The First Ladies of the Iron Bowl

November 16, 2018, 8:46 PM

Editor's note: This story was originally posted in 2014.

One woman is from Mulga, Alabama, the other from Clanton, Alabama.

They are both grandmothers of six.

One cheers for Alabama; the other for Auburn.

Like most college football fans in the gridiron-crazed state of Alabama, they're mortal enemies this week, as the No. 1 Crimson Tide prepares to play the No. 15 Tigers in Saturday's Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

"I've never met Tammy, but she really seems to be a sweet girl," said Phyllis Perkins, who is known as "Phyllis from Mulga" on the "Paul Finebaum Show," which airs on the ESPN-owned SEC Network. "But it's Iron Bowl week, so I don't know about her.

"She can probably hurt me physically because she's younger than me. No, I take that back. If she hits me, her ass is grass."

Among Finebaum's legion of loyal and colorful callers, there's none more famous than Perkins, a two-time cancer survivor, and Tammy Bullard, a loyal Auburn fan, who stepped across enemy lines when she married an Alabama fan last year.

In college football's craziest and often nastiest rivalry, Bullard and Perkins might very well be the First Ladies of the Iron Bowl.

"I think in some ways, they've meant everything to the show," Finebaum said. "They're the two people who, if I'm walking down a street in Birmingham or walking through LAX and someone recognizes me, they'll ask me about Tammy or Phyllis. I think they're the embodiment of what we do. They're both very genuine and they're real people."

Don't tell that to the Finebaum's listeners. If you've heard one of their weekly epic rants about the Crimson Tide or Tigers on the show, you might think they make Harvey Updyke seem normal.

Finebaum: Let's grab some more calls. And Tammy -- can't wait to hear this call -- from Alabama. Hey, Tammy.

Tammy: For all the Tammys out there, let me tell you. There ain't but one Tammy and that's me, you understand? There ain't but one of me, that's for sure. ... Paul, have I not complained about our defense for the last three years? Have I not? Even when we were winning last year, I still complained about the way they tackled. How many times have I've said my grandson could tackle better than our defense?

Finebaum: Tammy, let's be honest. Nobody really cares [about] your opinion of Auburn's defense.

Tammy: Oh, my God, Paul Finebaum I could just ... Ugh, you make me so mad sometimes because you don't wanna hear nothing about Auburn! All you want to do is hear things about Alabama, or this, or that, or this, or that. You know what? You make me so sick 'cause you ain't nothing but a Bam and that's all you're ever gone be!

Bullard, 48, has been rooting for Auburn for more than four decades. She grew up in a family of Alabama fans -- four uncles and a pair of aunts attended college in Tuscaloosa -- but her uncle, Roger Ingram, helped ensure that at least one of his nieces would grow up cheering for Auburn, his alma mater.

When Bullard was six, her uncle took her to Auburn's campus to take art classes. She was hooked. War Damn Eagle.

"The one thing I hate about Alabama is all the publicity they get," Bullard said. "Auburn is like second-class. It's like the stepchild. That's what everybody wants to call us. Alabama fans are arrogant. They're all just like Paul -- the a-hole."

At least the Tigers have Bullard defending them on the radio every week. She started calling Finebaum's show in November 2008, after the Tigers lost to Georgia 17-13 to fall to 5-6 overall.

Bullard wanted Auburn to fire coach Tommy Tuberville, and a FedEx driver making a delivery to the foam-casting factory where she works told her to call Finebaum's show, which was then based in Birmingham, Alabama. The show is now broadcast at the SEC Network's studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"I was mad, and I wanted Tuberville gone," Bullard said. "I called in and it went on from there. I'm surprised people like listening to me. It puts a smile on my face to know I put a smile on others' faces."

Finebaum said his impression of Bullard changed dramatically when she joined him and others to visit Robert Fisher, a regular caller from Waterloo, Iowa, who has cerebral palsy.

"For all her craziness, and there's plenty of it, her real character was revealed that day with the way she interacted with him," Finebaum said. "I always thought she was a lunatic, but she's a sweet lady."

During the Jerry Sandusky investigation at Penn State in 2011, Bullard called the show and revealed that she'd been abused as a child. Then another abuse victim called the show and another.

"It was a really important phone call for people to hear," Finebaum said. "It's one thing to hear her when she's screaming about Auburn. It's another thing for her to talk about herself. It really made an impact on a lot of people."

Bullard said she and her husband, John, have to watch college football games in separate rooms. When they were married last year, Perkins sent them crystal Christmas ornaments as a wedding gift.

"I've never met Phyllis," Bullard said. "I think she's an older version of myself. She's a very sweet lady. I don't ever agree with anything she says, but she's very warm-hearted."

Finebaum's listeners would never know it.

Perkins, 65, has been a lifelong Crimson Tide fan. She used to sit on her father's lap, while listening to Alabama games on the radio with her four brothers. Her father died of heart failure in 1966.

"I just remember yelling, 'Roll Tide!'" Perkins said. "My daddy would say, 'Yell Roll Tide, Phyllis Elaine,' and I'd yell, Roll Tide! It was a lot of fun for my family. There was nothing like it."

After her father's death, Perkins and her brothers decided to keep his passion for Alabama football and coach Paul "Bear" Bryant alive.

