Make your home page

The Iron Bowl tornado warning game revisited 40 years later

Birmingham, Alabama, USA - November 27, 2009: Legion Field is known for hosting the Iron Bowl football games between Alabama and Auburn. Soccer games were hosted there during the 1996 Olympic Games.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Sports and weather, a combination that can be exciting, but also dangerous.

A wild weather scenario played out on this day 40 years ago in one of college football’s premiere rivalries between Auburn and Alabama, the Iron Bowl. The 1983 Iron Bowl, played on Dec 3, was the first since the passing of legendary Alabama football head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant who passed away in Jan 1983.

A strong upper level disturbance was forecasted to swing into the southeastern United States and bring the threat for severe weather during the afternoon and nighttime hours of Dec 3. In conjunction with this disturbance, warm temperatures in the 60s and 70s with 60 degree dew points were in place across Alabama.

It is important to note that the night previous to Dec 3 saw a gaudy amount of rainfall across central Alabama with 9.22 inches of rain being observed at the National Weather Service Birmingham office on Oxmoor road in Birmingham. Rain was occurring early on Dec 3 in Birmingham before dry conditions won out going into Saturday afternoon. A Tornado Watch was issued shortly after 11:30 AM CST, and this would be reissued after 3:30 PM CST for much of Alabama.

As the Iron Bowl was closing in on kickoff at Legion Field, temperatures were in the low 60s with mostly cloudy skies. Kickoff was slated for 2:50 PM CST. During the first half of the game, weather conditions in Birmingham were not yet adverse.

However, ominous storm development was taking place in eastern MS and western AL during the early to mid-afternoon hours. This activity was slated to move up towards the general vicinity of the game near and after sunset. With 51 seconds left in the first half, a very brief Tornado Warning interruption on TV took place mentioning Tuscaloosa and Greene counties being included until 5 PM CST. At this point, tornadoes had already been sighted near Gainesville and northwest of Tuscaloosa.

The first sign for trouble at Legion Field occurred when the Goodyear blimp turned tail and flew east just before the second half started. Severe storms were closing in on Birmingham as skies began to darken considerably in the third quarter.

With around two minutes left in the third quarter, Bo Jackson would score the eventual game winning touchdown by throwing down a powerful 71-yard run to the endzone. As that play ensued, a brief mini split screen weather interruption took place mentioning new warnings issued and sightings of tornadoes. This interruption occurred right after 5 PM CST. Weather forecasters at NWS Birmingham were concerned as a well defined hook echo within the storm of concern was heading straight for Legion FIeld. A hook echo is the storm’s area of rotation for tornado development.

Birmingham would be placed under a tornado warning with ten minutes left to go in the fourth quarter. Even with the warning being read over the loudspeakers, the game was not stopped and hardly anyone sought shelter.

The rain and wind ramped up substantially, which caused very messy conditions on the field. There was even an instance of one of the upper decks in the stands swaying due to the strong winds. All-in-all, a scoreless fourth quarter commenced with Auburn hanging on to win 23-20.

Thankfully, a tornado did not touch down as the cell passed over Birmingham, otherwise, the results would’ve been beyond disastrous. Sadly, this same cell would go on to produce an F3 tornado that killed two people when it destroyed a Winn-Dixie grocery store in Oxford. It is worth noting that a tornado warning had not been issued for Oxford prior to the tornado occurring.

The 1983 Iron Bowl was surely one of the better contested matchups in the series’s long standing history that dates back to 1893. Fans who attended this game more than likely still vividly remember the moment when the weather turned south and nearly caused a major catastrophe. If you ever find yourself in a situation in which you’re at a sporting event (or any other big gathering) when a tornado warning is issued, your safety is always number one.