For decades, the aging-but-splendid building on Graymont Avenue earned its nickname.
Legion Field was, indeed, the Football Capital of the South.
It’s been years since the name truly fit the place. Bear Bryant doesn’t lean against the goalposts anymore.
Crimson Tide fans don’t flood the neighborhood like they used to. Alabama and Auburn haven’t met in Birmingham since 1998. Heck, it’s been six years since the city removed the upper deck.
For one weekend each year, however, Legion Field still rocks. That weekend is here.
Saturday, Alabama State and Alabama A&M will collide in the annual Magic City Classic, and as A&M coach Anthony Jones explained this week, it’s always a really big deal.
“This game is so unique. You’re going to have about 70,000 people there,” said Jones, in his 10th year with A&M. “When we have our moment, about 35,000 of our fans will be acting a fool. They have their moment, you have about 35,000 of their fans acting a fool.”
This year, however, the Magic City Classic could prove to be a bigger deal than ever. After all, it’s been a long, long time since these teams met with so much on the line. It could be the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s matchup of the year.
The Hornets (6-1, 6-0) have been the best team in black college football. With a win Saturday against their archrivals, they can clinch their second straight Eastern Division title.
But they can’t afford to sleepwalk into Legion Field, because A&M (5-2, 4-1) is on a roll. Since a stunning 21-6 loss at Southern on Sept. 10, the Bulldogs have won five straight games. A win could suddenly plant them in the driver’s seat in the East.
As Jones put it, accurately and succinctly: “This is probably the biggest that I’ve seen the Magic City Classic.”
In other words, expect some serious foolishness. Even more than usual.
OK, so maybe records don’t ever mean much between rivals. Fans always want to win. Presidents and chancellors always want to win. And in a game like this, coaches feel the need to win.
Just ask Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow. Sure, these are high times in Montgomery; his team is undefeated in SWAC play, closing in on a second consecutive East title.
That’s exactly why Barlow has to worry. One loss Saturday could ruin all the fun.
As a former ASU wide receiver who loved playing at Legion Field himself, Barlow knows what this one means.
“It is the Classic,” Barlow said. “We had everyone state their visions at the beginning of the season, and most of these guys said they wanted to have an opportunity to be SWAC champs and get back to the championship game. This game is a big reason for that. We get an opportunity to go to the championship if we are able to have success and win this game.”
It’s also an event. In recent years, SWAC fans in Alabama have openly wondered if the Magic City Classic has surpassed the Bayou Classic, both in importance and grandiosity.
Sure, even now, the Bayou Classic is often regarded as the Super Bowl of black college football. Still, the folks in Alabama have a decent argument.
Consider this: Three years ago, Grambling and Southern played with a possible berth in the SWAC championship game at stake (an SU win would have forced a coin flip among Southern, Grambling and Prairie View). That year, the Bayou Classic drew a crowd of 59,874.
A few weeks earlier, with virtually nothing at stake, Alabama A&M faced Alabama State in Birmingham. That game drew a crowd of 69,113.
Two years ago, the Magic City Classic drew 55,322 fans. The Bayou Classic drew 53,618.
Then there was last year. Even as Alabama A&M staggered to an uncharacteristic 3-8 record, 61,879 fans packed Legion Field to watch the Hornets make easy work of the Bulldogs, 31-10.
A month later, Bayou Classic attendance was announced at 43,494, lowest in the game’s 39-year history. You get the idea.
“The Alabama guys that I played with in the pros all kept their eyes on the Magic City Classic,” Barlow said. “When they got their schedules for the season, they looked to see if they were going to be off (on their bye week) for the Magic City Classic, because they wanted to be a part of it like so many other people.”
This year, however, the Magic City Classic is different. For one more weekend, it will turn Legion Field into the Football Capital of the South again.