"It was so much pride," she said. "It was better than going out and partying. If I wanted to party, I had to do it when I was tailgating at a game. I had to be at the games."

Perkins called Finebaum's radio show for the first time in 1993, after listening to him criticize then-Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who had led the Crimson Tide to a national championship the season before. When Perkins and her family met Stallings in Tuscaloosa later that season, she cautioned the coach about Finebaum.

"I warned him when I went down there," Perkins said. "I told Coach Stallings that I didn't want him listening to Finebaum. I told Coach Stallings I wouldn't let Paul run him down."

And Perkins didn't. She became a regular caller to Finebaum's show, defending Stallings and anyone else he criticized. At a charity golf tournament the next summer, Finebaum was paired with Stallings, former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker and pro golfer Lee Trevino.

After the foursome teed off, Stallings asked Finebaum, "Paul, do you know a woman named Phyllis from Mulga? She told me you've been saying bad things about me."

Finebaum and Stallings laughed and eventually became close friends. After Perkins was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, Finebaum helped arrange for Stallings to call her after she had surgery to remove part of her left lung and three ribs. Finebaum visited Perkins at the hospital after her surgery.

"They had me hooked up to a big mask with a long hose to force oxygen into my lungs," Perkins said. "I looked down and saw some fancy new shoes. It was Paul Finebaum. The first time I met him I looked like an elephant."

Perkins took a sabbatical from Finebaum's show for a few months while she recovered from cancer. When Perkins returned, she attacked him with renewed vigor. They were constantly at each other's throats.

During one of her most famous calls in 1996, Perkins verbally assaulted Alabama athletics director Bob Bockrath, who was an in-studio guest. Bockrath had allegedly confronted Stallings in the locker room after the Crimson Tide were upset 17-16 at Mississippi State. Perkins told Bockrath to "get back on the horse he rode in on and go back to Texas."

"He hurt Coach Stallings and he wasn't getting away it," Perkins said.

When Finebaum later made the mistake of mentioning that Mulga, her hometown, had the reputation of being nothing but trailer parks, she thought he'd crossed the line.

"He always thought of something else," Perkins said. "He figured out what pushed my buttons to get me started."

Tragedy struck Perkins in April 2010, when her daughter, Tina, died of breast cancer. Her maternal grandmother and mother also died from the disease. Six months after losing her daughter, Perkins was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent months of chemotherapy and radiation. She said she didn't have the strength to call Finebaum's show.

"The entire process of chemo and radiation didn't hurt me as much as the grief from losing my daughter," Perkins said. "I was hoping that Paul wouldn't think I was ignoring the show or ignoring him. I wanted to wait to call when I was back to being myself."

She has been in remission for more than four years. Now, Perkins' husband, Don, is battling Stage 4 lung cancer.

"I really believe that's why the Lord spared me," Perkins said. "I lived so I could take care of him. I know what he's going through. I know the pain. I can show him compassion."

In a lot of ways, Perkins' nearly weekly calls to Finebaum's show have become a distraction and outlet to vent -- even if it's just about football.

"I've got as much spunk in me as when I was 30," Perkins said. "I can guarantee you that. When I was fighting for my life, the good Lord kept my spirit intact."

In terms of callers, Finebaum says Perkins is a little more focused than Bullard.

"Phyllis is a little easier to understand," Finebaum said. "The problem with Tammy is that when she starts screaming, you have no idea what she's talking about. Phyllis is a little more focused, unless you push her buttons and she starts going into her Bama scorched-Earth mode. They're fiercely loyal to their teams."

There's no question about which sides they'll be rooting for when the Crimson Tide and Tigers battle for the 79th time on Saturday. For the first time, Finebaum's phone lines will be open during the game, as the SEC Network will broadcast "Finebaum Film Room: Iron Bowl Live" simultaneously as the game is being played.

Bullard can only hope it's as much fun as last year, when Auburn's Chris Davis returned a missed field more than 100 yards for a touchdown on the last play of the Tigers' stunning 34-28 victory. Auburn won the SEC championship and lost to Florida State 34-31 in the BCS National Championship.

"It was the greatest Iron Bowl moment ever," Bullard said. "There were a lot of grown men crying at the end of the Iron Bowl last year. Boo-hoo. We had 'em all crying."

Whatever happens on Saturday, you can be certain Bullard and Perkins will have Finebaum's number on speed dial.

"There are a lot of people on Twitter who are saying put Phyllis and Tammy together," Perkins said. "I'm sorry, but it's not going to happen. I understand her passion. She's as passionate about Auburn as I am about Alabama. During Iron Bowl week, she's going to call and she's going to hear back from me. It won't be pretty, but I'll be ready. You can count on that."

Finebaum and his listeners will be anxiously waiting.

"You have the traditional aspects of the Iron Bowl, but I think the fans are what makes it different," Finebaum said. "Mississippi State-Ole Miss and Clemson-South Carolina are great rivalries, but I've never heard anything about their fans. Within 10 minutes of Davis running back the missed field goal last year, people were saying, 'I can't wait to hear what Phyllis says,' or 'I can't wait to hear what Tammy says.' We have a lot of longtime callers, but Phyllis and Tammy are at the top of the food chain."