alabama and Auburn football, you know what all of those mean and how big they were.

As Housel says, “You wouldn’t have enough room in the paper to list all of the great games that were played there.”

A stroll back in time

For a while, at least, its history was Legion Field’s major selling point, says Bob Lochamy, the former executive director of Birmingham’s old Hall of Fame Classic in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“The history and the reputation of Legion Field was by far our strongest lobby to the teams that we were interested in inviting to play in our annual bowl game,” Lochamy says. “Most teams’ athletics directors were most interested in becoming part of Legion Field’s history.”

But that was then, and this is now.

And it is perhaps fitting that “The Football Capital of the South” sign was stripped away when the upper deck was deemed structurally unsafe and had to be taken down in 2005.

After the SEC Championship moved to Atlanta and the Iron Bowl went to Alabama and Auburn’s respective campuses, Birmingham and Legion Field haven’t been the football capital of much of anything for well over a decade.

Yet, even though the paint is chipping and the concrete is starting to crack, Legion Field, even when it’s empty, still has a nostalgic majesty about it.

You feel it when you walk into the stadium on a crisp December morning and sit down in the seat where you watched your first Alabama-Tennessee game in 1973.

Or when you stroll out onto the turf and stand on the right hash mark where Van Tiffin drilled that 52-yard field goal in the ’85 Iron Bowl.

Or when go up in the press box where the great Simpson Pepper, “the Voice of Legion Field,” impassively intoned, “Correct Legion Field stadium time: 1 p.m., 30 minutes until kickoff,” before the start of a game.

“From a nationwide standpoint, Legion Field, in its day, was one of the meccas of college football,” Eli Gold, the longtime Alabama radio announcer, says. “When you turned on the TV and you saw Legion Field, you automatically knew it was a big game.”

Although he grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Birmingham in 1978, Gold knew all about Legion Field from afar, and he made his own memories there when he broadcast his first Alabama game in 1989.

“My Uncle Harry, when he and my Aunt Pearl came to visit many, many years ago, one of the things on his to-do list, I had to take him to Legion Field,” Gold recalls. “He had always lived in New York, on Long Island, but he had heard about it and seen it on TV.”

A tribute to the veterans

Built with concrete and steel and adorned with stately brick arches, Legion Field was designed by Birmingham architect D.O. Whilldin and named in honor of the Birmingham American Legion post that put up the plaques outside the south entrance listing the names of those Alabama veterans who died serving their country during World War I.

Construction began on the 21,000-seat stadium in 1926, and the next year, about 17,000 of those seats were filled when Howard College (now Samford University) shut out Birmingham-Southern College 9-0 in the first college football game played there on Nov. 19, 1927.

Alabama played it first game at Legion Field five days later, losing to Georgia 20-6, and Auburn came in the following year, falling to Ole Miss 19-0.

As the passion for college football continued to grow over the ensuing decades, so, too, did Legion Field, which doubled its capacity by adding another 21,000 seats when the south end zone was closed in in to create a horseshoe in 1947. It grew again with the addition of the iconic 9,000-seat upper deck in 1961.

In the first Alabama-Tennessee game played right after the upper deck was finished, those shiny, new seats sat empty, glistening in the October sun, because the latest stadium addition did not pass an initial safety inspection. The displaced fans instead sat in folding chairs that were set up along the sidelines and behind the end zones.

Eventually, Legion Field would grow to slightly more than 83,000 seats in the early 1990s, until the upper deck was torn out nearly 10 years ago, reducing capacity to its current 71,000.

Landing, and losing, the Iron Bowl

It was at Legion Field that, in 1948, cross-state adversaries Alabama and Auburn renewed their rivalry after a 41-year absence, giving birth to what is still known as the Iron Bowl, even though the game has long since left the Steel City.

In 1958, when Paul “Bear” Bryant returned to his alma mater of Alabama to rebuild a proud program that had fallen into disarray, he wisely made Legion Field his main stage, and when TV came along, he positioned his players on the east sideline, opposite the press box, so the cameras would always be on him and his team.

“Birmingham is an Alabama town, no question about it,” Auburn’s Housel says. “And it is an Alabama town for two reasons. One is the proximity to Tuscaloosa, and two is the fact Coach Bryant did a great job cultivating Birmingham and making Birmingham an Alabama town — which is to his credit that he did.”

Although the stadium was supposedly split 50-50 when the Tide and Tigers played — with half the fans wearing orange and blue and the other half-dressed in crimson and white — Auburn fans always felt like they were the visitors at the Iron Bowl, Housel says.

“It was rough for Auburn people to play there in the’ 70s,” he says. “All of the ushers were wearing Alabama caps and the parking attendants were wearing Alabama caps, the concession people. It was just totally Alabama.

“There is nothing wrong with being an Alabama town, unless you just happen to be on the other side of it.”

For decades, Alabama played all of its marquee games – Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, USC, Penn State and Notre Dame among them – not in its smaller on-campus stadium in Tuscaloosa but an hour away in the much larger Legion Field.

