Auburn has a lot of rivals. The Iron Bowl is rightly recognized as the greatest rivalry game in college football. The Auburn/Alabama rivalry is so intense that Auburn fans found themselves involuntarily rooting for the Soviet basketball team to beat the Tide in a friendly during the height of the Cold War. Auburn has great rivalries with Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee in football. Auburn's historic rivalry with Georgia Tech, once more hated even than Alabama, now only exists in baseball. We all know about these rivalries. Today, we're going to talk about one of Auburn's great but severely undervalued rivalries, UAB Basketball.
Let's start in the beginning. Gene Bartow was the coach who followed John Wooden at UCLA. Like most men who try to follow legends, Bartow found that he could never satisfy the Bruin faithful. In his two seasons at Westwood, Bartow won two Pac-8 titles and went 52-9. He could have found another job at a prestigious basketball program. Before UCLA, he took Memphis State to the NCAA Tournament final. His resume would be comparable to John Calipari's when Calipari arrived in Lexington.
Instead of picking another top-level job, Bartow decided to start a program at a commuter school in Birmingham. He built the program there from scratch in the 1978-79 season. He made the NIT the following year. In their third season, UAB reached the Sweet 16. The next year, they were in the Elite 8. Instead of leaving UAB when the Blazers were hot, Bartow stayed. Over the next 13 years the Blazers went to 8 NCAA tournaments. It can be argued that Bartow did more to transform UAB from a sleepy commuter school into its present form than anyone else.
Auburn didn't have to schedule UAB. As one of the two power schools in the state, we could have ignored them. Ignoring them would have been a smart play. Alabama still has never scheduled UAB in basketball. UAB beat Alabama the only time the teams met in the 1993 NIT. Why put your program in a position where they might get beaten and loan legitimacy to this growing in-state power?
Fortunately, Sonny Smith and Auburn basketball took the risk and a great rivalry was born.
For the first few years, the teams would meet in Birmingham the night before the Iron Bowl in Legion Field. The teams first met on November 26, 1982, in Birmingham, the day before Bo went Over the Top. 16,796 fans packed the BJCC to watch Charles Barkley and Darrell Lockhart take on the Blazers. The Blazers, fresh of their Elite 8 performance, were a five point favorite. Auburn won 63-61 in a back and forth game.
The next four matchups between the Tigers and Blazers featured teams that both wound up in the NCAA tournament. Auburn won in 1984 and 1986. The Blazers won in '83 and '85. Between 15,000-17,000 fans attended each of the five games in Birmingham. Nine players from those matchups went on to be drafted by the NBA. The games raised both teams' profiles. During that five year span, Auburn made four NCAA tournaments. UAB made five.
After the Iron Bowl left Birmingham, the schools changed over to home and home. The teams continued to play regularly throughout the 80s and 90s and had some epic games. Auburn symbolically hosted UAB for the first time on December 1, 1989, the night before the first Iron Bowl in Jordan Hare. Wesley Person scored 44 points in a losing effort against the Blazers in 1993. Chris Porter's Tigers won the last two games of the series in 1998 and 1999. After 17 games, UAB holds a 10-7 lead.
After sixteen years of silence, Auburn and UAB are renewing this rivalry at just the right time. Both programs are on the rise. Like 1982, UAB is currently the best basketball program in the state. Also like in 1982, Auburn has heralded young talent that seems to be poised on the run of something great. This series will benefit both schools and I hope they continue it past the 2018-19 season.
Show up Friday night in the Auburn Arena and be loud. Show UAB the respect they deserve as a friendly rival. Cheer like Auburn's future rides on the next 40 minutes of basketball against the Blazers because in a way, it does.
If Auburn wants to be the best team in the SEC and competitive nationally, they first have to be the best team in the state. The path to a state title runs directly through Birmingham's Southside.