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Some Memorable Plays (from the past) – 1986 Iron Bowl Edition

lawyer-tillman-auburn-reverse.jpg
              Lawyer Tillman celebrates scoring the winning touchdown in the 1986 Iron Bowl. (Source:al.com file photo)

Since last I visited these pages with my scrivenings, we have started looking forward to the next season’s games, one opponent at a time. Nonetheless, looking back at some memorable plays I was privileged to see in person, still seems appropriate as we move into the future. Today’s ramblings recall three plays from what will always be one of my favorite Iron Bowls, the only one I got to witness in person – the 1986 “Reverse to Victory.”

On a personal note, I attended that game with a group of AU student friends, including my best friend Bill, who had decided to invest in Iron Bowl student tickets at the start of the year. After having Thanksgiving with our own families, we staged our pilgrimage from Bill’s parents’ house in Montgomery, meeting there Friday afternoon. After a dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers we all went to see Star Trek IV and on Saturday had a nice visit with Bill’s grandmother who lived in Birmingham. It was already shaping up to be a great Thanksgiving break.

Regarding the Iron Bowl itself, Bama was coming in ranked at #7, following disappointing late-season losses versus Penn State and LSU. Auburn had just been upset by Georgia in the infamous “Hose Game,” effectively knocking the Tigers out of an SEC championship. And Auburn was dropped to #14 after suffering an equally unsettling setback against Florida two games prior. Nevertheless, the mood was incredibly upbeat among all fans, as you would expect at an Iron Bowl between nationally-ranked teams. In fact, my favorite off-the-field memory was a sign made by some Auburn faithful which stated: “The GOOD we HOSE; the WEAK we BEAT!”  It was a tough game through and through, but three plays that I witnessed that day remain etched in my mind.

1.  The Lawyer Tillman Reverse

Yeah, we all know this one: 32 seconds to go in the game, ball at the eight-yard line. From my vantage point in the opposite end zone, I could see Auburn’s ace wide receiver Lawyer Tillman frantically signal for a time-out that wasn’t going to be granted. I immediately felt that disaster was in the making, just like the previous year’s “Wrong-Way Bo” game.

The ball is snapped, then pitched to tailback Tim Jessie, who hands it to Lawyer, who runs around the left side, out of my view from the opposite corner of the field. I couldn’t hear anything intelligible from the Legion Field sound system because of all the yelling, and until the scoreboard changed I wasn’t exactly sure what happened. Through the magic of YouTube, however, we can all see it now:

                       
Bill’s dad taped the game on his new VCR that had a special slow-motion forward-reverse control. Bill and I went back to his parents’ house in Montgomery that evening, and we watched that play over and over, clicking it back and forth. We realized that the reverse wasn’t a crazy play designed merely to fool the defense–every AU man, including the quarterback, got a piece of a Bama defender and kept them away from Lawyer. In effect, the play was designed to fool one defender and keep him on the wrong side of the field–and that’s some coaching right there.

BUT before that, there was…

2.  The Trey Gainous Sliding Shoestring

We never would have gotten to the famous reverse if it wasn’t for this play earlier in the drive. Fourth down, mid-field, 2:18 remaining. AU quarterback Jeff Burger takes the snap and drops back to pass, looking for his favorite target, Trey Gainous. The ball leaves Burger’s hand on a downward trajectory. Gainous hits the ground, sliding on his hip, and secures the catch right in his bread-basket, for an amazing looking play. Here it is for you to see:

                         
After the game, Gainous said that he was considering staying on his feet and trying a shoestring catch to gain more yardage, but decided to slide to make it easier to catch the ball. I thought it ironic that what made the play look more difficult actually made the catch easier. In any case, for years afterwards, when Bill and I would talk about the game, Bill would always note, “I bet Trey is still getting some off that catch!”

BUT before that, there was…

3.  The No, Bo, NO!!!

Bama’s running game, consisting of Bobby Humphries at tailback with an elephant-sized fullback named Bo Wright leading the way, was chewing up yards and clock on the Tigers, hardly letting AU get their hands on the ball.

I can’t remember the exact game situation, but I believe it was in the second quarter. The Crimson Tide was ahead and had momentum, and was driving to increase their lead. Auburn stopped them short on third down, with literally an inch to go. Being at mid-field, the Tide coaches decide to go for it on fourth down, figuring if they made it they might continue their roll down the field. Bama lines up on the ball with Humphries and Wright in the I-formation. They are going to run it; the only question is who is going to get the ball.

