Twenty-five years later, Auburn’s “Barn Burner” game is seared in the minds of fans and those who fought the largest fire in campus history

Football player running over the a burning barn picture in back

IT WAS HIS NIGHT IN THE WELDING GLOVES. And he missed it. He had to pass the beautiful bird off to one of his Alpha Phi Omega brothers—Kurt something. Twelve of them would take care of Tiger before the Southeastern Raptor Center took over in 2000, and the seniors usually got her for the best games…you know, like the biggest home game of the season.

But no—eight years after 1988’s godforsaken “earthquake game,” the bad guys had apparently brought their damn voodoo with them up from the bayou to brand their bragging rights with yet another natural disaster. He could already hear the headlines: Tigers get torched! SEC hopes go up in smoke! Barn Burner on the Plains!

Good grief… as if lifelong Auburn fan, senior communications major, War Eagle handler and student firefighter Matt Jordan ’97 needed another reason to hate LSU.

The first thing on the right in Station No. 1’s fancy new Public Education Room is the Auburn Bulletin’s front page after the Kopper Kettle explosion. That’s what the old timers used to talk about. But no one currently pulling shifts in town was around in 1978. That’s been true for years.

But there are still a few who actually saw the crazy scenes captured in the first photos on the left with their own eyes. Matt Jordan might even be in one of them. It’s hard to tell. Even if he isn’t, when he sees them, he goes back there. Just for a second. It’s hard not to. It was the biggest fire he’d ever fought. Twenty-five years later, it still is.

Sept. 21, 1996 didn’t just give Matt Jordan the eagle handling student firefighter a wild story to tell. It gave Matt Jordan, the now-deputy fire chief, a defining professional moment to point to.
Jason Brown, ’00 exercise science, and the other Station 2 guys were in the day room fiddling with the antenna. Not that they got ESPN; you had to wiggle things just right just to get WSFA. But you never knew—maybe they’d catch a highlight or something. It was a big game. No. 13 Auburn. No. 21 LSU. Both undefeated. He’d wanted to be there. But such was life for the younger guys in the Auburn University student firefighter program. Most fall Saturdays, you relied on radio.

First came the chatter on the scanner. A lot of it. It was hard to understand. About five seconds after making out the word “stadium,” they heard the tone.

A series of blasts meant a one-station response. This was solid. Solid didn’t mean a car fire on I-85. Solid meant all hands on deck. Solid meant structure fire—Brown’s first as a newly promoted apparatus operator. He threw on his gear and hopped behind the wheel. He looked up. Nope, no time to be nervous. He turned on the lights, flipped on the siren and pointed the engine toward the giant black cloud rising above Auburn University. Jordan didn’t hear the tone. He saw the smoke. Then the flames. Was it the stadium? A nearby building? It really didn’t matter. He knew he was about to switch roles. When a request for student firefighters to report to the Sports Arena went out over the Jordan-Hare Stadium PA, it was official. He handed the eagle off, slipped out of the gloves and started running.

Since 1976, the City of Auburn had operated just two fire stations. In 1997, it added a third. It wasn’t a coincidence. For a story on the expansion, the Auburn Plainsman asked Jordan and freshman Jason Brown to pose by the city’s $220,000 fire truck. That little purchase wasn’t a coincidence, either. “In my mind,” Jordan says, “that night fundamentally changed the fire department’s approach to gamedays. Sept. 11 changed it even more, of course, but it started that night.”

ESPN’s Ron Franklin had to say something.

“This fire has broken behind the stadium…we saw light smoke first, and now we can see flames… Hopefully, it’s not a part of the stadium. Right now, very few people are watching the field. They are very concerned about the situation in the southeastern corner of the stadium…David Housel, the athletics director, is coming toward the booth…it is next door to the stadium….Wow, we’ve had an electric start here but that really has got this crowd with their neck on a spindle. The fire department is there and everyone is safe, so if you’ve got loved ones here, don’t be worried, as Faulk goes over the right tackle, takes it out to the 21, Brumbaugh stops him. No score in our ballgame, 3:39 to play in the first quarter…”

Football player running with ball

Older grads would point and maybe tell their kids that in 1968, the year before the coliseum opened, they’d watched Auburn beat LSU at that building right there, even with “Pistol” Pete Maravich putting up 49 points. But by 1996, with the exception of the gymnastics team that called it home, most Auburn students simply knew the Sports Arena as the old white wooden building with the rounded roof that kind of looked like a barn. It was some charming piece of yesteryear right by the stadium, a place you could tell friends to meet you to grab their ticket or a beer or a hot dog, a place with an awning under which
tailgaters could apparently keep their coals dry on wet, late- September afternoons.

It was built in 1942 as a recreational facility for the boys of Louisiana’s new Camp Livingston. When Livingston closed after the war, the Federal Works Agency dismantled the thing into sections and relocated all 24,000 hard-pine feet of it next to Auburn Stadium. The basketball team needed a bigger, better home. Alumni Gymnasium had been built in 1916. It was time. The new court was to be christened against Georgia Tech on Jan. 30, 1948. The athletics department expected a capacity crowd of 2,500 and then some. But they wanted the Chesterfields left at home.

Jeff Beard, business manager of the Auburn Athletic Association, asked the Plainsman to notify students not to smoke when attending events in the new Sports Arena. Not only is the smoke a hindrance to the competing athletes, but the building itself is not fireproof, he said.

black and white photo of old Auburn Barn practice facility

Built in 1942, the Sports Arena was nicknamed “The Barn” and was located next to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Jason Brown had been inside just one time. And just barely. He was walking to class one day and just peeked in to see what was actually in there. Ah, gymnastics.

The next time he saw inside was when his battalion chief opened the double doors to reveal a swirling inferno like something out of a movie. Of course, the whole night was like something out of a movie. The surreal silhouettes of fans watching from the Jordan-Hare ramps. Trying to take a nap in the middle of Heisman Drive before the sun came up with a five-inch hose as a pillow.

Had it happened post-9/11, who knows? Panic might have set in. Had the wind shifted, who knows? The smoke might have stopped the game, forced folks to the exits and created a traffic nightmare for first responders.

Instead, with everything inside the stadium completely normal (save the student section’s view of the biggest local fire in a generation burning 50 yards away), no one seemed to leave. The show went on. When the first quarter ended, folks went to the ramps to smoke, same as always. They went to the bathroom, same as always.

They just couldn’t flush the toilets. If that was you, Brown, who retired from the department a couple of years ago as a lieutenant, apologizes. But they had to get those 5,000 gallons per minute from somewhere. They were pulling water from every building in the vicinity. And none had more than the one built to accommodate the bodily functions of 85,000 people.

“That spot where the arena was is the parking deck now,” he says, “but, you know, that hydrant we connected to just above the intersection of Heisman and Donahue Drive—that’s still there.”

 The night didn’t last quite as long for Matt Jordan. He found his lieutenant, helped spell some of the guys on the line and pitched in where he could. Brown and the others on shift were there all night, but things were pretty much under control after an hour or so. The approximately $200,000 of gymnastics equipment was obviously a total loss. Two dozen cars were damaged. But no one died. No one had even been hurt. Even that close, the stadium was never really in danger.

He made it home in time for ESPN’s 2 a.m. replay. Missing it in person had almost been a mercy. Auburn’s last-minute comeback fell short. LSU ran Auburn’s botched two-point conversion attempt back 98 yards for two points of their own. Instead of going into overtime tied at 17, LSU won 19-15. That’s the kind of game you want to forget. But he hasn’t. He can’t. No one can. Everyone who saw it on TV still talks about it. Everyone who was there still talks about it. Some just whisper.

The report listed it only as the “probable” cause, but when the grill was found, it was all but certain. As, eventually, were other things. Names were never released. Charges were never filed. But Deputy Chief Jordan has it on good authority—they figured it out. Witnesses were interviewed, vehicles were ID’d. “Remember, you used to be able to park pretty much anywhere,” Jordan says. “Tailgating at the 1996 Auburn-LSU game looked a lot different than tailgating today. Again, that night changed things. Not just tailgating, but the number of firefighting personnel on campus and in the stadium.”

“Well, I guess that’s one thing we can thank LSU fans for,” I say. “I mean, you can tell me, Matt. I won’t say anything—it was LSU fans, right? Had to be, right?” Jordan pauses for a second. He smiles. “Well,” he says, “that’s my story.”