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Friday Flashback: Van Tiffin writ his name in crimson flame with “The Kick”

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The unassuming kicker out of Red Bay High School became the Tide’s dagger in a knife fight with the Auburn Tigers at Legion Field

The moment of truth...

Only in Alabama can a game played between two teams with no realistic title opportunities result in an outcome that is still talked about some 32 years later.

The 1985 Iron Bowl is just such a game. The reason(s): the Tigers’ second half comeback on the shoulders of Heisman winner Bo Jackson, the Tide’s final steely-nerved drive, and a final play which will forever be known in the state of Alabama as “The Kick.”

On that day, legends abounded. The two teams were coached by luminaries of their respective programs. Leading the the Tide was renowned former Bama receiver and Bear Bryant coaching progeny Ray Perkins. The Tigers were led by another Bryant protégé who went on to lead Auburn to a high water mark, the great Pat Dye. Both rosters were littered with recognizable names. Alabama fielded a defense made up of stalwarts like Cornelius Bennett and Jon Hand, and offensive stars Mike Shula, Albert Bell and rising star running back Gene Jelks. Bo Jackson, a legend in his own right and one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, solidified his Heisman campaign with a 142-yard performance with a touchdown on 31 carries on the final Saturday of November.

But when the smoke cleared that evening, the name of no other gridiron hero loomed larger than that of a 5’9” special teams player from the tiny northwest Alabama town of Red Bay: junior place kicker Van Tiffin. Tiffin, with the ice-cold temperament of a seasoned fighter pilot, rushed on the field that day with a mere six ticks left on the clock in the biggest game of his career to date and simply did…his…job.

In that moment, Tiffin and “The Kick” became a part of the Alabama consciousness, not just in Tuscaloosa, but across the state. While the Tide reveled in the walk-off victory over an arch rival, the play was just as memorable for those on the opposite sideline who had seen a Herculean effort by their running back and defense go for naught as the final few seconds melted from the clock. The exhilaration of victory for the triumphant was equally as nauseating for those forced to swallow such a defeat, and for that reason, “The Kick” will forever be chiseled into the edifice of football in the state of Alabama for as long as young men play for pride on fields of green with an oblong pigskin ball.

The Set-Up

The game should not have been that exciting, truth be told. Sure, it was an Iron Bowl, and in the state of Alabama, that amounts to a recognized holiday. But neither team was having a particularly memorable year, despite the talent on the sidelines. Alabama had shown marked improvement to be sure, remedying a 5-6 record in the previous year with a 7-2-1 mark (losses to Penn State and Tennessee, tie with LSU). Still, at Alabama, the bar is set perpetually high, and with Perkins supposedly settling into his role as program head and a loaded roster, the Tide faithful expected more. Auburn had high hopes after Jackson’s breakout season in ’84, and the Tigers were ranked second heading into the season. However, at the time of the Iron Bowl, the Tigers sat at 8-2 following losses to Tennessee and Florida.

In other words, neither team had any hope of being involved in a National Championship discussion. Even winning an SEC title was beyond the grasp of either team. The best hope was to finish with a win and gain a reputable bowl berth, and of course, the inherent bragging rights that an Iron Bowl win ensures the victor.

Alabama appeared the more motivated of the two teams in the early going. In the first quarter, Alabama marshalled its considerable offensive talent to march down the field on a 94-yard, 13-play drive capped with a short sweep run by fullback Craig Turner (from a two FB set, mind you…#manball) to give the Tide a 7-0 lead. Afterwards, Alabama’s defense held solid, with Hand forcing a fumble on a sack that set up Tiffin’s first field goal from 26 yards out. The kick gave the Tide a 10-0 lead, and Alabama appeared to be cruising headed into the second quarter.

Alabama continued to dominate, as wide receiver and returner Greg Richardson reeled in a punt and sprinted left down the sideline behind a wall of blockers for a 61-yard return. The Tide offense stalled short of the goal line, but Tiffin booted a 32-yarder true to put Alabama up 13-0.

Auburn rallied back, however, and following a punt return by Trey Gainous to mid-field and a deep pass to an uncovered Freddie Weygand, Jackson plowed into the end zone on short yardage to cut the Tide lead to 13-7. Alabama answered right back with a deep throw from Shula to Bell that set up another Tiffin kick, this one a 42-yarder that put the score at 16-7. The Tigers tacked on a FG of their own, and at the half, Alabama led 16-10.

After a scoreless third, Auburn seized the reins in a fourth quarter that ultimately saw four lead changes. Alabama was marching, but an errant Shula pass was intercepted by Auburn in the end zone, leading to a back-breaking 16-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by a Jackson TD run that put Auburn on top 17-16. Less than a minute later, Alabama regained the lead when freshman running back Gene Jelks flashed his brilliance on a 26-yard touchdown run between the tackles to run the score to 22-17. Auburn answered the bell once again with another long drive of 70 yards on 11 plays, and Reggie Ware ran the ball in to bring the score to 23-22 after a failed 2-point conversion.

That set the stage for the drive that culminated in “The Kick.”

The Path to Legend

Bama got the ball back at their own 20-yard line after the Auburn kickoff. Legion Field became a boiling cauldron of sound, so loud that the players later recounted an inability to hear the snap counts on that final drive. Alabama would need to go 80 yards with a mere 57 seconds on the clock.

The task was daunting, but not altogether unfamiliar for the Crimson Tide offense. After all, Bama had jumped into the fire early in the ’85 season, orchestrating a 71-yard scoring drive in only 50 seconds to beat a plucky Georgia team in the opener. The stakes were higher in the Iron Bowl, of course, and the Tigers under Dye would do anything but go gently into that good night against Alabama.