The quarterback hands off to the up-back, Bo Wright, who is tackled for a loss by what appears to be all eleven Auburn Tigers. The thing I remember most on this play is the entire Auburn team going straight for the fullback and ignoring the leading rusher in the game. In the write-ups following the game, the Auburn defensive coaches revealed that they had discovered the fullback Wright would give a “tell” in short-yardage situations about whether he was getting the ball or blocking. If he was taking the ball, his hands would be on his knees; if he was blocking on the play, his fist would be on the ground. I thought to myself that was the ESSENCE of coaching–knowing what to look for, finding it out, and communicating it to the players to execute.

This particular play probably wasn’t the most dramatic play of that game, and I myself can’t remember what the AU offense did with the ball immediately after that stop.  However, this play not only turned the Tide away from a first down, but, as I remember it, helped to turn the tide of the whole game.

Thanksgiving, Star Trek, and a great win in my first (and only) Iron Bowl in person … memories are truly made of this!

Michael Val
(Who is especially grateful to Bill’s folks for hosting all of us that time!)

10 Comments

  1. DBAU81 says:

    I still have my VCR tape of that game. It was especially sweet for a couple of reasons. One was that we had lost the two previous Iron Bowls in excruciating fashion (1984 “Wrong Way Bo” to a much inferior team and 1985 on the Van Tiffin kick).
    The other was that Bama’s coach at the time was Ray Perkins, an arrogant jackass whom even many of the Tide fans despised. He had suggested during the week before the game that Pat Dye couldn’t understand the true nature of the Auburn-Alabama rivalry because he, unlike Perkins, had never played for either team. (Never mind the fact that by that time Dye had coached at Alabama for nine seasons and at Auburn for six).
    Incidentally, after that season Perkins quit and went to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he flopped. The last I heard of him he was coaching high school football somewhere in Mississippi.

  2. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    ……That was the last Iron Bowl I worked during. I’ve arranged a vacation every year since, for Iron Bowl week. I remember that day, I turned a hose on everyone in range after Tillman scored, including myself! It was quite a release!

    ……The way we lost the 1984 and 1985 Iron Bowls just made it that much sweeter. We flat-out tanked in 1984, against a 4-6 Bama squad. In 1985, we had the 23-22 lead, Bama had no timeouts and most of the field to go, and Mike Shula threw the ball down the middle. And they didn’t stop the clock on first downs, back then. Shula hit Craig Sanderson at midfield, and Sanderson dragged two Auburn defenders over the hash, and all the way to the sideline with one second left. If the Auburn guys could have made the tackle, or just kept him in the field of play for ONE more second, the game would have been over! Instead, it was Tiffin knocking through one for the Bama win.

    ……Frankly, I was having some pretty disturbing flashbacks of that kick when Bama lined up this past November with one second left…

  3. TigerWoman says:

    The ’86 Iron Bowl has always been one of my favorites. We thought we were going to attend but couldn’t get the tickets and had to watch it from a Birmingham hotel. The folks in the neighboring room had to wonder what was going on when Tillman scored on the reverse as we were screaming and jumping around the room like Pat Dye was on the sideline.
    Really enjoyed this post Michael.

  4. Older Whiskey says:

    Can’t let this one go without commenting on the display of courage by Brent Fullwood. They dragged him off the field about three times, but he just kept coming back. It was Brent’s misfortune to coexist with Bo Jackson for three of his four years, else his star would shine much brighter in our firmament of heroes.

  5. Pine Mt Tiger Pine Mt Tiger says:

    One of my all time favorites. Will never forget the reverse to victory. It was one of those moments that you always remember where you were at and who was with you. We watched the game at an Iron Bowl party and boy did we party when it was over. Good memories and good post Mr Val.

  6. AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

    Good memories and a good article MVH – 86 was truly a classic.

  7. meh130 says:

    We had run the Trey Gainous play before. It was a designed play with the tight end crossing left to right, and the slot receiver crossing right to left–a pick play. The crossing TE made it impossible for the DB covering the WR to stay close to him. The play was designed to be a high-percentage play–perfect for a fourth and five or a two-point conversion.

    I remember the play because we ran it earlier in the season and I remember Pat Dye describing it on the Auburn Football Review. He called it a pick play like in basketball, but legal because the TE only screens the DB, and does not contact him.

    Watching the game on TV, I called for the play prior to AU coming to the line, and as soon as I saw Trey in motion, I knew it was the play.

    Tillman’s reverse was executed perfectly.

  8. DothanTiger DothanTiger says:

    Enjoyed the walk down memory lane.

  9. restless6 says:

    Loved this! Thanks for sharing it!