A stadium built for two
by Emily Adams
SYLACAUGA — Come football season, there is a shift in the air around Sylacauga, a rising intensity among opposing students and fans eager for another opportunity to prove their dominance.

And come football season, there is one conversation that heats up year after year.

Separated only by half a mile and a railroad track, Sylacauga and B.B. Comer Memorial high schools Ñ the former a city school, the latter in the county School System Ñ represent different cultures linked by a common denominator called Legion Stadium.

Dedicated in 1948, the city owned facility is and has always been used by both schools. For four months a year, the rivals inhabit the same space, meticulously scheduling games and activities so as not to coincide, save for the final game of the season where they meet in the Marble City Classic.

While the athletic competition has lessened in recent years, the dispute over who calls the stadium home has become an emotion-filled point of contention.

“There is no question the stadium was built for both schools to use,” said historian and former SHS coach Earl Lewis. “With that said, Comer people have always had a little bit of an inferiority complex about it, and Sylacauga has always had a bit of a superiority complex, and that’s where the rivalry comes from.”

For roughly a decade, the city has discussed how to diplomatically transfer stadium ownership to one or both school systems, citing liability concerns and a lack of funding for improvements to the antiquated structure as its desire for doing so. At a recent work session, the City Council seemed to support deeding it to the city schools outright, but Mayor Doug Murphree says itÕs not that simple.

“I want to be fair to both, and I don’t want to do anything to hurt Comer,” said Murphree, who has pledged to press the issue until either a renovation or ownership agreement is reached. “Comer is a very important part of this community. I think the best thing to do is split it right down the middle and give them equal ownership.”

While dual ownership seems an obvious solution, it doesn’t satisfy the Aggies for several reasons. Sitting directly across from the Broadway Avenue stadium, SHS uses the facility almost daily for several classes and for its football, soccer and track programs, while BBCHS uses it about 10 times a year for varsity and B-team football games.

The Sylacauga School System has been the primary fiscal agent and maintenance provider for decades, according to Lewis, and openly accepted that responsibility in a 2002 joint-use agreement. According to School System records, the system has spent more than $433,000 on capital improvements since 1998 and spends about $70,000 on yearly expenditures. B.B. Comer, according to the same documents, is billed around $5,000 a year for utilities.

Popular belief is that the former Avondale Mills and its owners, the Comer family, provided stadium maintenance on behalf of B.B. Comer through the 1970s, but Lewis said they actually had little involvement, past initial construction and maintaining the scoreboard into the ‘80s. “As far as I know, and I was there every day for a long time, that’s all Avondale Mills ever did,” said Lewis, who coached at SHS from the mid-‘60s to mid-‘90s.

The Comer family did contribute the bulk of construction costs, he said, but there was also a committee of prominent Sylacauga businessmen that raised money, though records of expenses leave significant gaps. A “Sylacauga Hi-Lights” article from November 1948 says the 3,800-seat stadium (6,000-seats including bleachers) cost $154,000 to construct, plus $10,000 for the land. Another news article from that month quotes the city as spending $79,000 from its general fund, including a $50,000 loan from Avondale Mills, on the project. City donations received were reported as follows: Avondale Mills, $15,000; Hugh Comer, $5,000; J. Craig Smith, $100; and American Legion (for which the stadium is named) Post 63, $15,000.

One thing that is clear is the Comers, particularly Hugh Comer, intended the stadium as a goodwill gesture for both schools, Lewis said.

“Mr. Comer was one of these guys who thought everybody ought to get along,” he said. ÒHe even instigated a Comer-Sylacauga football banquet the week after the game every year. It was a lot of fun if you won, but if you lost it wasn’t fun at all, but he didn’t see it that way. He thought we were all from the town of Sylacauga; we ought to be happy with each other, and that was his attitude about things.”

The football rivalry was more evenly matched in the days when students could freely choose which school to attend, but still Lewis said SHS, now classified as a 5A school compared to Comer’s 3A status, has beat Comer roughly 3-1 since they began playing each other in the 1930s. SHS has won 13 of the last 14 match-ups.

“The rivalry is not as good as it used to be,” Lewis said, “but it’s still there.”

However, which side has done or spent what during the past 65 years is somewhat of a moot point considering the safety concerns that now exist at Legion Stadium. Sylacauga schools maintenance supervisor Johnny Gray said the stadium’s electrical work is “totally outdated and by no means meets code,” cracks in the brick walls on either end are blocked with safety fencing, the press box and overall facade is ‘atrocious,’ and the concrete is in danger of deteriorating within the next decade.

In other words, a large sum of money needs to be invested in improvements, and time is of the essence. B.B. Comer head coach Anthony Jacks said the county School System is prepared to contribute.

“We’re ready to pay for whatever we need to pay for, just like the county would if there was a problem at Childersburg or Winterboro, but we’re not the owners,” Jacks said. “We can’t go in and do anything unless we have permission. We’re ready to do whatever we need to do to fix the stadium, jointly.”

Talladega County schools operations manager Dan Payant said the agreement in place outlines protocol for maintenance, and they are open to discussions with city schools about critical repairs and how they will be handled financially and time-wise.

“We are an integral part of that stadium,” Payant said. “It’s the only one Comer has ever known, and we want to be a part of making sure it’s the best possible place for both schools to play there.”

SHS athletic director Matt Griffith recently echoed those sentiments to the City Council, saying something needs to be done to renovate the historical structure.

“Are we just going to let the thing fall in because either we don’t want to hurt Sylacauga’s feelings or B.B. Comer’s feelings, and then somebody breaks their neck because a piece of concrete falls?” Griffith asked.

Jacks said he would prefer the city retain ownership, or deed it to both schools, but granting full ownership to the school’s arch rival will always be a sticking point.

“There’s no secret that Comer is not the city school,” he said. “We’re smaller, and we’ve always kind of been the stepchild. It’s almost like we’re two different classes of people sometimes, but we feel we’re on equal footing with this issue. If it’s deeded to Sylacauga, they can put their insignia on it, their signs, and all the sudden we have to look up and see ‘Home of the Aggies.’”

The biggest fear though “is that one day they will take it away from us,” he said. Sylacauga representatives insist they would maintain the current relationship with the Tigers, but Jacks said any agreement can be undone.

“Somewhere down the line, something will happen to make one of the schools mad at each other, and what happens to Comer then?” he said. “We just want some kind of security to feel like we’re going to have a home there. Obviously, there are things we can do better and they can do better, definitely on the communication side, but let’s get together and get the stadium fixed. That’s what we should be shooting for, not ownership.”

© 2013