A view from the top

Hat experiment opens eyes about intensity of Iron Bowl rivalry

Mobile Press-Register
Aug. 19, 2007

MOBILE, ALA. — Hey Auburn fans, want to know how the other side lives? What about the Alabama people out there—ever wonder what it’s like to rock the orange and blue?

If so, then I’ve got a story for you.

I recently spent a couple of months submerged in undercover work so dangerous I often feared for my safety. It was investigative journalism at its very best. Newspaper reporting not for the faint of heart.

The premise: Would people treat me differently if I sported an Alabama hat or an Auburn hat?

In a word: absolutely.

What made the experiment work was my decision not to initiate contact. I wanted to see if people came to me with “Roll Tides!” and “War Eagles!” I wanted them to throw the first punch.

I learned first-hand that people do, in fact, treat you differently depending on which cap you’re wearing. But that’s a no- brainer, right? What wasn’t clear, and what I quickly learned over the course of my adventures, was that a very distinct gender difference exists between the two sides.

Basically, Alabama men do not talk to other Alabama men, and Auburn men do not talk to other Auburn men. Instead, they converse (pester?) only with the enemy.

On the flip side, Alabama women only talk to Alabama men and Auburn women only talk to Auburn men. They do not converse with the opposing party. Instead, they mingle (flirt?) with their own kind.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a stroll down Roll Eagle Way.

When I came to Baldwin County from the greater Seattle area three years ago, I brought along my favorite Washington Husky hat. Fitted. All black. A purple “W” outlined in white. I wore it with pride. I wore it all the time. But I never got a date. (Well, I did score a date at a singles auction last summer, but that poor girl actually had to pay money to go out with me.)

It seemed the Husky hat just didn’t have the special something I needed. Nobody knew what it stood for, I guess. Maybe they did and flat-out didn’t care. One guy actually asked me if it was a George W. Bush hat.

As the days and weeks went by, I began to mull a theory that if I tossed the Husky hat in favor of an Alabama cap, I might have better luck with the ladies.

I bought my Alabama hat at Wal-Mart for a little less than $10, and the first night I wore it out, I met two girls. I asked one of them for a date and she—gasp!—said yes. I was off to a pretty good start.

The second night, I met another girl, and I asked her for a date. She, too, said yes, leaving the Alabama hat a perfect 2-for-2 in a two-week span. Even if my newfound groove had nothing to do with the cap itself, the coincidence was undeniable.

You know how Peter Parker is a nerdy fella who aces physics tests and rides a bicycle to work, whereas Spider-Man is a web-slinging superhero whom the babes adore? That’s me in the Alabama cap, which I soon began to refer to as my “spider suit.”

But the Alabama had a different effect, as well.

The night I took it for a test ride, I was on my way to the rest room when some guy shoulder-checked me and slid a few choice words my way. “Excuse me?!” I shot back. “Do I know you?” Then it dawned on me. This dude was talking trash, and he was doing so because I was wearing an Alabama hat. He might not have been an Auburn fan himself, but he certainly was no friend to the Crimson Tide.

I’d just crossed into a different world. One inhabited by two like species—similar in so many ways, yet unalike in the most fundamental of beliefs: Alabama or Auburn?

Both caps had their moments and neither side wanted to back down, despite the fact they were essentially arguing over the same thing: football. It’s like 4-year-olds fighting over whose Tonka truck is better. Fire engines rule! No, dump trucks forever!

Some folks wanted to talk football. Some wanted to talk about Nick Saban’s $32 million contract. Others—Auburn fans, mostly—wanted to gloat about the Tigers’ Iron Bowl supremacy. And gloat they did.

“Five in a row, sucker!”

“Fear the other hand, Bammer!”

“Bring Mike Shula back!”

One Auburn fan started the conversation off nicely enough by asking what I thought of this year’s team. I told him they’d be better than last year and that Saban was the right man for the job. He said Alabama would never get to Auburn’s level.

I smiled and said that would change if Alabama could sign Foley’s Julio Jones, widely considered one of the best high school football players in the country. This, I thought, was a pretty valid point. Unfortunately, it marked the end of our short conversation.

The worst kind of football fan is the kind who takes things too far, and this jerk tossed out the

worst of words and said that one player can’t win games all by himself. Although I couldn’t disagree with that fact, this gentleman’s absolute lack of common sense was enough to turn me away for good. Not a good moment for the Alabama men.

Later, I picked up an Auburn hat at Wal-Mart for the same $10 price tag. It was beyond ugly. “What’s that on your head?” an Alabama belle asked me one night. “It’s an Auburn hat,” I replied. “Yeah, I can see that,” she fired back. And that was the end of that.

Embarrassed, I stopped by a hat store a few days later and picked up a different Auburn cap. This one I liked much better and business began to pick up.

One Tide fan told me Auburn was finished because it was, and I quote, “Two-thousand and Saban.” That’s poetry even Shel Silverstein would be proud of.

Things weren’t always bad, though. I stepped on a lady’s foot at the Flora-Bama one night, and when I whipped around to say “I’m sorry,” she smiled and said sweetly, “It’s OK, hon. You’re an Auburn fan.” Camaraderie! That’s what I’d been looking for all along.

In the end, the experiment came to a close with nothing but good times in the bank. It was a lot of fun to join the rivalry of rivalries for a short period of time, and it was an even better bonus to discover that Alabama and Auburn men and women react differently to their Tide and Tiger counterparts.

The guys fight. The girls flirt.

Overall, wearing the Auburn hat was far more intense than wearing the Alabama hat. I’m still a little surprised about that, too. I’d always heard the Tide fans were the scary ones, and maybe five years of playing second fiddle to Auburn upped the ante even further. But a five-game winning streak against Alabama also appears to have unleashed the Tigers’ inner beast. Who knew the Auburn guys could be so cruel?

For an outgoing Seattleite, wading knee-deep in the Alabama-Auburn discussion was a remarkable experience. Football’s big back home, but it’s not going to ruin my day, week, or year if the Huskies’ backup free safety stubs his toe and loses a 10th of a second off his 40 time.

Down here, however, that’s front-page banter. And it should be, for this is the South and football here is king.

Just know what you’re getting into when you throw on that colored cap and venture into the shallows. It’s deeper than you think. And the tide is exceptionally strong.

(Derek Belt served as a sports reporter for the Baldwin Register for the past three years. His last day was Friday, and he’s currently on a road trip back home to Seattle. Both the Alabama and Auburn hats are along for the ride.)