The confident Tide team lined up on first down and sought to gain a chunk of yardage right away. Shula tried to shoe-horn a pass in to tight end Thornton Chandler on the right hash, even though no fewer than four Auburn defenders were within a yard of him. On second down and 10, things went from bad to worse for the Tide offense, as the Tiger front penetrated and despite some nifty scampering to buy time, Shula was sacked for a whopping 18-yard loss.

Facing third and 18, Alabama finally executed. The left-handed Shula rolled out to his left and threw a deft pass to the outside shoulder of Jelks out of the backfield. Jelks reeled in the finger-tip pass and astutely reached for the sideline, stopping the clock with a 14-yard gain to get a manageable fourth down for the Tide.

With the game on the line, Tide offensive coordinator George Henshaw reached deep into his bag of tricks to pull out a weapon that had dispatched the Tide in their close loss to Penn State earlier in the season. Henshaw called a reverse to wide receiver Albert Bell. The call was brilliant, a chess move with tremendously high stakes. Alabama was known as a sweep team that favored the right side. The Tide gave Auburn a sweep look, and Shula pitched to Jelks, who darted right. The Tiger defense bit hard, and Jelks dished the ball to Bell streaking back across the formation. One Tiger defender read the reverse and slipped into the back field in position to make a play. But the crafty Shula saw the play developing, reversed course, and waited for the defender to square his shoulders before delivering a block that sprung Bell to the boundary. The fleet-footed wide receiver bolted for 20 yards after rounding the corner, giving Alabama new life.

The play was huge, but Alabama still needed 20 yards or so to get in Tiffin’s range. Though Tiffin was a good kicker, his percentage didn’t ensure a successful kick from any distance. After all, in 1985, Tiffin was 65 percent kicker, finishing the season hitting 17-of-26 attempts. Though Tiffin had hit a Tide-record 57-yarder against Texas A&M earlier in the season, he had already missed a 52-yard kick earlier in the Iron Bowl. To make things sketchier, the game-winning attempt would be kicked into the wind.

Alabama knew they needed to move the ball deeper into Auburn territory, and went for it on first and 10 from the Tide 46. Shula threw downfield to Richardson first, but the receiver was drilled prematurely by Tiger corner Luvell Bivens and the ball fell to the turf, a likely pass interference penalty uncalled. It was second and 10, and Alabama had a mere 15 seconds left on the clock with which to work. Richardson had been clutch against Georgia, so it’s no wonder Shula looked to the diminutive receiver again with the game on the line. On second down, the offensive line stumped the Auburn front, giving Shula time to allow Richardson to work his way open to the right hash. The pass was delivered in stride at the Auburn 45, and Richardson fought upfield before first contact. Bivens struck him at the 40, but the defensive back didn’t wrap up. Richardson fell forward to the 35 and managed to get out of bounds, stopping the clock.

There were only six seconds remaining in the game..

The Kick

The situation was set. Tiffin’s moment in time had arrived. He later recounted that he had tried to put the potential for a game-winning effort out of mind on that final drive, hoping instead that his teammates would find a way to get into the end zone. However, “two drunks” behind him repeatedly reminded him that the game was his to win or lose, and the Alabama product knew what was riding on his toe.

Six seconds remained. The ball rested on the right hash. The Tide special teams unit, ready to rush on the field as soon as the ball was placed, took little time to contemplate the gravity of the situation in that moment. In mere seconds, the line took their positions. Tiffin placed his tee and measured his steps. Butch Lewis snapped the ball true, and holder Larry Abney planted it true on the tee. Tiffin’s swung his leg as Auburn’s Kevin Gates, who had slipped the end, dove at his feet.

The rest is history. Tiffin’s 42-yarder split the uprights. The Tide rejoiced, the Tigers fell.

Ray Perkins sorted through the sea of crimson and blue, searching for the 5’9” kicker who had just helped him engineer what is remembered by most as the greatest win of his short Alabama coaching career. Legend has it that Perkins found Tiffin, hoisted him high, and proclaimed, “I love you Van Tiffin, I love you!”

Perkins was not alone in his adoration of the junior kicker from Red Bay. In the 32 years since that November 30, much has changed in college football. The fullback is all but an afterthought. Alabama finally has not one, but two Heisman winners of its own. The two schools have coaches who make Fortune-500 salaries. And the annual war between the Tide and Tigers is no longer fought on the blood-stained soil confined by the rusty-hulk of Legion Field.

But one thing hasn’t changed. That single moment, “The Kick,” remains as crystalline and resonant today among the faithful as it did on that cool November evening when Tiffin booted his way into crimson lore. It’s one of those rare confluences in a shared past when the emotions of two teams are so inseparably united, despite their positions on opposite ends of the joy-pain spectrum.

Tiffin played one more year at Alabama, earning All-American honors. His NFL career was a short one, as he played for a single season before retiring into relative obscurity, leaving the mantle of Tiffin greatness to his son Leigh, who would one day become a Tide kicking legend in his own right.

In that moment, however, Tiffin was the hero, the dragon slayer, the young man that all the younger men wanted to one day be. That goal, otherwise unattainable for a smidgen of a kicker from an Alabama backwater, is one of the myriad things that makes college football great.

(As always, a picture is worth a thousand words, so a video must be worth, what…at least 50,000. Here’s a view of the drive that preceded the kick, courtesy of the ABC College Football Broadcast duo of the day, Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles. Also, for your viewing pleasure, Van Tiffin discusses the kick through the lens of distance and time here.)