By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Sonny Smith and Pat Dye were willing to listen when the founder of UAB’s basketball program came to Auburn in the early ‘80s to pitch an idea.
“Gene Bartow, a great coach and a great man, said, ‘We need to play this thing because we can sell out the Civic Center in Birmingham,’” Smith said.
With an eye on recruiting and revenue, Smith, Auburn’s basketball coach, and Dye, the Tigers’ football coach and athletic director, agreed.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘He (Wimp Sanderson) is dominating the state (in recruiting). If I can throw recruiting into a three-way battle, we can start getting players from the state,’” Smith remembered. “So I agreed to play the game.”
Smith and Dye had their own idea. Play the game in Birmingham on the eve of the Iron Bowl.
“We thought that there would be more fans in town on that date than there would be any other time. And it turned out to be that way,” Smith said. “We pretty much dominated the crowd for the first year. The second year, it was a little closer to 50-50.”
Auburn won the first meeting, November 26, 1982, 63-61. The next day, Coach Dye’s football team won the Iron Bowl.
“We sold out both games, 16,000, whatever that place held at the time,” Smith said. “Was it a good thing? It made them better, but it also put us in position where we could recruit better in the state of Alabama.”
Auburn and UAB played annually throughout the '80s and '90s before the series ended in 1999.
After a 15-year layoff, Bruce Pearl renewed the rivalry last season, with Auburn winning at home, 75-74.
“One of our best wins a year ago, because we beat a really good team, and a really experienced team,” Pearl said. “I’m very excited about playing in this series against UAB. I think our fans appreciate it. The game should be played.”
As it did in the beginning, the matchup generates a buzz among the state’s basketball fans.
“Creating interest statewide is important,” Pearl said. “I think the quality of basketball in the state is getting better, the coaches, the recruiting, the interest. It does bring attention to it.
“Part of the reason I was willing to play in this series was to be able to get our team up to Birmingham. We have great fan support in Birmingham. We’re going to have a good crowd up at Birmingham.”
Auburn plays UAB Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Bartow Arena. Pearl’s team will return to the state’s largest city next season to play another Conference USA member, Middle Tennessee. The following year, Auburn and UAB will meet again in Birmingham.
“Three straight years, I’ve got a game in Birmingham. I think it’s important for Auburn’s program to be able to play throughout the state,” said Pearl, who also mentioned the possibility of future games in Huntsville and Mobile.
Smith pointed out one more benefit of the in-state showdown, one that could ultimately factor into postseason opportunities.
“It’s a great game that also gives you the strength of schedule that teams are faced with now,” Smith said. “That’s another good thing.”
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) December 1, 2016
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer