(When college football returns this season, we may see the final days of Legion Field. Construction of a new 45,000-seat stadium is chugging along and set to be complete by the 2021 UAB Blazers’ football season. If you are feeling nostalgic and a little stir crazy at home, give her one last visit to say goodbye.)
If you are under the age of 40, go ask daddy or granddaddy what he thinks when you say the words “Legion Field”. You are likely to get some mixed reactions of exhilaration and rolling eyes. In a word, the relationship between the old stadium and Alabamians is ... “complicated”. It is definitely a Love/Hate relationship.
Legion Field was opened on November 19, 1927 for a game in which Howard College (now known as Samford University) shut out Birmingham–Southern College 9-0.
Due to the centralized location and the capacity, both Alabama and Auburn began using the the stadium as an alternate home field. Legion Field hosted the Iron Bowl every year from 1948 to 1988. Coach Bear Bryant was quite fond of playing in Birmingham and often saved the big games for that venue. Many of the Bear’s most historic wins came in the stadium.
Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles on ABC were mainstays at Legion Field as Bama hosted several elite-level opponents such as Notre Dame, Penn State, Tennessee, Georgia and of course the Iron Bowl, in the facility.
Some of the most memorable Crimson Tide moments occurred at the Old Gray Lady.
Who can ever forget “The Sack” when Cornelius Bennett broke Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein in two (and yes, that was a fumble, Stevie Wonder ref)?
How about “The Kick” when Van Tiffin booted a 52-yard field goal to win the 1985 Iron Bowl?
Or when Wrongway Bo Jackson screwed up and Rory Turner “Waxed that dude”?
All these historic moments went down at Legion Field.
As the years passed, the Smithfield neighborhood and downtown Birmingham in general experienced a good bit of urban flight south to Hoover, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and the like. The area, which was never quite the garden spot of the city to begin with, continued to deteriorate and scared some fans away. [Personally, I never heard of anything bad happening to fans outside the stadium but it was and still is a sketchy area.] Most residents would charge a couple of bucks for fans to park in their grassless front yards. Many fans would reluctantly accept and pray their cars were still there unscathed when they came back.
Another problem was getting to the games. Access to and from highways always involved surface streets. If you were a broke-ass student coming from Tuscaloosa, you would cram eight people in a car or hope somebody had the wherewithal to charter a bus. Some of these current students who can’t seem to walk across campus to make an 11 o’clock kickoff don’t know how good they have it. Imagine adding an hour and a half drive or bus ride to the mix. Night games were fun for students but by the time they got back to T-town, the night was over.
Did I mention the aluminum bench seats that would alternately scald or freeze your backside?
In 1989, Auburn had had enough and moved their home portion of the Iron Bowl to Jerdin-Hair. It took some complaining by the younger newly-donating Bama alumni and arm-twisting of the old guard, coupled with dwindling attendance in Birmingham and expansion of Bryant-Denny to convince the UA Administration to pull the plug on Legion Field. The 1998 Iron Bowl was the final one witnessed in the decaying stadium.
Much to the chagrin of many, Alabama continued to play a B’ham game or two here and there but the last one came on August 30, 2003, when the Crimson Tide thrashed South Florida 40-17 in front of a reported 76,780 spectators.
LIFE AFTER BAMA
Without the funds earned from the University of Alabama, the city of Birmingham struggled to keep Legion Field properly maintained. The once proud upper deck of the east stands had to be torn down in 2005 due to structural issues, reducing the capacity from 83,091 to 71,594.
The stadium found new hope when the UAB Blazers entered the college football fray in 1991 and made Legion Field their home stadium. However, they have struggled to utilize a fraction of the seats over the years.
Many short-lived Non-NFL pro football teams have called Birmingham home with the latest being the Birmingham Iron of the quickly defunct AAFL. The Birmingham Bowl has existed since 2006, but it is always such a sad affair.
One proud moment was hosting soccer for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Among the musical artists that have held concerts at Legion Field are U2, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones.
THE END IS NEAR
What was once called the “Football Capital of the South” has become a crumbling relic of days gone by. Even UAB is looking towards greener pastures.
Legion Field is creeping up on her 100th birthday and one has to wonder if she will make it to that hallmark.