Meanwhile, as Auburn expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, it left Birmingham – first moving the Georgia Tech and Tennessee games to campus before finally getting to play its home game against Alabama at its real home in 1989, an achievement Auburn’s Pat Dye famously likened to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. (Auburn would come back to Legion Field to play one last Iron Bowl as the home team there in 1991.)

“The whole time Coach Bryant was cultivating Birmingham, Auburn was trying to pull out,” Housel says. “So you’ve got one tenant saying how much they love you and playing their biggest games there, and the other one is trying to get out and go home.”

That the game is still called the Iron Bowl irks Allen Barra, a Birmingham native and author of “The Last Coach: A Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.”

“It’s not the Iron Bowl anymore,” Barra says. “They called it the Iron Bowl, let’s remember, because it was in Birmingham.”

Getting ready for a rumble

The stadium’s steel-town scruffiness was part of its charm, and for a hard-core sports fan, going to a game at Legion Field was an experience not unlike what it must have felt like going to the Bronx to visit the original Yankee Stadium, or seeing the Celtics play at the old Boston Garden.

On game days, neighborhood residents turned their lawns into parking lots, and backyard cooks hawked hot dogs and ribs they grilled on their steel-drum smokers.

Across Graymont Avenue, the crowds trying to squeeze into the Tide & Tiger bar or the Touchdown Café often spilled out the front doors and onto the sidewalk.

“I liked that bare-knuckles feeling of going to a game at Legion Field,” says Tom Cosby, a former Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce executive who lobbied mightily to keep the Iron Bowl here.

“When you went to Legion Field, from the minute you drove into the area and the first guy jumped on the hood of your car with a towel in his hand trying to wave you to park in his front yard, you knew you were in for a rumble. It was going to be a clash of the gladiators, a clash of the titans.

“You knew it was Birmingham,” Cosby adds. “It was the Iron Bowl. It was going to be a fight, and to me, that was what was great about going to Legion Field.”

From the Stallions to the Stones

Over the years, Legion Field also became the graveyard for an alphabet soup of short-lived, second-tier professional football leagues and teams — from the WFL’s Americans and the USFL’s Stallions to the WLAF’s Fire and the XFL’s Thunderbolts – that came and quickly went.

The first of those leagues, the WFL, brought Birmingham its only championship, when the Americans defeated the Florida Blazers 22-21 at Legion Field in the first and only World Bowl.

After the game, sheriff’s deputies seized the Americans’ uniforms and equipment because the financially strapped team still owed supplier Hibbett Sporting Goods nearly $40,000. Fifteen games into the next season, the WFL folded.

Football, though, wasn’t the only draw.

The Rolling Stones played Legion Field on three separate occasions – the first of which was at an old WVOK “Shower of Stars” concert with the Beach Boys and the Righteous Brothers in 1965.

When the Stones came back to town on their Steel Wheels tour in 1989, the upper deck literally swayed while the Stones rocked, Walter Garrett, the longtime and now retired Legion Field stadium manager, recalls.

“We were not planning to open the upper deck, but so many people bought tickets, we ended up opening it,” Garrett says. “It was probably 75 percent full, and everybody was swaying in time to the music. And literally, it got to moving so much that the water was sloshing out of the commodes in the restroom.”

Pink Floyd and U2 also performed there, and evangelist Billy Graham brought his crusade to Legion Field, too.

The biggest crowd ever at Legion Field, though, came not to watch a football game but to see futbol — when, in 1996, 83,810 fans filled the stadium to the brim to see the United States play Argentina in an Olympic soccer match.

“I can assure you every seat was sold,” Garrett says. “People were standing in the ramps, three and four deep. It was really something to see.”

Letting go and moving on

Those days may be long gone, though.

“Bleak,” is Garrett’s one-word forecast for Legion Field’s future.

“I can’t give you a better answer than that,” he says. “I don’t see how it can survive — with the cost of keeping this place up, keeping it clean, keeping it in safe and usable condition.”

Then Garrett says what a lot of other people are already thinking.

“I guess you could tear it down for scrap, but that sure would be a shame,” he says. “It’s going to be a tough decision, whoever has to make it.”

Maybe it is the collective guilt left over from allowing the old Birmingham Terminal Station to be demolished in 1969, but Birmingham is a city that clings to its past like a family heirloom, taking great pride in such architectural gems as the Alabama Theatre, which, coincidentally, opened the same year as Legion Field.

Cosby, who was personally instrumental in preserving 104-year-Rickwood Field and has led the fundraising campaign to restore the century-old Lyric Theatre, says that, for whatever reason, Birmingham doesn’t seem to have that same passion for saving Legion Field.

“To me, Rickwood Field had to be restored, and I never felt that way about Legion Field,” Cosby says. “And you tell me why. I don’t know why.

“I have to say, if they ever do build a dome stadium and they tear down Legion Field, I would be surprised if there is a hue and cry that we should have saved it.”

But who knows?

Maybe the Old Gray Lady will outlive them all.

This article was republished with permission from the original author, Mr. Bob Carlton and the original publisher, The Birmingham News.

 

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